Category Archives for "Case Studies"

RLabs Zimbabwe & Op-Lab – using social franchise to create opportunities within communities

RLabs is a member of the GatherWell Network

RLabs Zimbabwe is a partnership with RLabs South Africa and Op-Lab, which is short for “Opportunities Laboratory.” Op-Lab specializes in using social franchise to create opportunities within communities.  Rlabs is a global movement and registered Social Enterprise that provides innovative solutions to address various complex problems. It was founded in 2008 as an environment for community driven innovation and reconstruction. RLabs creates an environment where people are empowered to make a difference in the lives of others. The RLabs “main hub” is in Athlone, Cape Town but they have activity in the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia, South America and Africa with a goal of reaching all continents by 2014.

Op Lab was founded by Sam Dzinotyiwei. Sam  is a social entrepreneur who started out his career as a pilot and is currently pursuing a commercial pilot licence. He has the business acumen to turn ideas into action and has been involved in a number of successful ventures. Most recently he was in charge of business development for Africa`s biggest social network, Mxit in Zimbabwe. He also worked with Childline Zimbabwe to provide counselling to children via Mxit. Sam is also the Projects Advisor for Educated Horizon a UK/Zimbabwe registered education charity. He designs and manages their IT Projects running in remote rural schools of Zimbabwe .

Impact sourcing project

Impact Sourcing is a global initiative to bring internet-based jobs to disadvantaged communities. Impact Sourcing brings the type of digital work traditionally performed by outsourcing providers to people living in economically depressed areas. Almost half the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and 1.8 billion people can’t access a formal job. Impact Sourcing creates thousands of new jobs, makes businesses more efficient, and will transform the lives of millions.

We were inspired by the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa program, which works to support Impact Sourcing projects around the world. RLabs Zimbabwe is likely the first Impact Sourcing program in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe has a large group of highly-educated young adults and women that can contribute to the profitability of businesses around the world. Unfortunately, with an unemployment rate of over 70 percent and low salaries for those who can find work, our country is suffering. The challenge of bringing work to this population has made Zimbabwe an ideal location for the next RLabs establishment. Through RLabs, Zimbabwean women and young adults are able to obtain free computer training and participate in the growing Impact Sourcing industry. Over 80% of Africa’s young workers don’t get a regular paycheck. If  you would like to help create good jobs, please contact Sam on . We provide a number of digital services that include; data entry, Converting paper to digital, social media moderation, online research, spelling and grammar jobs, appointment management Services, ebook conversion, handwriting transcription,  website designing and mobile app development.

Rlabs Zimbabwe has plans to establish a technology innovation hub that will help the community to solve social problems using technology. The hub will also foster mobile technology innovations that include Health, Education and Agriculture. The hub`s main social purpose will be to leverage ICT for social purposes. To get involved in this great initiative please does contact us. To kick off RLabs Zimbabwe, we recently hosted a 48-hour hackathon event in partnership with The theme of the event was “hacking against corruption,” featuring talented Zimbabwean developers. The event produced more than 15 creative mobile applications and became the first hackathon in Zimbabwe to include female participants.

LaborVoices: Last-Mile Supply Chain Visibility

Dr. Kohl Gill, Chief Executive Officer, LaborVoices

Short Description: 
Real time information drives improvement in workforce management from both a social responsibility and operational perspective. In this short audio lecture, Dr. Kohl Gill discusses LaborVoices, Inc., a mobile technology platform that brings transparency to supply chain management through the voices of workers. Dr. Gill believes that if supply chain executives ask the right questions and are patient with the answers, LaborVoices can help improve social-environmental performance and improve bottom lines.

LaborVoices brings unprecedented transparency to supply chain management to improve social responsibility. In this short audio lecture, Dr. Kohl Gill, CEO of LaborVoices, Inc., discusses his company’s mobile technology platform. He uses crowdsourcing to let workers’ voices bring accountability to supply chain management. Dr. Gill believes that real time information drives improvement in workforce management from both a social responsibility and operational perspective. In this Social Innovation Conversations, Stanford University podcast, Dr. Gill shows how LaborVoices helps to create real-time, long-term relations and communication from supply chain executives to the factory floor. This supports accountability across all stakeholders, creates a better overall work environment, and improves social, environmental, and company performance.

