SiembraViva: The Digital Countryside

Deicy Johana Pareja M.
The calluses on the palms of Félix Ortiz’s hands are witness to his love of farming. Located in the El Salado Township, part of the rural division of San Antonio de Prado in Medellín (Colombia), the farmer has been planting vegetables for 59 of his 63 years. Up to ten times each day he surveys the three blocks of his farm, carrying a large bucket on his shoulder and kneeling down to pick the freshest greens. In his dark blue shirt, brown trousers, hat and boots he stands out in contrast next to the green of the lettuces, peas, broccoli, celery and spinach around him.

He doesn't water or fumigate the plants, in order for them to last longer, nor does he ever lose a crop or have to get up twice weekly at dawn to travel into the city to offer his products at the wholesale markets, receiving little in return. The tomatoes, bell peppers, beetroots, potatoes, carrots, onions and everything else he cultivates are sold on the Internet through the SiembraViva.com portal, which offers organic produce and home delivery to all of the neighbourhoods in Medellín.

For Félix, and eleven other agricultural workers in the state of Antioquia, this platform was a life changer. Not only a vehicle for sales, the digital platform provides dignity to the work of the farmers, better income and working conditions, trains them to grow 100 percent organic products, and in addition, provides the technology to avoid crop loss due to bad weather or pest infestation.

SiembraViva was founded in September 2013, when its creator, Diego Benítez, a business manager with a Master’s degree in international business from France, decided to resign from a prominent position at Bancolombia—one of the financial powerhouses in the country—in order to start his own enterprise and assist agricultural workers. Benítez explains that the company aids the farmers throughout the process, from planting to final sale. On each grower’s farm, they install tunnels covered with plastic sheeting to protect plants from bad weather and install water tanks with fish from which the waste is collected and turned into plant nutrients, replacing the use of chemicals.

The company also provides the farmers with electronic tablets. “We use these tools to tell them what to plant, based on demand,” says Benítez. “They can also report plant diseases and obtain on-line assistance; and if necessary, schedule the visit of an agronomist.” Another benefit of the platform is that it simplifies the agricultural supply chain, which normally goes through four parties before reaching the end consumer (agricultural worker, shipper, wholesaler and supermarket), each step reducing the grower's earnings.

The entrepreneur adds that SiembraViva also provides the growers with saplings, trains them and guarantees sales at fair prices. He emphasizes that “They are masters of their land and their time, we provide the rest. They can now think into the future because their incomes are stable.” For Félix, the most important factor is the increased value the enterprise brings not only to their crops, but to themselves. Now he has more leisure time and a higher income. He enjoys his work because, as he says, he gets to grow different types of tomatoes, onions and lettuce that he never worked with in the past.

He also feels his quality of life has improved. Félix describes how he used to fumigate his crops with chemicals that were harmful to his and the consumer's health, but now he has better nutrition since he can also consume what he produces. He explains how he used to wake up at dawn and the wholesaler would offer him 900 pesos for about a kilogramme of potatoes; after having travelled two hours into the city, he simply couldn't refuse. Now he enthuses about how “SiembraViva gives us better prices, pays me almost 30 per cent more and I don't have to travel all the way into the city.”

The company collects Félix’s produce twice a week and takes care of all the logistics; receiving internet orders, packaging them and delivering them to the end consumer’s door. The customers place their orders on the website, choose the products they want with a simple click and can pay with a credit or debit card, or even with cash on delivery. In two years, the company has delivered to 2,700 customers and has a sales growth of 25 per cent every six months.

“The best payment I receive is seeing the farm workers happy, stress-free and cultivating the land with love,” concludes Diego Benítez. “Their worst headache was finding transportation to get their produce into the city for sale. Many of them couldn’t even afford their fare.”

Meanwhile, Félix, who began farming with his father at the age of four, says that although the younger generation doesn’t want to work the land any more, initiatives like SiembraViva might just change their mind.