Meet the creators: Tobias Joos from CrowdContainer

BySonja Bichsel

30 May 2017

We believe that the world’s greatest challenges will never be solved by one person or organization alone. We need to work together! We are introducing our new series #MeetTheCreators with a monthly interview with a member showing his/her impact and work for reaching the sustainable development goals.

Meet our SDG this month:

The Sustainable Development Goal Nr 12 wants to ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.

Meet our creator this month:
Member: Tobias Joos
Organisation: CrowdContainer
SDG: Nr 12 – Responsible Production and Consumption

Tobias Joos is the founder of Zurich based Crowd Container. His team and him are currently running their third crowd campaign to supply customers in Zurich and Bern with delicious and sustainably grown products directly from farmers in Kerala.

How is your project contributing to Sustainable Development Goal No.12 – Responsible Production and Consumption?

Crowd Container fills the big gap between sustainable agriculture and responsible consumption. Sustainable agriculture is mostly based on small scale, mixed crop, ecological farming. Often it is based on the principles of organic agriculture. However, industrialized agriculture, which uses lots of chemical inputs, has big advantages when it comes to trading. The mainstream marketing channels such as the big retailers and the food industry are ideal outlets for the commodities produced by large-scale agriculture. It is very hard for small farmers who are committed to sustainable agriculture to sell their produce at a sustainable price. We try to fill that gap by building a direct marketing channel for small producers to reach the end customers more directly. We do that not only in a regional setting, but also on a global scale.

What makes it so hard for small farmers to feed their products into the larger supply chain?

Small farmers often grow ancient varieties and different crops on the same plot. They get many different products in small quantities and the products are not standardized. I once tried to sell turmeric powder to a supermarket. We agreed on the price and the quantity and delivered the product. What we did not anticipate was, that the spice glass in the supermarket stayed half empty after filling them with our turmeric powder. Of course, it turned out to be a huge problem. It was very clear that our turmeric powder from the small holder farmers was better in taste, however, it also had a higher bulk weight and that meant that the glass didn’t fill up.

And you can’t foresee all these factors in the product?

You could probably solve the problem with the turmeric by introducing new packaging, but for the supermarket, the worst case scenario is an empty shelf. So the supermarket has to find five more suppliers who can produce exactly the same product to be sure to have it always available. And then, of course, they will buy the product from the cheapest supplier. That doesn’t fit the logic of sustainable agriculture where you have to make long-term investments in your land and the fertility of the soil. In many cases this also involves growing perennial crops such as fruit and spice trees, coffee or cocoa. You cannot shift to growing a different product for the market from one day to the other. Here in the city, we are very much disconnected from the way our food is grown. We just want the same pack of coffee at 6.50 CHF any time of the year.

It sounds like you are working on the problem from two sides. One side is on the production and supply chain and the other part is the consumer behavior?

Exactly, so the second big effort we do apart from working with small farmers on the supply chain is raising awareness among our consumers – why should I buy the food directly from the farmers? And what does it mean to get for instance pepper from India? It’s such a common thing that you always have pepper on your table. You never really think about what it takes to bring it here. You never think about what it takes to grow this pepper and who are the people involved in it. Therefore, we try to show that to our customers. Part of it is, that they have to pre-order the product and then wait for it. While they are waiting, we tell them the story behind their food.

Does that mean you use the waiting time to fill in the information about how the food is produced and where it has been produced and how to cook with it? So by the time the Päckli arrives in Switzerland, the consumer has much more information about the product than he`d have if he had bought the same product in the supermarket.

Exactly. When people decide to spend 150 CHF for a box and then have to wait for it to arrive, they are much more interested in knowing more about the products they`ve ordered. For us, it is of course a challenge to have customers commit upfront and then have them wait for their orders. But by doing so, we can eliminate all the uncertainty in the supply chain and all speculative elements of the trading. This allows us to be really transparent, even about our margins. And that’s the other crucial part of our model.

It sounds like there is a lot more communication involved than in the “traditional” process?

Yes, it’s a lot about storytelling and explaining the differences, also because there is so much waiting involved in the process. Marketing and communications are the biggest challenges for us.

What’s the best thing for you about being an entrepreneur working on such a big change?

I just thought about this yesterday. 90% of the time I feel motivated and have a really good time at work and that’s different from any job I ever had before.

What is the most annoying thing about being an entrepreneur for you?

When you don’t get lunch (Tobias laughs and explains to us, he didn`t get to eat before the interview).

One of the main difficulties is resources, especially if you are in a phase before you get investments. Our resources are extremely limited. Of course it’s about failing forward and somehow that`s how it should be. But for instance, if we fail now to get our orders in, I don’t know how it will continue. And if it will continue. Because basically, in case we fail, we`re broke. That’s sometimes so unnerving. I am really convinced that our vision of direct and transparent online trading has a future and that we are on the right path. But currently the margin for error is so small. You can be wiped out tomorrow if you make a mistake. There is a bit of a contradiction between the trial and error methodology and the ideal of being small and agile. You actually don’t have the margin to fail. You try – and it has to work.

Is there one partner you are dying to work with?

Our vision is to build a the platform that allows our customer to order unique food directly from small producers. There, I see some similarities with AirBnB. We want to become the AirBnB of Fair Trade. You know, I think buying from the supermarket shelf is as boring and convenient as staying at the big three star hotel near the train station. It’s much more exciting to go to someone’s home, maybe it’s also a bit more complicated, but it’s a fascinating experience. So yes, I would love to learn from AirBnB how they built their platform.

The original article can be found here: Meet the creators: Tobias Joos from CrowdContainer

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