Cooperative Distribution – Digitising the Solidarity Economy

Written by Davie Philip and Oliver Moore, CULTIVATE – The Sustainable Ireland Cooperative on 2020-09-14

The global pandemic means that we have moved rapidly from an era of disruptive technologies as occasional societal game changers, to one where disruptions in society are leading rapidly towards the application of technologies in more and more domains.

We have already seen digital marketplaces for local and artisan foods, expansive networks of small food producers, distributors, retailers, food hubs, food co-ops and buying groups are coming together to find the best way of shortening the food supply chain, and in the process helping to strengthen our communities resilience.

But in this new covid19 context, digital platforms like the Open Food Network (OFN) have emerged as a lifeline for small producers to maintain and grow markets while also giving people the option of better, fairer ways to source their food directly from growers, farmers and producers.

So in the new reality of physical distancing due to the Coronavirus, rural regions now urgently need fresh ways to strengthen social solidarity while building resilient local food economies.

There are many manifestations of OFN, which is already established in 13 countries. Coops and wholesalers can manage buying groups and supply produce through networks of food hubs and shops; communities can bring together producers to create a virtual farmers’ market, building a resilient local food economy; food banks can use OFN to distribute surplus and donated food.

OFN is an open source, not-for-profit, online platform, which allows food producers to sell directly through a virtual farmers market. Similar Platforms like NeighbourFood and the Food Assembly in Europe are proprietary software, owned and controlled by their developers. OFN is open source which means that it is owned collectively and we make decisions collectively about how the software is changed, how it is developed and who can use it for what.

OFN is a distributed, collaborative organisation run by committed people all over the world. It blends aspects of sociocracy with governance elements that have been developed over time in response to specific challenges and tensions in those models. OFN takes inspiration from permaculture, paying attention to the resilience and sustainability of the organisation. As such, national and local hubs are encouraged to develop their own leadership within the global community.

OFN is focused on networking. The enterprise permissions functionality allows a wide range of enterprises to be part of the Network. They can then cross-sell each others’ products and begin to create a ‘mycelium’ system of local food enterprises of many different types, meeting local needs in the ways local people want to make it happen. There is a global forum of users who help each other, from using the platform to sharing tips on the technology or info on produce and packaging.

Interoperability is important, especially as today more and more services are being managed through digital tools: production monitoring, land management, products catalog management, online sales via e-commerce tools, invoicing, accounting, etc. By not using common standards there is a need for multiple data inputs and many manual operations to compensate for the lack of cross-platform communication.

By promoting cooperation among stakeholders in the food chain, interoperability strengthens links and synergies within the ecosystem. This allows us, beyond the services and models offered by every actor, to work together to build an open and transparent food system that promotes the emancipation of both producers and eaters.

The Open Food Network is not only creating a new food system, it is also developing a new way of working as a global community, in a truly open and collaborative way. The OFN platform was a digital game changer for local food economies before the coronavirus hit, it is now an urgent need.