Today, we have the pleasure to introduce Vincent Lagacé, one of our two new Fellows that have been selected as part of the Dela Program, and one of the social entrepreneurs who will participate in the next Dela accelerator, a collaboration between Ashoka and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship.
Vincent Lagacé is originally from Quebec City, Canada, but has been living in Mexico for more than eleven years. Ever since he graduated from college, Vincent has worked passionately for a sustainable food system and social justice. In 2015, Vincent co-founded Nuup, a mission-driven nonprofit organization that aims to empower small-scale farmers in Mexico by promoting collaboration and ensuring access to information.
· What does it mean for you to be elected as an Ashoka Fellow and what brought you this far?
Being selected as an Ashoka Fellow is a great honor and recognition. Being a social entrepreneur means working on big ideas that no one else is working on and that, at first glance, may seem overly ambitious or even a little crazy. Recognition gives you this external validation that what you are doing has impact and potential for scale, and that in turn gives you strength to keep going.
But beyond recognition, Ashoka is also a family and a community. Work as a social entrepreneur can feel a bit lonely sometimes. In my opinion, it is crucial to stay connected to others facing some of the same challenges and learn from the successes and failures of more seasoned peers. Ashoka, through its activities and programs, provides exactly that. I am very thankful to receive this support and feel part of this bigger movement of changemakers from around the world.
· How did you become interested in social innovation and why are you a social entrepreneur?
I became passionate about social justice early and while in college I got involved in the Fair Trade movement. Upon graduation, while many of my peers went to work in investment banking or consulting, I decided to go work as an intern at Fairtrade International, the Fair Trade certification organization. The more I learned about Fair Trade, the more I came to see the complexities of balancing what consumers want with the environmental and social realities of farmers across the world - particularly small-scale farmers who produce about half of the food we eat. I became passionate about this idea of ethical purchasing as a strategy to transform our food system, make it more sustainable and fairer.
Following my masters degree, I moved to Mexico in 2009 to work for Root Capital, a nonprofit impact investor that that offers farmers around the world a path to prosperity by investing in their agricultural businesses. There, through conversations with Willy Foote, Ashoka fellow, founder and CEO of Root Capital, and other leaders at the organization, I first started learning about social entrepreneurship and its power to champion business as a force for good and provoke much-needed social change.
I was inspired by Willy’s vision to target unfair systems - financial markets and agricultural supply chains - that exist in stable, but unfair equilibriums and transform them by developing inclusive financial products. I witnessed during my time at Root Capital how he succeeded in crowding in investment for small-scale farmers and in shifting the mindsets of investors and others in the financial sector.
I also learned first-hand that system change in agriculture is riddled with many challenges, setbacks and roadblocks and requires the emergence of many, simultaneous solutions. After six years at Root Capital, I decided to team up with Maria Luisa Luque Sanchez - a friend and ally who at the time was working at Ashoka Mexico - to take on some of these challenges together through a new social business called Nuup.
· What is the idea behind Nuup?
After spending much time in rural communities in Southern Mexico, I came to the realization that in order to create better outcomes for small-scale farmers and their communities, we have to focus our efforts on connecting them to better and more direct markets for their products; markets that reward them for their efforts but also for their environmental stewardship, as small-scale farmers are in many cases great defenders of biodiversity and on the front lines of the fight against deforestation.
Nuup, which means “connection” in the Maya language, was founded to accelerate the transition to new agricultural supply chain models that are more sustainable, fair and inclusive of small-scale farmers.
Connecting farmers to these better markets requires long-term, end-to-end capacity-building for farmers and their organizations, but also extensive collaboration and coordination between buyers, technical assistance providers, certification agencies and other stakeholders. Making collaboration happen between a diverse group of stakeholders and developing a common agenda and shared vision is not easy. It requires investment, a lot of hard work and a structured form of collaboration – which in time, will result in changed practices, power dynamics and ultimately mindsets.
