Project Highlight – Internet Commerce for Subsistence Farmers

Internet shopping for subsistence farmers using snackfood distributors – a new era for international development?

Canada was transformed from a poor rural society in the early 1900s to a prosperous nation only a few decades later, in part due to affordable products from the private sector, including improved tools that reduced drudgery and improved productivity. Today, however, procurement of such products is a major problem in many developing nations. As a result, approximately 500 million subsistence women farmers continue to toil in the back-breaking labour of pulling weeds by hand, shelling corn from cobs by beating them in a sac with a stick, planting seeds with oxen or pounding grain to make flour. Low cost weeding tools, corn shellers, jab planters and mills could, respectively, help to reduce such drudgery.
The Sustainable Agriculture Kit Nepal project (, funded by the DFATD/IDRC-CIFSRF program, is endeavoring to create a supply chain for low-cost, private sector-based products to reach remote hillside farmers in Nepal – including products from Canada and around the world to stimulate long-term bilateral trade. In addition to tools and inputs, the project is creating a picture book of improved farming practices — a form of agricultural extension — to empower illiterate women farmers.
The project has surveyed local farmers for their bottlenecks and needs and then began the process of using participatory approaches to test private sector products with the goal of using commercial approaches, rather than handouts, to reach 100,000 Nepalese – treating subsistence farmers as consumers, similar to Canadian farmers in the 1930s-1950s.

But unlike Canada many decades ago, the project is shopping on the Internet, especially taking advantage of the China-based website, Alibaba is similar to but on a much larger scale – a global marketplace for any product imaginable – including low cost agricultural tools and fertilizers. Alibaba had the largest IPO (initial public offering) in history when it became a publicly traded company in 2014. On Alibaba, one can procure and negotiate, like a bazaar, products ranging from $1 knee pads for women farmers to make daily life easier, to $4 weeding tools and $10 seed planters, to $12 water-harvesting tanks capable of storing 500 L of Monsoon rainwater for the dry season, to $150 automated rice transplanters – to replace the back-breaking labour of transplanting by hand – a product that can be shared at the community level. Canadian companies also buy and sell on Alibaba, potentially allowing the world’s farmers to access Canadian innovations.

Alibaba does not limit itself to farm machinery and other inputs, but also sells farmer outputs including diverse food products including molasses, fish and spices; thus farmer groups around the world now have direct access to the world’s distributors and consumers at a fairer market price than having to sell to a chain of global middlemen. The Internet may finally facilitate bi-lateral trade to enable local development. International development organizations are now blessed and challenged with how to take advantage of this new era of internet shopping – shopping for development – a supply chain to allow scaling up.

The SAKNepal project, a partnership between the University of Guelph, a Nepalese NGO (LI-BIRD) and a Nepalese seed company, Anamolbiu, is testing strategies for scaling up to enable development – by procuring local and global products including from Alibaba and more regional websites (e.g. by surfing the web on behalf of farmers for requested products at the correct economy of scale for farmer pocketbooks. The subsistence farmer market is enormous, with at least 1 billion under-served consumers.

In the coming years, the SAKNepal project will test procured products with farmers using participatory, on farm trials in Nepal, but the project is simultaneously scaling up the distribution of previously validated products, including low cost corn shellers, seed planters and grain storage bags. The project is also testing whether subsistence farmers will have improved access to inputs and tools from an alternative distribution channel — the local snackfood distribution network. In the most remote regions of the world, potato chips and soft drinks are available and sold in local stalls, but not tools for farmers. The project endeavors to test how to alleviate this bottleneck —  and to test whether it is possible to piggyback onto snackfood distributors, thus connecting village stalls with the domestic and global Internet marketplace. To evaluate the project, 5000 consumer farmers will be surveyed by cell phone to learn lessons to inform this alternative, private sector-based model for development.

See More Resources >