Dr. Kohl S. Gill is the CEO of LaborVoices, Inc., providing intelligence to global workers and supply chain executives. Dr. Gill served in the U.S. State Department, as the South Asia and Middle East Labor Affairs Officer for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Dr. Gill served as an Indicorps Fellow in the slum areas of Delhi, India, fighting both petty and grand corruption at the local level. Dr. Gill is a graduate of the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a Ph.D. for his work in semiconductor physics.

Dr. Kohl Gill

Responsibly Supply Chains Conference

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Voolla: Turning Skills and Services into Donations for Charities

Voolla_Logo_HighResVoolla is a member of the GatherWell Network


Stephanie Downs, the Founder and Chief Volunteer at Voolla, started volunteering when she found herself burned out about a year into starting a business in 1999. She needed to do something that took her away from work, so she started volunteering at an animal shelter.

After a while, Stephanie questioned whether walking dogs and cleaning kennels was the best way for her to give back. The shelter needed the help, of course, but she also had professional skills that might have been more valuable to the organization.

Stephanie then became involved as a board member where she could use her professional skills. The problem there was in the fact that her commitment developed into something that was more like an additional part-time job. During that time, she found that most of the board discussions and work focused on fundraising.

At some point, it dawned on Stephanie that charities need volunteers AND money, and that most volunteers want to share their unique talents. Stephanie began the process of connecting the two.

She combined the two concepts (volunteering and moolah, or money) to create Voolla, an online marketplace that turns volunteered skills and services into cash donations for charity.

Voolla isn’t your common volunteer match service where a nonprofit posts a profile noting what items and services they need. On Voolla, volunteered skills from individuals or businesses are matched with customers (also individuals or businesses) and the fee is donated to charity.

Want to get involved with Voolla? If you’d like to offer your services to fundraise for your favorite cause, setting up a profile is the first step. List your talents, skills and services that you wish to donate and customers will contact you to purchase those services. You can also browse help wanted ads and apply to donate your skills to those needs.

If you are looking to hire a professional, your fee will not only provide you with a service, but also double as a charitable donation and in many cases a discounted rate for the same excellent service. You can do a simple search of the website to find profiles that match your needs. When the work is complete, the fee you spent is donated to charity.

Charities and nonprofit organizations can also get involved! To be listed as a Charity Partner so that volunteers and customers can select your organization as a beneficiary, sign up here. Voolla provides all partners with customized campaign development strategies.

Join Voolla and join the movement to do good by sharing what you do well!

How to create a new food ecosystem? Ask Sarah Fritschner at SOCAP

“My tax dollars are subsidizing your ability to buy boneless, skinless chicken breast at Walmart” says Farm to Table‘s dynamic leader Sarah Fritzchner.

She led the audience at SOCAP13 through the maze of structural elements that lead to this conclusion. The underpaid worker at the mainstream food processor who ends up on Government subsidies is central.

If it was an even playing field, the local food producer would be the better value. She gave the example of the Kentucky farmer Todd Clark. Todd pays the people who process his chicken twice as much as Purdue. He could produce much more then he does but a farm stand doesn’t cut it as an access point to the market. He needs large scale consistent income.

What’s the solution? Connecting institutional buyers and local farmers. Sarah has worked, in some cases for years, to get a single institutional buyer like University of Louisville to switch to local producers. Cow by cow, she’s doing it.

What’s the one message Sarah wants you to remember? “The high price of local food is a straw man.” When you hear that, make it a call to action.



Mountain Grown: Appalachia’s New Local Food Economy

Appalachian grown okra. Photo by ASAP.

Okra, an Appalachian staple, in season at Asheville City Market. Photo by ASAP.

Restaurants like Knife and Fork didn’t use to exist in places like Spruce Pine, a town of just 2,200 people nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina. About 80 percent of what the restaurant serves is sourced from within a 40-mile radius. For the most part, the only things that aren’t local are beer, wine, and cheese.

