TOCA, Colombia – After years of being battered by onion crop losses, a family in this central Colombian town leveraged its modest computer programming knowledge to create an eBay-type app for buying and selling agricultural products with no need for intermediaries.
The online tool, known as Comproagro and now used by thousands of small farmers in Colombia, was created by 39-year-old Rosalba Vergara and her twins, Brayan and Alejandra Jimenez.
“We came up with the idea because it was really tough seeing our grandfather and the neighbors working in the field and having only debts at the end of the day because of the low prices paid for the harvest,” Alejandra told EFE while she and a score of other people peeled onions they sell directly to a Bogota supermarket chain.
The initiative arose in Toca, a municipality in Boyaca province that is known for its fertile soil and where a large number of local residents work in farming.
But those fields started becoming less profitable a few years ago, with farmers spending months on the harvest only to see most of the financial rewards going to intermediaries, Rosalba said.
“You need between four and eight months for the harvest, a time in which our grandfather relied on bank (financing). Once the harvest was collected, we took it to the central warehouse in Bogota (where benchmark prices are determined) and we also had to pay for transportation. But they paid him very little for the produce and he ended up owing money,” Alejandra said.
“We want farmers to be paid fairly and for buyers to realize farmers need enough to live on,” the 18-year-old industrial engineering student added.
The idea for Comproagro came during a farmers’ strike three years ago, when representatives of the Information Technologies and Communications Ministry brought their Apps.co program to the twins’ high school in a bid to promote digital platform-based businesses.
That inspired Brayan and Alejandra to present a rough plan for a Web site that would allow farmers to sell onions, potatoes, lettuce, peas, corn, mangoes and cheese directly to customers such as supermarkets and restaurants.
The value-added offered by small farmers is crucial, according to Rosalba, who said that in her family’s case they supply a supermarket chain with onions that are already pealed and packaged.
To facilitate those deliveries, they set up a collection center that provides employment to 32 rural residents – mostly female heads of households – and aggregates the harvests of roughly 120 families.
“Each crop used to yield 10 tons of onion a year, and farmers were left waiting six months for the harvest to collect their income. Now we have 10 tons a week and we sell throughout the year,” Rosalba said.