Another key element to make these connections happen is through shared information and data. Information is key for decision-making in any business. And in that regard, small-scale farming is no exception. Farmers need to know how to improve their production to comply with buyer and certification requirements; farmer cooperatives need to know what is required from different types of buyers and what market opportunities are most attractive and attainable; buyers need to know where potential suppliers are, what they produce and how it was produced to ensure food safety and quality. Today the technology exists to make the information available, but data is highly fragmented and there are very few reliable sources of information.
This is where Nuup comes in. We are a neutral organization that acts as both a facilitator for collaboration and a source of information to make agricultural supply chains fairer and more sustainable. This makes us a bit of an anomaly in the nonprofit sector as we are part tech startup, part real-world advisor and facilitator working both with farmers in the field and with buyers in corporate meeting rooms.
Far from seeing this as a weakness however, we see this as a strength: we are convinced that a key condition for collaboration is shared information infrastructure and that, on the other hand, highly relevant and targeted content can only be generated through collaboration.
· What are some of the challenges that you identify through your work?
The specific challenges we address through our work vary depending on the needs of the farmers in a value chain. Not all farmers are alike, and the challenges they encounter can differ widely depending on where a farmer is, how big his farm is and what she or he produces.
For example, when we started working in beekeeping, we saw, on one hand, major quality and traceability challenges affecting production and, on the other, fragmented governance and siloed development efforts. To address this, we created a collaborative platform, called Colectivo Kab’, that unites the academic sector, the commercial sector, nonprofits, and producer organizations to improve production and market outcomes for small-scale beekeepers in Southeast Mexico. As a result of Colectivo Kab’s efforts, a new, innovative Training of Trainers program was born and is now benefiting over 1,500 beekeepers through targeted trainings focused on agroecological production. We also launched an information and networking platform called Plataforma Nuup that allows beekeepers and buyers to get to know each other, interact and share needs and business opportunities.
In fresh fruits and vegetables, we saw an opening to improve farmer outcomes by connecting them directly to the supply chains of large national and international buyers. This can be achieved by helping them transition to more sustainable agriculture models and qualify for good agricultural practices certifications that are almost always required by these types of buyers. To make this process easier, we designed and programmed a mobile application that enables farmers to streamline the processes by which they log their farm activities and track information required for buyers and certification agencies, while also enabling them to analyze and use this data to improve their farm decision-making. Through this first app – and other tools we are currently in the process of developing – we hope that we can enable small-scale farmers to run their farms in a more profitable, cost-effective, and environmentally responsible way.
· Can you tell us about some of these ideas and projects that you would like to develop in the future?
The way small-scale farmers in Mexico work and see their farms has not changed too much over the past twenty years. Recent technological development and advances open the door to many new opportunities, but unfortunately few of those make their way to small-scale farmers in developing countries. The potential is there: most farmers we work with in Mexico have smartphones. But as most of us do, they use them to chat or for social networks and they rarely use them to predict the weather, improve their production or connect with better markets. Why? Because very few apps are designed with small-scale farmers in mind. Most apps on the market are complex to use and require advanced training or expensive phones.
Therefore, one of our goals is to create a comprehensive set of simple and intuitive applications and tools – specifically designed for small-scale farmers - available for free or next to nothing. By making information and tools that are today only available to large or technologically-savvy farmers, we believe we can really make a big difference.
· What will you do as part of the Dela partnership?
I am very grateful, as part of the Dela Program, to have this unique opportunity to learn from experts and other fellow social entrepreneurs from around the world.
As our projects have grown over the past two years, we have encountered new challenges in the way we develop and implement new technological products, the way we measure impact or even organize as a team. I am particularly looking forward to receiving mentoring from IKEA experts, who I am sure can help us see things in a different light and help us refine our strategy.
Also, IKEA worldwide is committed to working with local suppliers and partners, so I am also hoping, as part of the Dela partnership, to introduce and connect the local IKEA Mexico team with small-scale farmer organizations. We could explore having small-scale farmer sourced food products in the new IKEA Mexico stores. This could be an interesting offshoot of the Dela Program.