Farmville comes to real life - on a plot of land near you

Alibaba's group-buying website Juhuasuan lets urban users contract farmers to grow selected vegetables on spare plots of land and ship them back to them

Neelima Mahajan

[Photograph by Liz West under Creative Commons]

Remember Farmville? That little virtual farming game Zynga introduced on Facebook a few years ago. I was hooked to it for a brief while a couple of years ago. The more I played the game, the more demands it made of me. I would suddenly remember at 10pm even as I would be winding down from a long work day that I had to water my virtual cabbages or carrots or whatever it is that I had planted. Another couple of hours without water and they would die - and I would lose my precious virtual crop, and my precious virtual Farmville money. So I would drop everything, and do that first.

Soon the stress of being a virtual farmer watering plants in the middle of the night got to me. Better sense prevailed, and I logged out of Farmville - permanently.

So it was with much interest I read this news story recently. It talked of Juhuasuan, an Alibaba-owned group buying website that allows users to grow their own vegetables in a manner somewhat similar to Farmville. Only in exchange for your efforts, you get real carrots, real radishes, real bok choy or whatever else you have been growing.

Here’s how it works. There are farmers across China’s vast countryside who have swatches of farmland that are not being fully used. The reasons can be many, such as lack of local demand. Juhuasuan takes this land on lease and ‘rents’ it out online as plots to urban dwellers like you and me. The land is then managed by farm cooperatives and the city slickers who have 'rented' the land recommend what vegetables they would like grown, pretty much like we did in Farmville. The produce, when ripe, is shipped to these 'subscribers' so to say, once every two weeks.

This experiment was launched in March 2014 and according to China Daily, 3,500 city dwellers signed up in the first three days, and 9,000 by the end of the year. A total of 666,660 square metres of land was leased out by farmers under this arrangement.

Renting a 66.6 square metre plot for a year apparently costs roughly Renminbi (RMB) 580, a 333 square metre plot costs RMB 2,400, and a 666 square metre plot costs RMB 4,800. Farmers get paid in two ways: they earn between RMB 700-800 a year for leasing out the land. And they get paid extra for taking care of the land and growing produce. When they work in a cooperative and when they work for a site like Juhuasuan, I would assume that there would be some quality control standards in place.

The experiment is still small, but apparently it is growing. It’s still early to say how it will shape up in the future, and I don’t know anyone who is part of it so I definitely can’t vouch for it. However, at a conceptual level, it is a brilliant business idea. For one, it helps individuals - farmers in this case - sweat their idle assets. Think of all the parcels of land that lie fallow all over India just because it is uneconomical for an individual to till that land. Or because the individual farmer sees little demand for farm produce in his vicinity.

Two, Alibaba's group buying site Juhuasuan has stepped in as a technological intermediary - to put it crudely, it is like the Airbnb or the Uber of the farming community in China. At the end of the day, it is nothing but a technology platform that is helping those with idle land resources connect with those with a latent need for fresh vegetables. In the process of connecting farmers with consumers, it is helping farmers by giving them access to vast swathes of a market that is otherwise out of reach for them. They also make an extra buck in the process. Juhuasuan is, in essence, doing for the farming community what Alibaba's e-commerce platform Taobao did in terms of developing entrepreneurs in small-town China.

Three, China is much like the developed world where people are increasingly starting to question where their food comes from, and whether it is safe for consumption. More and more people head for the organic produce section in supermarkets. When a consumer is somehow part of the production process - as is the case in the Juhuasuan experiment - the likelihood of trusting your food source increases.

And four, there are people who are like I was five years ago, who love the thrill of growing their own food, albeit virtually.

So for all the green thumbs out there, this is a brilliant way to grow your own food without getting your hands dirty.

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Comments

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Bhuvan thaker on Apr 05, 2016 11:11 a.m. said

A startup is doing this in Karnataka.

Arun Rajasingh on Jul 03, 2015 3:31 p.m. said

I think that China Daily could be wrong. I found on the internet that this project was launched in 2010. Everything is in Chinese. And its not even a focused website. What do you think?

About the author

Neelima Mahajan
Neelima Mahajan

Senior Journalist

Beijing

When I landed in Beijing in 2012, I gave myself six months to either survive China or let it overwhelm me. I hadn’t been here before, yet I jumped at the opportunity to head the management publication of a leading Chinese business school with decidedly global ambitions. I was, after all, intrigued by the question: "What makes Chinese companies tick?"

Settling in wasn't easy with challenges ranging from language and food to biting cold winters and Beijing's infamous smog.

Before I knew it, the six months had become three years. While my decade-long experience in India, with publications like Businessworld, The Times of India and Forbes India, familiarized me with how Indian companies behave and view opportunity, my China stint gave me a completely different worldview. If anything, these three years here have challenged my preconceived notions about the Middle Kingdom.

For instance, the popular perception outside of China is that the state is dominant in the business sector here. I found, much to my surprise, that it is not true. If anything, China’s growth miracle owes its success to private enterprises. And Chinese entrepreneurs go through the same trials and travails as their counterparts elsewhere. So what makes them so successful? How is it that Alibaba’s Jack Ma has built a $251 billion enterprise in just 15 years? How did Pony Ma at Tencent lead his company to such a mammoth scale? I can’t say with certainty that I have fully cracked that question yet, but in my observations so far, a couple of things stand out: thinking big, relentless drive, tenacity , a difference in the way they view and crack opportunities, and loads and loads of spunk.

The other popular notion about China is that Chinese companies are simply clones of their Western counterparts. Once again, it is not entirely true. I have visited both the Google headquarters in Silicon Valley and Baidu’s headquarters in Beijing, and I can say with certainty that Baidu is not a copy of Google.

A third notion that I have seen crumble before my eyes is that China is all about cheap, low-quality products. While I don’t deny that there are cheap, fake products proliferating the market, I would urge you to look at the other side: Chinese companies that are leading the game in innovation. Walk into the innovation center of a Lenovo or a Haier, and you’ll know what I am talking about.

I have an avid interest in multinational company strategy as well as the so-called 'emerging giants'. It is fascinating to see how MNCs are navigating their way around this hard-to-ignore country and also how homegrown giants like Lenovo, Huawei, Alibaba, Baidu and Haier are approaching global markets.

I also have a keen interest in management thought. I have interviewed thought leaders like C.K. Prahalad, Michael Porter, Philip Kotler, Clayton Christensen, Henry Mintzberg, Henry Chesbrough, Marshall Goldsmith and Gary Hamel, and Nobel Prize winners John Nash and Amartya Sen.

Before coming to China, I was an International Visiting Scholar at the University of California Berkeley. There, I explored how publications need to evolve with changes in technology and reader habits, and business journalism in Silicon Valley. I was awarded a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fellowship as part of the Africa Reporting Project to write about coffee and climate change in Uganda, Africa.

In 2010, I received the Polestar Award for Excellence in IT and Business Journalism. I have researched and edited two books: Leading with Conviction (Jossey-Bass) by Shalom Saada Saar and Michael Hargrove, and Culture of the Sepulchre (Penguin India) by Madanjeet Singh. The second book is closely linked to my family’s personal history in East Africa.

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