“I see myself as less a chef and more as a sourcer or a seeker of great products,” says chef Nate Allen.

Food miles infographicAn All-Local Meal in Appalachia
Check out our infographic on local food in Appalachia.

Ten years ago, Allen says, there was no real demand for local food here. But over the last decade, southern Appalachian consumers have started seeking it out. Restaurateurs, specialty food producers, and farmers have shifted their business models to meet this demand, and for many, the local food movement has been a welcome answer to shifts in the national economy.

Since 2002, skyrocketing demand for local food has been recorded in the Local Food Guide published annually by the Asheville-based Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. The number of local farms listed in that guide has grown from 58 to 691—a startling increase of 1,091 percent. Likewise, the number of farmers markets is up 197 percent, and the number of restaurants serving local food is up 542 percent.

The reasons for such a dramatic shift are manifold—but like so many social movements, this one started with a problem.

Finding a post-tobacco future

Back in the late 1990s, Charlie Jackson and plenty of other North Carolina farmers were watching tobacco profits melt away, and coming to terms with the prospect that no other cash crop could take its place. So they decided to try something different: touting the economic and environmental benefits of local food.

Cut flowers and produce at Asheville City Market. Photo by ASAP.

Cut flowers and produce from Aardvark Farms at Asheville City Market. Photo by ASAP.

Back then it was often difficult to explain the importance of buying local, Jackson says. On the one hand, some farmers had handed down sustainable food practices for generations. On the other, convincing people to pay a little more for a little less convenience is one tough elevator pitch.

But Jackson and other volunteers spent a few years making that pitch anyway. After a few years, the idea started to catch on, and in 2002 Jackson helped to found the nonprofit Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, along with two initiatives that would help transform the local and sustainable food movement in southern Appalachia. The Business of Farming Conference was founded to teach farmers how to market their products to local and regional customers, while the Local Food Guide showed consumers how to find food produced nearby. Just over a decade later, Jackson, now ASAP’s executive director, estimates that more than a million copies of the guide have been printed.

ASAP has also set the standard for what qualifies as local through its Appalachian Grown certification program. The primary criteria for qualification is that a certified producer must be within roughly 100 miles of Asheville, where dozens of restaurants serving local food have sprung up, supplied by several thriving farmers markets.

In a 2011 ASAP survey, 59 percent of Western North Carolina residents reported buying local food products on a weekly basis when they were in season. ASAP’s success means it’s now setting the standard for local sustainability programs: it’s sharing its ideas with budding programs in Knoxville and Chattanooga, and is even helping to start a local food program in the Mary Valley region of Queensland, Australia.

A better market close to home

Sunburst Trout Farms has been a family-run business for three generations, producing everything from trout fillets to marinated trout, trout sausage, and caviar. Before gas prices started to spike in the early 2000s, Sunburst generated 30 percent of its business by selling to Whole Foods stores nationwide. When gas prices continued to rise, Whole Foods asked Sunburst CEO Sally Eason to drop the price on fillets, her biggest-selling item. The new price would be so low that she’d be losing money on the deal.

Today’s Appalachian consumers are willing to go without tomatoes in February, to eat what’s in season instead.

“I said, ‘I just can’t do it,’ and they pulled the plug,” Eason remembers.

But the same price hikes Eason was experiencing had also affected area chefs, who were seeking out lower-priced sources of fish. They found that buying closer to home reduced the impact of gas prices, and Sunburst happened to be only about 30 miles away from Asheville’s thriving restaurant scene.

Finding enough purchasers turned out not to be a problem: After the Gulf oil spill, demand was so high that Sunburst ran out of fish and almost went out of business. By early 2011, Sunburst had a waiting list of about 180 customers it was unable to supply. A capital grant from the USDA that year brought the company back online.

Since that time, Sunburst more than doubled its workforce to 23, and has been able to supply half of those customers on the waiting list, most of them chefs. Today, around 90 percent of Sunburst’s customers are within 100 miles of the farm.

