Thousands of fed-up farmers, concerned that their enterprises would not survive a substantial decline in sales brought on by the covid-19 lockdown, have turned to Facebook and other social media platforms to sell fresh produce online directly to consumers.
Koop direk van boer (‘buy directly from the farmer’), a Facebook group for farmers, recently emerged and thousands of farmers across Mzansi have joined. The group was created two weeks ago (on 1 May 2020) and already boasts 46 000 members.
Limpopo vegetable farmer Hannes Van den Bergh (39) is one of the thousands of farmers who have been selling their produce and agricultural products on the group.
The lockdown imposed by government as a response to the world-wide coronavirus pandemic has presented farmers with many challenges. Those without access to major markets or who predominantly sell to restaurants and fast food outlets have been hit hardest.
Van den Bergh joined the group recently, because it has become too expensive to transport his produce to shops. He complains that market prices are extremely low, and he is struggling to cover his daily operational costs, including labour.
He explains, “when you go to the retail stores, the produce we sell to them are sold at exorbitant prices – much higher than the price they bought the produce from us for in the first place.”
What’s worse is, “these shops and supermarkets are selling it to people who in these times barely have jobs or only earn half of their salaries.”
Hannes is not sure whether selling online will generate more income for his farming business going forward. However, he explains that he’ll definitely consider using this method of selling post lockdown as well.
“To me, it makes more sense to sell 20 boxes to the public than to sell it to markets that offer me low prices. I just feel that someone can rather buy directly from me and pay R50 for a box of green peppers as opposed to buying (a single green pepper) for R7 at a store,” he says.
Expect an explosion of digital produce markets
The buy-and-sell farmer’s market on the Facebook group includes farmers ranging from commercial to small-scale farmers. Participating group members post their products and buyers then express their interest in the comments section. The actual sale takes place offline.
The group has gained increasing attention. Even the president of the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), Dr Theo De Jager, has become a member.
De Jager, who is a farmer himself, believes that the trend of online produce markets should be given ample opportunity to flourish. “No one should try to stop or own it,” he says. “The freer they are, the more there will be. Ultimately this means that it will be more accessible for everyone.”
De Jager reckons that the industry is in for a big surprise. “Like digital meetings, we are going to see an explosion of digital produce markets,” he says.
‘Margins for selling online are quite narrow’
Francis Gavin, the owner of an online produce retail store, FarmFreshOnline.co.za, based in Johannesburg says that, to his delight, many small-scale farmers have been forced to find buyers like himself due to the pandemic.
“I’m quite pleased, because I’m discovering a network of new small-scale farmers. I am excited, because now I have access to different qualities and I also look forward to forming partnerships with these farmers,” Gavin says.
The online retailer, which was launched 2014, has been
very busy over the past couple of weeks. Initially when lockdown was introduced, they had an overwhelming onslaught of orders.
According to Gavin the benefits of selling online include control on stock and minimised waste. Not having a physical shop also saves a bit of money. He adds, however, that, “the margins for selling online are quite narrow. The cost of delivery and managing the returns is not as straight forward.”
Selling online means your produce has to be fresher and of better quality. “Otherwise,” Gavin says, “Why would people choose you? You have to buy the best products and as a result end up spending more.”
He explains that consumers are more critical of online food retailers than they are of retail supermarkets. “They only get to see the produce once it is delivered to their homes. So as an online trader you must avoid goods being returned by always delivering on quality,” he says.
Gavin sells pre-packed fruit and vegetable boxes that customers purchase from his online store. By a click of a button the order is processed and delivered to areas in and around Gauteng.