By Suzanna Lourie | Special to The Tico Times
SANTA TERESA – It’s a scary statistic, but according to the World Resource Institute, Costa Rica uses more pesticides in agriculture than any other country in the world. It’s also surprising, as this data sharply contrasts with Costa Rica’s worldwide image as leader in sustainability and green practices.
Despite the overwhelming numbers, one small company in Santa Teresa – the Barefoot Social Commerce Group – is poised to make big changes to benefit Costa Rica’s sustainable farming sector.
In early June, Barefoot founder Andreas Schmidt and his team will launch the company’s new Local Food Network, an online service that aims to change the way Costa Rican residents eat by connecting consumers directly to organic farmers across the country.
“You start from the ground up,” Schmidt said of the Barefoot business model. “You find one person who wants healthy food and one farmer who can grow it sustainably and organically. That’s the solution.”
The Local Food Network, an online order and delivery service for pesticide-free produce, can be found at OrganicFood.CR, where customers can select desired fruits, veggies and herbs, and then sign up for a delivery – either short-term or for a three-month growing season.
Then, Schmidt asks customers to have patience while a local farmer grows the food. When it’s ready, Barefoot delivers a fresh batch of healthy produce in what many in the U.S. would call a farm box. It will come straight to the door, he says.
“The great thing is, there is plenty of organic food and many small farms in Costa Rica; the only problem was they had no distribution system to get their food to the marketplace,” Schmidt said.
With an increasing demand for healthy food in Costa Rica, Barefoot’s new Local Food Network is just one piece of the bigger mission to build the infrastructure for organic food distribution across the country.
When the website launches in June, Barefoot will also open Costa Rica’s first distribution center for organic produce in Guachipelín, a suburb southwest of San José, near Escazú. According to the company’s Facebook page, the distribution center, which also will double as an organic market, will be located 800 meters from the Mall Multiplaza near Blue Valley School. That’s where all the food from farms across Costa Rica will be brought together before being distributed to customers around the country.
“Something like this doesn’t exist anywhere in the world, let alone Costa Rica right now,” Schmidt explained. “Once the news is out, we expect a lot more demand, restaurants and hotels will be a big part of it, and with the distribution center, we will be able to grow and ship more food to meet this demand.”
The concept might sound simple enough, but getting to this point was no easy task. In a country dominated by large, industrialized mono-crops with only 2 percent of its designated agricultural land certified for organic production, finding the right farmers took months of research and plenty of trial and error.
For Schmidt, former CEO of AOL Europe and investor in online music service Napster, the Barefoot journey began five years ago when he first visited Costa Rica.
“After Napster failed because it lost its legal battles against the music industry, I was tired,” Schmidt recalled. “After 25 years of working hard, I took a break and sailed across the world.”
Things changed after a stop in Drake Bay, where Schmidt met his now wife, a Costa Rican who had been managing an Osa Peninsula eco-resort in the jungle. The pair continued sailing for two more years, but eventually decided to settle in Costa Rica.
“It was so difficult to find any fresh or organic food in the Nicoya Peninsula, so we developed the Barefoot idea as a system that can help to bring change to one of the biggest problems we all face: healthy food that doesn’t make us sick and doesn’t destroy the planet,” he said.
With a clear goal and a helpful background in social enterprise – a business model focused on doing common good instead of maximizing profit – Schmidt and his wife started Barefoot on a small scale in 2011.
Traveling around Costa Rica in previous years, Schmidt was inspired meeting many local farmers who wanted to get their food into stores. The only problem was, there was no distribution system for organic food in Costa Rica.
Setting out to change that, Schmidt retraced his steps in 2011, but finding the farmers, checking the production and organizing transport and distribution took “a very long time.”
In the first six months, Barefoot tested its Organic Box Program – the backbone of the company. The program pioneered the infrastructure for an organic distribution system in Costa Rica, helping more than 1,500 small farmers ship boxes of chemical-free fruits and veggies to consumers.
In 2012, Schmidt and a small team opened the Barefoot Gourmet Store in Santa Teresa, on the southern Nicoya Peninsula, which served as a platform to learn more about what customers want and how to best sell organic food.
After two years of hard work, Barefoot stands ready to begin the exciting new phase of connecting consumers to farmers with the Local Food Network and National Distribution Center this June.
“It is a process where you learn every day and are challenged every day,” Schmidt said. “But, we have a great team of engaged and dedicated people that share our vision, so we hope our idea to build local food networks that connect people and farmers will help bring needed change to Costa Rica and serve all of us for a better, sustainable future.”
In five more years, Schmidt also hopes the Barefoot model’s success will spread to other countries and inspire change.
“We hope to see local food networks all over the world that bring people and farmers together and create vibrant local food economies,” he said.
“That is the beauty and power of our idea: With every salad, every grain of rice that someone orders from a local farm, they will have a huge, direct impact. It’s good for them, it’s good for the farmers and it’s good for the planet.”