Selling locally is good business for Sunburst. Eason charges $5 to $10 for delivery to most of her customer base, and that covers costs. Compare that to two-day overnight shipping to the West Coast, which might cost as much as $100, by Eason’s estimation—a cost she generally had to deduct from her own profits.

Andy Perkins, who co-owns Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview, N.C., with his wife, Jen, agrees that small-business owners make more by selling locally. For four years, Looking Glass cheese has been sold by posh retailer Williams-Sonoma, and up to 80 percent of the company’s business is through wholesale. But the Perkinses recently opened a retail location on their property and at the local farmers market because “your margin is much greater when you sell directly to the consumer,” according to Perkins.

Looking Glass Creamery was founded in 2009, and by 2011 demand for its cheese was so high that Perkins left his job as an audiologist to work at the creamery full-time. Today, the Perkinses have three employees, all learning to make cheese.

Those aren’t the only jobs the creamery has created. The Perkinses source their milk from farms within about 30 miles of their house, and one third-generation dairy farmer was even able to reopen his farm after commodity-scale production proved unsustainable. Today, Pack Dairy has only about a dozen cows, but Perkins estimates that he pays 50 to 150 percent more per gallon of milk than the local milk cooperative once did; in any case, Perkins offers a much more stable price.

A more social economy

When the Perkinses buy from local farmers, they say they’re getting a better-quality product. But just as important is building a more deeply networked community—and part of that is collaborating with other farmers to achieve shared goals. Perkins’ wife, Jen, joined with other local cheesemakers this year to launch the Western North Carolina Cheese Trail, a nonprofit collective open to tourist visits.

“We have this idea that having the cheese trail is going to help us all,” Perkins explains. “It’s a way of keeping these sustainable businesses going. It’s not looking at each other as competition.”

“My son knows when he puts honey on toast that it comes from Milo Acres.”

Other local farmers echo Perkins’ perspective on the issue. “There are things about it you can’t put a price tag on,” says William Shelton, whose Shelton Family Farms operates a Community-Supported Agriculture program, or CSA, offering weekly food shares out of Whittier, N.C. “I have four sons, and the experience has been good for them. … At the market, it’s a social experience. It’s a connection to the community.”

Nate Allen was seeking a sense of community, too, when he and his wife, Wendy Gardner, opened their restaurant, Knife and Fork, in 2009. As a private chef, Allen had traveled all around the world—but he found home in Spruce Pine: “Suddenly you have a group of people that work together to benefit the whole, and that can’t really happen on a global concept.”

On the Sunday brunch menu this August, Knife and Fork offered up sweet and spicy rabbit wings, trout terrine, and locally sourced eggs cooked any way you like. But a decade ago, the climate wasn’t right for a hyper-local restaurant like Knife and Fork, Allen says. “There wouldn’t have been the agricultural community to support it; there wouldn’t have been the understanding,” he explains.

Today’s Appalachian consumers are different, says Allen. They’re willing to go without tomatoes in February, to eat what’s in season instead. In the process, they’re rediscovering a connection to the land.

“You’re going to get a sense of time and season,” Allen explains, “and you will once again have reason to celebrate different occurrences at certain times of year.”

The extra work may not be for everyone, but luckily, Allen has a passion for seeking out local producers.

“It’s a ridiculous amount of legwork,” he admits.

The challenges of going local

Selling locally can involve a lot of extra legwork on the farmer’s part as well, and the fewer customers there are, the more work it is.

William Shelton of Shelton Family Farms. Photo by ASAP.

William Shelton of Shelton Family Farms. Photo by ASAP.

Shelton Family Farms is about five years into its CSA program, but William Shelton says he might transition away from the model. His mid-sized farm is too far from Asheville for Shelton to access that customer base, and he worries he’ll never have enough members to justify the extra workload. Packing individual boxes and transporting them to customer pick-up locations is more work than selling wholesale, and farming is already a tough job.

“I’m too big to do that all myself,” Shelton says, “but I’m too small to hire a full-time secretary.”

