Geraldton Bulk Wholefoods – a local case study

Social Innovation can happen at any scale, but frequently starts with a bunch of people getting together to meet a shared need.

In Geraldton, the desire to purchase organic and wholefoods in larger quanitities had lead to the creation of a replicable co-operative purchasing model. There are now three ten-family buying groups that meet the needs of people in the community wanting to eat healthier, eat more organic and sustainable food, and access speciality products in larger quantities.

How does it work?

There are two local stores that supply wholefoods such as nuts, dried fruits, organic flour, but for many items they only supply small quantities i.e. less than 1kg. There is a Perth-based businesses (e.g. Kakulas Brothers) that supply such foods in bulk, but no local store. So the members of the wholefoods cooperative collate and place a large order to a few suppliers every 6 weeks. The goods are then either picked up by a member of the cooperative from Perth, or delivered by a local freight company. As the quantities are the aggregation of ten people’s orders, they are then re-packaged in Geraldton and picked up from a central location.

GoogleDocs Wholefoods Collator

Screenshot of the GoogleDocs-based Wholefoods ordering and banking system

Who’s the entrepreneur?

The initiators were some healthy, active local women with families, and expanded through their personal networks to include an initial nine people. The decision was made to cap the first group at ten members, to test the model first. With a little help on the set-up of the GoogleDocs collator, the model definitely worked. And there was such demand from friends of the initial ten, that 6 months after it started two more groups of ten were formed. The participants within the next two groups are not all known to each other, but were trained in the key roles, have built trust and successfully been operating ever since.

Some members of the first Geraldton Wholefoods Coop

What makes it a social innovation?

The structure, although not formalised, is a cooperative. Socially it has built stronger networks, increased Web 2.0 literacy amongst the group, has spun off several new ideas and projects (e.g. a local flour mill, toy-sharing project). Ecologically there is reduced packaging, easier access to organic and biodynamic products, and some of the members are able to live almost exclusively on a diet of these wholefoods and vegetables from the Farmer’s Market.

In terms of its operations, costs, roles and resources that are shared amongst the group. Each group has an orderer, banker, distributor, and each has their own online tool for collating orders and bank account with the local bank to make payments. No-one makes a profit, no-one gets paid, almost everyone has to actively participate, people share information about what products are good or bad, and everyone gets what they want (even chocolate coated ginger makes it on to some people’s orders ; )).

What next?

The Wholefoods co-operative has grown quite organically, but systems and practices have been created which lend themselves to scaling-up and replication e.g. the online order collation system. Currently the three groups are in communication and share tips, but do not coordinate the timing of their orders.

The scaling-up would probably continue organically, but is likely to reach some kind of natural limit. That limit would be the point at which the local wholefoods retailers decided there was a large enough market to be offering bulk wholefoods themselves, or the point at which the Perth-based suppliers decided that it was perhaps too much hassle to be frequently collating and sending orders to Geraldton. However the healthfood shops are unlikely to be able to order the same customised ordering, or social experience.

There are a few interesting asides though:

  • between the wholefoods co-op and the farmer’s market, some people are able to meet 80% of their nutritional needs without visiting a traditional supermarket

  • the success of the wholefoods co-op shows the demand and potential distribution channels for some products e.g. locally-grown and milled flour, community-supported agriculture

  • there is a sort of social network and ‘club’ sense to the whole venture. Without that sense of community, face-to-face connection and trust (and patience with the bugs in the ordering system), this venture might not work so well.

  • one person in the group had been planning to open a local wholefoods store, and some advocated for a single central location for distribution, but the current model has many advantages over those more centralised and administration-heavy  models.

Examples elsewhere?

This model is surely replicated around the world, and is the same idea that probably got most of the farmer’s cooperatives in WA started. At the same time, the whole process is certainly made quicker by the use of online and Web 2.0 collaborative software.

Bulk wholefoods retailers are popular in the US and Canada, and Wholefoods Market is one of the classic ‘sustainable’ businesses (although not a cooperative, and certainly very profitable).

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