Nested Market 巢状市场 ∗ China

Photo from: Nested Market’s Weibo site
Nested Market  Mercado de Nicho 巢Hebei and Beijing, China

Small-scale poverty mitigation through direct linkage between rural producers and urban consumers 

Website


Nested Market helps old farmers cooperate and secure extra income to reduce poverty. It helps them contact consumers in Beijing to sell the remains of their subsistence farms directly and without intermediaries.

Context

As in many parts of the world, the food industry in China is controlled by a chain of actors that mediate between the producers and the consumers. They decide the rules, rhythms, and prices of the market, prioritizing the scale and efficiency, while leaving small rural producers with an unfair and insufficient profit margin, and forcing them to use their lands in an unsustainable way. This chain includes large companies and financial speculators.

Younger generations then leave the countryside and migrate to the cities in search of better work alternatives, often leaving behind their elderly parents and sometimes their children in their care.

Rural China’s population contains a high percentage of old people who subsist on their personal production of food and are supported by the income sent by their children from the cities.

Photo from: Nested Market’s Weibo site

The serious problems of food security – derived from the abuse suffered by the land due to the rhythms and modes of production, the competitive dynamics of the market, and the practices of corruption -, have led to the emergence of a social movement that seeks to create an alternative food system, fairer, healthier and more ecologically sustainable. This includes different proposals, many of them aimed at localizing agricultural activity, to break with the vices created by mass production, and the power and dependency relationships that it fosters.

Proposal

NESTED MARKET is an alternative market created so that elderly farmers from the Sanggang and Baoshi villages of Hebei Province can earn extra income through the direct sale of the remaining products of their subsistence economies to consumers in the city of Beijing. Eggs, chicken, fruit, etc., — products that do not require any type of special production and that generally do not have buyers within their communities because they are similar to those generated by the neighbors.

Unlike some Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects, designed to offer alternative livelihoods to the inhabitants of large cities, for example, this initiative aims to build local capacity in rural communities so that poverty causing factors can be combatted.

Without intermediaries, the relationship between producers and consumers allows the former to obtain greater benefits and greater control over the process of their economic activity. It gives them greater influence over their methods of cultivation, quantities, rhythms, prices, among others. The direct organization between both parties is also attractive to consumers. First, because they know that buying products from this market supports a vulnerable sector of the population. But also because it addresses the problem of food security so important in China — promoting the sale of products that although not 100% organic (they use a few chemical fertilizers) are helping to recover traditional agriculture, which is healthier than industrial, and with an intermediate price between the latter and the organic.

Photo by: Emilia Szekely

The initiative was created in 2010 in the town of Sanggang (near Beijing and with 183 households) by researchers from the College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD) of the University of Agriculture of China. (CAU), who have been visiting this town for years with their students and volunteers for action-research and teaching purposes (they still do).

At the beginning of the project, the team devoted itself to distributing pamphlets in different neighborhoods of the capital city to find potential buyers. This did not work because people lacked a personal connection with them and therefore of trust or interest in their project The researchers redirected their efforts to their most immediate social networks. With the help of colleagues, friends and family, they created a network of consumers (friends and friends of friends) committed to supporting the project and providing feedback, and whose network has taken its own rhythm of growth.

The COHD team also spent 3 years subsidizing the communities and training their leaders, so that they could get in contact, know, and organize directly with their consumers through Wechat platform (a social network widely used in China), as well as another special platform that built a group of volunteers to receive orders and feedback from consumers and make payments.

The training offered by the COHD team to leaders farmers also included research to recover traditional agricultural technologies, visits to markets of organic agricultural products and projects of Community Supported Agriculture to learn about their methods of preparation and packaging of products, etc.

Photo by: Emilia Szekely

Now the farmers organize with the consumers of Beijing independently, without the intermediation of the researchers and without their subsidies. Families use the same platforms to form groups according to delivery points in the city — some groups are as large as 150 people.

They share photos and texts with their stories, their homes and families, their seasonal fresh products, their difficulties, their promotions, etc. To strengthen the relationship and especially the trust with consumers, they also use the internet to meet special demandsshow people recipes with which they can cook the products offered at the Nested Market, explain their agricultural production process, share information on food safety, etc.

To ensure counterweights in case of controversy, the leaders of the communities are 3 and are chosen with the agreement both of the COHD team and the communities. They are responsible for consulting with the farmers about their products, of announcing them to the consumers, of finalizing the orders, of supervising the selection and packaging of the products, and of sending them to the city. Likewise, they manage logistical issues (such as renting a car to transport the goods), pay farmers, and collect their respective commissions (approximately 3%). They also maintain frequent contact with the researchers.

The administration of the project through the mentioned web platforms not only favours an efficient and transparent management (each step of the process is published online and therefore is subject to scrutiny) but also the open feedback of the users. This allows the quality of the market and its produce to be maintained as each farmer has a profile that can be evaluated by consumers.

The web platforms, and the process of selecting, reviewing and packaging the products, as well as the frequent observation visits by the CAU members to the communities (in which they carry out monitoring processes from time to time), all serve as supervision and feedback systems for the initiative.

These systems allow it to devise measures to ensure significant changes every year, which enable it to adapt and face implementation problems— such as making visits to other markets in Beijing to learn how to meet the specific demands of the city’s consumers (who have a different food culture) or ensure the conservation of the products during their transportation (buying a packaging machine, refrigerators, etc).

Prof. He, CODH, CAU. Photo by: Emilia Szekely

The creation of these communities with borders’, as suggested by Prof. He, facilitator of the project and researcher of the COHD, has allowed the emergence of bonds of friendship, trust and collaboration among the inhabitants and between them and urban consumers. These have allowed other development initiatives to begin, including some trying to promote the protection of native species, the revival of local culture, environmental protection.

The model of the Nested Market that the CAU team designed consists of helping to form a consumer network and in obtaining financing to subsidize the training of communities and their leaders (which they have obtained from foundations such as the Bread for the World, from Germany) so that they can become independent as soon as possible. Volunteers (generally from the consumer’s network), help by creating web platforms, offering places to receive and distribute produce in the city, and other logistics services, and/or donating clothes, toys.

Future Steps

The opinion of Prof. He is that the model of the Nested Market has the potential to reverse, at least in part, the migration trend. That is to say, although their primary target population is currently the elderly of the populations where they work, in the future these efforts could impact young people, who may lose interest in migrating to cities if they find decent opportunities to improve their quality of life within their own communities.