E-commerce is getting more popular among Chinese farmers, but they have sold far less online than they bought. In 2019, online retail sales in rural areas reached about RMB 1.7tn while the number for agricultural products was only around RMB 400bn. The reasons are multiple, from inadequate infrastructure for internet access and logistics, to farmers’ lack of data on production and sales that could be used to tell them what to produce and how to sell.
Recently, a new platform via WeChat mini program, Thousands of Farmers, made the headlines for helping farms trade produce online more effectively, while consumers have fun buying their fresh fruits and vegetables, even seafood. Connecting mid-sized and large farms with consumers, the platform lets users buy directly from producers; or, as “virtual farmers,” subscribe for produce – usually seasonal – from partner farms to enjoy the fruits of the harvest, literally.
Since its official launch in November 2020, around 1,000 virtual farmers and dozens of farms, offering products ranging from tea leaves and fruit to seafood, have been using Thousands of Farmers. In January 2021, Linqian Tech, the operator behind the platform, bagged a 7-digit-RMB seed funding round from Winning (Shanghai) Investment Management.
“China has a trillion-RMB agricultural market, and agricultural e-commerce still presents an uncontested, growing space,” Thousands of Farmers founder Chen Daoyong said.
There are about 3,000 agricultural product-focused e-commerce platforms in the space. The country’s biggest e-commerce marketplaces, Pinduoduo and Taobao, are also aggressively expanding in this segment. Pinduoduo alone sold RMB 136bn worth of farm produce in 2019 and aims to increase the number to RMB 1tn by 2025.
Community + IoT, 5G and VR
Chen was born in a remote village in Anhui province. His date-farming parents could harvest about 500 kg of the fruit every year, which helped the family earn a decent income. In recent years, more locals have been attracted to the market, leading to oversupply and price competition. Many farmers, including Cen’s parents, ran into difficulty selling their dates.
To help more farmers likewise affected, Thousands of Farmers came up with a model inspired by the traditional concept of community-supported agriculture (CSA), whereby consumers purchase shares of a farm's harvest in advance. According to Chen, the subscription model is what the platform focuses on currently.
Thousands of Farmers’s adoption of new technologies like IoT, 5G and VR adds a fresh, entertaining appeal to the CSA experience. Using the platform, consumers can virtually tour the farm where the subscribed produce grows or watch the farm at any time through video live streaming. They are able to know everything about the product, its harvest date and quality inspection report via the big data system.
It usually takes a year for the consumers to get the produce they subscribed and paid for. Receiving payment much earlier helps farms manage their cashflow. Subscribers, meanwhile, can not only have a taste of ultra-fresh produce but also get more involved in the process as the produce is grown.
This year, in June, Thousands of Farmers will invite 100 virtual farmers to a blueberry farm to pick the fruit and subscribe to future harvests from certain bushes. Moreover, the subscribed produce could be nice gifts for friends when given as a box of fruit marked, “From So-and-so’s orchard.”
Urban folks, farming dreams
Users can, of course, make direct purchases via Thousands of Farmers. Further, it attracts consumers to the platform by promising to share the profit generated by it. “We can help city dwellers realize the dream of owning a farm and selling produce,” Chen, the startup founder, said.
After buying RMB 399 worth of produce or more on Thousands of Farmers, a user can apply to become a virtual farmer and enjoy the special offers made available from time to time. The virtual farmers are encouraged to share links to sale produce on WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media and messaging app with about 1bn active users. They get an 8–12% commission and are awarded virtual gold beans on each sale that can be used to buy products on the platform. The platform has promised to use 80% of its profit as a reward for the virtual farmers based on the gold beans they’ve earned on a weekly basis.
There is no need for virtual farmers to have their own stock or worry about marketing and after-sales service, which is taken care of by Thousands of Farmers. For instance, the platform provides marketing materials including promotional articles, short videos and posters for virtual farmers, making it convenient for them to share content with their contacts on WeChat.
Real farmers from selected participating farms can get more than just selling produce via the platform. After paying an annual fee of RMB 2,000, these partner farms are provided with IoT devices such as sensors and monitoring systems, all of which go into building Thousands of Farmers’s big data platform that’s integrated with a traceability system. Offering such technical service also creates an additional revenue stream for the startup.
With the fresh funding, Thousands of Farmers will accelerate its product development, talent hiring and market expansion. In order to attract more young users, Thousands of Farmers will place more focus on the social networking feature of the platform by developing games to enable users to trade farm produce in virtual scenarios.