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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture

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NZ Social Enterprise Bucky Box to Simplify Distribution for Sustainable Farmers with Web-based Application

January 16, 2012 |

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that these days, there’s an app for everything. Soon, that will include an app for increasing the efficacy and efficiency of CSAs and box schemes. Bucky Box is a Wellington, New Zealand-based social enterprise dedicated to building software to improve the world’s food systems. Their product is a simple web app that automates billing and delivery logistics for CSAs and box schemes. It’s still in the testing phase, but will open to the public in the next couple of months – simplifying distribution and making life much easier for smaller sustainable farming operations, and ideally encouraging more farms to join the sustainable agriculture movement.

Will Lau, Bucky Box’s creator, describes the app as being “like a digital operations team for a box delivery business.” It’s comprised of a front-end marketplace where customers can order veggie boxes, and an administration site that’s basically a massive customer database. Users can enter specific details, such as who will be out of town and not want their box delivered on a particular week, and the app runs through a scheme that schedules deliveries. It also automates all of the billing, saving users hours that they might otherwise spend manually creating invoices.

In addition, the app allows users to forecast their future charges and do billing in advance, a benefit that can be crucial to the survival of a small operation. “We can forecast ahead of time with our customers and figure out what the charge will be in the future…It can help them avoid cash flow crunches and also forecast what kind of demand to expect in coming weeks,” explains Lau.

Lau saw the need for the development of an application like Bucky Box in the winter of 2010, while helping a friend launch a box scheme called Ooooby Box. He saw the amount of administrative labor this type of operation requires, and realized that many don’t have an efficient system.

“Most schemes don’t have very good systems. A lot of them are running spreadsheets, if that,” says Lau. “A lot of box schemes…get enthusiastic but run into the same issues of administration.” He mentions as an example a friend in Christchurch who had to downsize from 600 to 150 customers because he couldn’t keep up with the administrative work. “He just couldn’t handle it,” says Lau. “His family life was suffering because it took so much out of him.”

Before leaving Ooooby, Lau built a prototype system. At around the same time, he met the team at Enspiral, a business incubator also based in Wellington. The team there encouraged him to take his system to the next level and helped him to develop Bucky Box into a sleek application with a viable business model.

Bucky Box will charge a fee per box delivered – a rate still to be determined. For larger operations with many deliveries, the fee will be scaled back accordingly. Lau says the goal of the system is to make organic farming a little cheaper, more efficient and more viable for smaller scale organic producers – giving them a better chance of competing with large-scale conventional producers.

“What we’re trying to do is to offer something to the rest of the 98 percent. Level the playing field. The small guys are at an immediate disadvantage…The fee will be as low as we can get it. One of the things we want to do is assist as many new schemes as possible.”

Bucky Box is just about to begin trialing the newest version of its system with a university in Hong Kong and a juice business in Wellington. While there aren’t strict launch deadlines, Lau expects it to be ready for the public in about two months.

Lau says that the biggest challenge so far, as with most startups, was going from having the idea to actually putting together a team and funding to move forward. But after a year of working out the kinks, Lau says that it’s full throttle ahead. He says they’ve had a chance to see how in-demand this type of product is, and is confident there’s a market for it.

Unique Partnerships

One thing decided early on by the Bucky Box team is that it would be a social enterprise. They decided that rather than spending money on marketing or advertising, they would devote funds to helping other environmentally-minded people and businesses

“The majority of our profits go into a pool that will support our partners…The margins are quite high because it’s a relatively small team – four of us fulltime – and we can build a system that we can deploy across thousands of schemes worldwide,” says Lau. “What we see is this area of the food system is profitable, whereas there are a lot of other parts, like food awareness and education, where there’s not a lot of money going into that – so we’re here to facilitate that kind of project.”

One such project is a foundation they’re working with, with a farmer who’s created many innovative organic techniques for increasing yield. Bucky Box plans to take him and some of his teammates to India to learn and share with farmers there, and create a garden.

Looking Forward

As to what the future holds, Lau says that he thinks conventional farming’s heavy reliance on oil will make it more and more expensive, leading an increasing number of farmers to look to an alternative.

“There’s going to be a price point where organic farming becomes cheaper. It’s trending already,” he says.  “We’re getting 20 percent growth per annum in organic farming.”

To Lau, moving away from chemical farming means moving toward small farming.

“[Chemical farming] relies on monocrops. To do monocrops, you need pesticides,” he says. “But to do organics, you need crop diversity, to ensure against crop disease… I don’t think we’re going to see anything close to the vast vistas of monocrops that we’ve seen. When you talk about growing a diversity of crops, you’re talking about growing in a decentralized food system. It’s going to be very distributed.”

He predicts a reversal, with the majority of agriculture going organic and sustainable and conventional farming becoming the minority. He hopes Bucky Box can help facilitate that change.

“Five years out, I want to see that we’ve actually made a difference on a quantifiable basis. I want to see through the projects and the partners that we’ve supported that we’re actually shifting the trend to local and organics. Healthy and organic food at a price that’s no different than chemical.”

Overall, he says it’s an exciting time for Bucky Box and sustainable agriculture.

“We feel here that we’re surfing a wave. I feel like, maybe two years ago, we had to stand up and do our bit and be heroes of some sort. Now, a year and half into it and seeing the progress worldwide, I feel like this is going to happen with or without us. We’re just part of the wave…I guess we’re in it now because it’s fun and it’s aligned with us and we feel really good each day for doing the work we do. It’s not so dark or so tough as it was a few years back when we felt like we were beating against a world that didn’t understand.”

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