Jackson agrees that a smaller customer base creates problems. But he says that the market is growing even in rural areas, a trend that ASAP is trying to accelerate through its farm-to-school programs, which help farmers connect to distributors who sell to local schools. The programs also educate kids about where their food comes from, taking them to local farms and organizing cooking demonstrations. ASAP is also working to bring local food into area hospitals, though Jackson says the biggest driver has been word-of-mouth.

The online Local Food Guide lists four hospitals, five school districts, and one child and family center buying locally.

Farmers markets help producers expand their local customer base, too.

“In 2002, there were 32 farmers markets in the Western North Carolina [and] Southern Appalachian region,” Jackson says. “Now there are 95.”

Amber Lax of Black Mountain, North Carolina, has been buying from her local farmers market for eight years, during which time she guesses the number of vendors has roughly tripled.

“It grew from us buying produce to us being friends with a lot of the farmers,” she says. And now that she’s visited several farms with her kids, ages 7 and 1, she feels that her son, Benjamin, is more willing to try new foods—even healthy ones.

“My son knows when he puts honey on toast that it comes from Milo Acres,” she says. “When he eats kale he knows that our friend, Lori, picked that herself.”

Customers demand sustainability

Still, few farmers can say they sell exclusively at farmer’s markets or through local CSA programs. So ASAP also helps connect them with larger-scale markets. It works most closely with Ingles Markets, which distributes out of Asheville to its network of more than 200 stores in the region. Appalachian Grown signage in these stores helps local products stand out from the crowd.

ASAP’s Appalachian Grown certification program is geographically oriented, open to just about any family-owned producer within about 100 miles of Asheville. The producer agreement sets no expectations regarding farming practices such as the use of pesticides and fertilizers, yet environmentally sustainable ways of farming are on the rise. In the last two years, the number of organic farms in the Local Food Guide has increased by 22 percent, with certified naturally grown farms showing an even bigger increase, at 33 percent (naturally grown certification is similar to organic certification but is cheaper for farmers in terms of fees and paperwork). Farms with GMO-free products have also increased 33 percent; free range is up 16 percent; and humanely raised animals are up 16 percent.

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Jackson says demanding a change in farming practices a decade ago would have meant turning away a lot of struggling farmers.

“If I had gone to [farmers] a few years ago and said, ‘You should do organic,’ they would have looked at me like I was crazy. And I would have been, because there wouldn’t have been a market for it,” Jackson says.

Southern Appalachia is ahead of the curve in making this model work.

“Historically, we’ve lost farms at an alarming rate over the last half century. … Our strategy is to keep as many farms as we possibly can.”

So ASAP didn’t try to push farmers into sustainability. Customer demand pushed them, instead.

“If we connect people to farms and food, they’ll start changing the way they eat, and they’ll start changing the way farmers farm,” Jackson explains.

For many customers and restaurateurs, knowing the farmer who produced their food eliminates the need for an official organic certification, which can be prohibitively expensive to acquire.

“A lot of the chefs in the area, we don’t need a governing stamp of organic,” Allen explains. “We just want to know the people doing it. We want to see the property.”

Consumer motivations are indeed shifting, and not just toward more environmentally sustainable practices. One of the first surveys ASAP conducted around the year 2000 found that freshness was the most important motivator for consumers who chose to buy local. By 2011, more than eight in 10 consumers said they bought locally to contribute to the local economy and support local farms.

The shift points to just how interconnected this local community has become: consumers once again know where their food comes from, know who produced it, and are proud to support those producers.

It’s pretty good proof that local, sustainable food in Appalachia isn’t just a passing trend. It’s both a return to tradition and a new model for economic and environmental viability.

What’s more, while southern Appalachia may be ahead of the curve in making this model work, it’s by no means limited to these mountains. It’s a way of doing business that’s worth trying anyplace where a critical mass of farms and tables exist within a few hours’ drive from one another.

Erin McCoy.Erin L. McCoy wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Erin worked as a newspaper reporter and photographer in Kentucky for almost two years. She is now a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in education, environment, cultural issues, and travel, informed by her time teaching English in Malaysia and other travels. Contact her at elmccoy [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter @ErinLMcCoy.

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