New app helps farmers fill tourists' plates in St. Lucia FEATURE
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A web-based application tells Caribbean food buyers what crops will be available and when to expect them.

Farmers in sun-drenched St. Lucia have teamed up with the island's tourism industry to put more of their tropical fruits and vegetables into the hotels and resorts that fuel the country's economy. Instead of third-party marketers, the go-between is a new, web-based application that tells food buyers what crops will be available and when to expect them.

The St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association (SLHTA) took a first step in April 2016, launching the Virtual Agricultural Clearinghouse to bridge the divide between tourism and agriculture, which for years wanted more sales to the hospitality sector. In its first year, the clearinghouse generated $700,000, according to the association.

However, the WhatsApp exchange lacked forecasting ability and other essential crop availability data. To fill the void, the SLHTA recently upgraded to trifarmltd.com, a new, online crop forecasting and modeling tool created by St. Lucian entrepreneurs Garvin E. Francis and Melvin Felicien.

Menu planning gets easier

This real-time graph provides transparency in terms of what is available months in advance and who can be contacted to get them. "We just ask for three basic data inputs: plant maturity date, plant yield and harvesting period," explained Francis, managing director and majority shareholder of Tri Farm Company Ltd. "Producers enter their crop data, which goes into a real-time data graph. This graph provides transparency in terms of what is available months in advance and who can be contacted to get them.

See also: Robots meet indoor farming 

"Producers can benefit also by seeing where other opportunities exist for them to grow other crops if one crop appears to be flooding the market at a particular time. Buyers such as chefs, purchasing managers and agro-processors can plan in advance the menus and production schedule," said Francis, who has degrees in agriculture and finance.

Rolled out in January, trifarmltd.com already has 35 producers from St. Lucia, among 51 from throughout the Caribbean, Francis said. As members of the St. Lucia tourism group come onboard, the number of buyers will rise from 35 to 55.

As population growth increases the need to ramp up food production, tech startups globally are creating a range of agricultural software, farming techniques and services, including farm-to-shelf e-commerce, according to the venture capital database CB Insights.

Food assemblies sprout in Europe

Taking it a step further, a European startup uses tech to facilitate pop-up farmers markets, where consumers pick up their pre-ordered food from local producers. Founded by a trio of entrepreneurs in France, The Food Assembly allows shoppers to bypass large chains and purchase their fruits, vegetables, cheeses and more in weekly meet-ups.

Since its debut in 2011, The Food Assembly quickly spread from France to Spain, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy with some 150,000 members, including producers and 900 assemblies of buyers.

In California, Aggrigator brings together small, local growers near Salinas to sell direct to commercial food buyers, including restaurants, schools and grocery stores. Farmers list their produce and commercial buyers place their orders by using a web interface.

Developed at Stanford University, Aggrigator also provides small farmers with important ancillary services, such as financing, transportation and logistics, to help them meet demand and delivery deadlines.

A 'game changer' for ag

Although Tri Farm only recently launched, its users see strong potential to reshape the St. Lucia and broader Caribbean marketplaces.

"The use of this technology can help reduce the agriculture importation bill in St. Lucia and also create more employment in agriculture," said Jeanmi Camielle, a St. Lucia Ministry of Agriculture officer.

See also: The farm tech revolution 

"Once all farmers are on board, our purchasers will no longer have to spend time calling around to confirm who has what but can simply log on and identify what's available and in what quantities," said Sanovnik Destang, executive director of Bay Gardens Resorts and president of the St. Lucia tourism association. "This is an extremely easy to use yet ingenious platform that has the potential be a game changer for agricultural sectors both locally and regionally."

Tri Farm users include St. Lucia-based Baron Foods Ltd., which produces Caribbean-flavored condiments, marinades and spices for customers in 25 countries worldwide. CEO Ronald Ramjattan said he expects enhanced production and help meeting delivery deadlines through Tri Farm.

"What I like most is the strategy that Tri Farm has developed with their farmers to supply a company like us," he said.

With two acres of leafy vegetables, root crops and herbs, grower Anne-Marie Benoit said a hotel contacted her and committed to buy as soon as her produce is ready for harvest. "My motivation for using Tri Farm is the ability to centralize producers and customers," she said.

Francis said several upgrades will be added soon, including a messaging system for buyers and producers to chat and an ordering system. Plus, trifarmltd.com will be introducing a feature called "Money Tree" for individual households to sell fruit from trees in and around their yards.

Meanwhile, the company is looking for the right investors to develop this technology beyond the Caribbean. "This is an application, which with the right funding, can change and significantly improve rural livelihoods across the globe," he said.

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About Matt Bokor

Matt Bokor is a freelance writer living in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.