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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Online Platform Sprouts to Facilitate Global Local Agricultural Network

August 15, 2012 |

A brand-new “niche e-marketplace,” Sproutrade is looking to connect farmers, growers and agriculture companies around the world. The platform, which just went live in July 2012, along with sister product Crowdstocker, aims to bring buyers and sellers of particular products together on a local and international scale. Their founder, Laura Wei, has been busy attending funding meetings, but she was able to correspond with Seedstock through email.

Wei got the idea for Sproutrade while working as a research assistant at Michigan State University. A coworker asked her where it would be most profitable to sell ginseng in Asia, and she realized that she didn’t know how to identify buyers and sellers of particular products on that sort of international level. Online research showed her that there was little in the way of agriculture platforms available. And so the idea for Sproutrade was planted.

The platform’s basic concept is that any farmer, grower or agriculture company can go to and set up an account for themselves to advertise their products – similar to creating a company page on Facebook. They can also post agriculture products they want to sell or buy on the site, as well as news, jobs and any other information they want to share.

In terms of buying and selling products, Sproutrade is structured similarly to sites such as Amazon and Ebay, but it can be either business-to-business or business-to-customer. And, explains Wei, “E-commerce sites such as Amazon offer nearly any type of good, to be shipped nearly anywhere in the world, but we identified a problem in the fresh produce sector, since individual customers can’t order a carton of blueberries, for instance, in a refrigerated delivery box.”

To solve the problem of perishable good delivery to individual customers – a problem that “none of the large e-commerce companies have been able to tackle effectively,” says Wei – she created the Crowdstocker extension, which allows individual customers to ask for a product from a local merchant. For example, let’s say a consumer wants Safeway to carry a specific variety of melon. The consumer will go onto Crowdstocker, select the retailer they want, and request the specific type of produce they want to purchase. The retailer then chooses a quantity that would make it worth their while to stock, and that number gets posted on Crowdstocker along with the product information. When that many individuals request the product, the retailer will stock it and the products can be picked up locally.

A Sproutrade product page.

Wei says that they’re just finishing up testing on Crowdstocker and are contacting supermarket managers and other stakeholders to join them.

Since Sproutrade is in the very beginning stages, it doesn’t have many users yet, but Wei says they plan to recruit company and farm-level members through a combination of traditional and nontraditional outlets, such as trade journals and LinkedIn. To draw individual customers to Crowdstocker, they’re engaging through social media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

At this point in time, all new registrants on Sproutrade become free silver members. After the trial period, users can choose to maintain silver membership, upgrade to gold membership, or utilize the free membership. Each level of membership provides users with more functionality, such as product listing priority, advanced search capabilities and multimedia video content. For instance, silver members can post 20 buying offers while gold members are able to post an unlimited amount, and also receive the highest listing priority.

For optimal functioning, Wei says they would like to “have users across a broad range of geographies and markets. This is especially true with the recent drought in the Midwest, where people may need to source products from outside their region. [Sproutrade]’s also an international product, as you can see by the languages selection, and we hope to expand to help farmers wherever they are.”

While Sproutrade will allow all levels of trade and commerce, “from down the street to across the globe,” as Wei puts it, it encourages sustainable agriculture wherever produce is grown. And, though customers can order on Crowdstocker from anywhere in the world, Wei says that “it works most effectively on a local scale, since local markets already have existing local sourcing channels, but simply need to know what the customers want. Local farms can also respond directly to customer trends before goods even have to be shipped to market; prior to our innovation, you received market demand data at the point of purchase.”

At this point, the biggest challenge facing Sproutrade is capital, says Wei, as they’re “running on a shoestring budget.” She says they’d love to hire some staff eventually, in marketing, sales, web development/programming and other areas that will “help us scale the Sproutrade platform and create an awesome user experience.” For now, she says, “we’ve been able to bootstrap operations and accomplish everything we’ve needed to get done so far.”

Down the road, Sproutrade hopes to build onto the platform by introducing features such as the ability to undertake transactions directly through the Sproutrade platform (the actual transactions currently occur between the buyers and sellers; Sproutrade just facilitates it) and the introduction of “business services” through third parties, who may provide services such as refrigerated trucking for business-level buyers.

To date, Sproutrade has only received “friends and family” capital, but it’s seeking institutional investors, such as those at venture capital firms, or “angel investors”. It’s also open to internships, if students would like to get a feel for “life at the intersection of agriculture and e-commerce.” Says Wei, “It’s a great opportunity to change the way agriculture commerce works!”

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