Action 2030 Blog

Youth in China are connecting smallholder farmers to urban markets

In China, city dwellers are finding more opportunities to buy fresh wholesome food directly from rural producers. For example, Xu Xinquan, a farmer in Sanggang Village, Hebei Province drives to Beijing once a month with vehicles loaded with supplies of fresh vegetables, meat and seasonal agricultural products. After the four-hour drive to the capital city, Xu Xinquan and other fellow farmers deliver the produce to customers in several communities within Beijing who have pre-ordered and pre-paid for the food online.

Rapid social and economic development in China has spurred citizens to pay more attention to the type of agricultural products that they are consuming. In this regard, the Nested Market model that links smallholder farmers from Sanggang Village directly to urban customers in Beijing has emerged as a suitable alternative to address this concern.  Customers feel a sense of trust regarding the quality of the food that they are purchasing from Sanggang Village farmers.

This model, as well as many other similar ones in the country, is helping to bridge the gap between smallholder farmers and markets. But one success story does not say it all. The reality is that there are many farmers in remote areas struggling to link up to more sustainable markets that would, in turn, help them improve their livelihoods.

Bringing different parts of the house together

To address this and other gaps in connecting smallholder farmers to urban markets, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme partnered with Tsinghua University to mobilize talented young students through the FAO-Tsinghua established Innovation Lab, AgLabCx. We addressed these connectivity gaps through design thinking and co-creation workshops.

With funding from the “Delivering Together for Sustainable Development Fund”, and additional source of funding from FAO and partners, we implemented the project in three parts. In the first phase, we brought smallholder farmers together with researchers, tech-companies and e-commerce practitioners to brainstorm on problems that need to be addressed, including:  a) trust-building between producers and customers; b) capacity development of smallholder farmers; and c) sharing market information.

Using design thinking to build local solutions

Students conducted a preliminary analysis to identify the gaps hindering smallholders farmers from thriving in the local markets, such as the lack of convenient platforms or toolkits to connect farmers with agronomist experts to help them improve their production, identify pests and how to control them, or to connect them to urban markets. Based on these findings, we organized an eight-week postgraduate service design course under the umbrella of the Innovation Lab. The aim was for Tsinghua students to develop practical solutions that could address connectivity gaps.

At the end of the course, we organized a a co-creation workshop to discuss, analyse and validate four potential solutions that the students came up with. This workshop allowed students to quickly improve and design version 2.0 of their solutions that better reflects the needs of both the farmers and consumers and to emphasize how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) can provide better service for both end users.

Here are the four projects that we selected:


  1. Dingguagua, an online application that sells unmarketable/ugly fruits that would otherwise go to waste just because of their appearance (similar to Misfits Market and Hungry Harvest). The students also added a gaming component to attract young consumers.

  2. Nonghu, a farmer-consumer exchange platform based on participatory guarantee system. The students focused on the Yao Ethnicity Mom’s Guesthouse at Hebian Village, an eco-tourism place in Yunnan Province, and highlighted the importance of evaluating the services provided at the location.

  3. Yunduan, a farmer-technical expert instant communication app for Farmers Field School (FFS). This app will allow the teachers to manage it and incentives will include crowd fundraising and paying to gain access to the experts’ knowledge.

  4. Agriculture heritage, a comprehensive promotion packaging for local agricultural products. The group of students selected a local camellia oil from the Hunan Province (southern China), and proposed to establish a free platform and toolkit to allow farmers to select their packaging materials for their products.


What the future holds for smallholder farmers’ connectivity

We believe that there is an open door full of possibilities for smallholder farmers in China. Private sector companies are interested in these innovative approaches and have expressed a willingness to help reduce poverty in rural areas.

Another example is a follow-up FAO “SDG village” project that focuses on improving farmers’ connectivity and livelihood by harnessing the power of e-commerce and digital finance. This project received $1 million in support from Guangfa Securities, an investment bank in China, and will be piloted in 16 villages in four poverty-stricken areas of China: Hunan, Hubei, Sichuan and Hainan provinces. This project will be implemented in close collaboration with IFAD and WFP to maximize the poverty reduction impact of the project by creating synergies at the local level. It will also explore collaboration opportunities with other  UN agencies such as United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization.

This year, AgLabCx will continue working with Tsinghua postgraduate service design students together with the China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation to harness the talent of young people to solve key agricultural challenges in China. The idea is to see more engagement of young farmer entrepreneurs to spark ideas and more innovative solutions.

For Xu Xinquan, the Sanggang farmer, he’s becoming too old to drive to Beijing monthly and would be willing to explore new solutions that would solve his mobility problem. Such solutions might soon be within reach especially with the support from young farmer entrepreneurs who can expect to continue selling their products in the city while spending less time on the road and increasing incomes.