More than an Urban Market: A wholesome social fabric
Markets – from barter banks to shopping malls – are an ancient tradition that evolved with humans. Thousands of years ago, markets were platforms of exchange, not just of food, but of stories, tales and ancestral knowledge: a potato for some rice, a cloth for some meat, ointments, herbal teas and home remedies for colds. Communities gathered there to share, talk, and why not, close a deal.
In those days, small producers marketed their goods without being subject to the power of multinational companies or an endless number of intermediaries. Today, hypermarkets have created a colossal void between producer and consumer, mass production has industrialized products and the week’s groceries are purchased, increasingly, through a digital screen.
Many ingredients from the world’s gastronomy are easily found at the corner store; however, the markets’ local flavor, as well as the social scene where producer and consumer talked to each other is being lost. Aiming to rescue the best of traditional markets, the City of Knowledge’s Mercado Urbano was born in 2014: a space launched as the opportunity to recover the buying and selling of responsible products -local, healthy and eco-friendly- in a communal environment and under the philosophy of fair trade.
Around 1,300 visitors have joined in the different editions of Mercado Urbano, which has become a monthly meeting point for those seeking alternative ways to enjoy the city. The voices of
participating entrepreneurs have given an account of Mercado Urbano as a bridge connecting the country’s economic development to the construction of a sound social fabric, driven by strong interpersonal relationships, health and respect for the land.
Mercado promotes sustainable agriculture and artisanal production in the country. More than 50 entrepreneurs (55% women, 34% families, 11% men) sell there their organic fruits and vegetables, eggs from ‘happy’ hens, honey, cocoa, oil and natural cosmetics: environmentally conscious products designed for comprehensive health care.
We spoke with five of these entrepreneurs who talked to us about how Mercado Urbano has been a platform to drive their sustainable business ideas.
PLANTA FELIZ – Carlos Juan Vargas @plantafeliz
Agricultural innovation and biotechnology converge in a business idea that transcends the way one fertilizes crops. ‘Planta Feliz’ is a 100% natural fertilizer which provides nutrients to any type of plant, without burning it.
It is a chemical-free product manufactured from the composting of plant material, along with the help of the Californian redworm. The earthworm creates organic material, which, in turn, produces a humus traditionally marketed as a solid. However, ‘Planta Feliz’ decided to enter the market with a liquid formulation produced by their patented machine: Themistocles.
Themistocles’ technology involved several years of research and pilot tests, up until 2013, when it launched onto the market. The product is safe for humans, as well as the environment; it does not deteriorate, nor does it lose its properties over time. It is easy to use, so anyone may water it on their plants and crops without putting at risk their health or their pets’.
Its contribution to the environment is twofold: it reduces the usage of harmful fertilizers and also recycles organic waste that otherwise would go to the local landfill. People who want to contribute to this initiative can deliver their vegetable (eggs, vegetables) and cardboard waste at the La Locería garden center and receive a 20% discount on their purchases at ‘Planta Feliz.’
This deal has been well received and the volume of raw material received is now more than enough for fertilizer production.
‘Planta Feliz’ first started out at the City of Knowledge’s Mercado Urbano, an arena that serves as a springboard to boost entrepreneurship, thus becoming an experimentation laboratory where one receives feedback directly from end users, which in turn ensures the product’s continuous improvement.
‘Planta Feliz’ is now also being sold at retailers such as Novey and Do It Center. They plan on moving to a space that will allow for the development of new products, the expansion of the operation and exporting to other countries in the region and the world.
LO TUYO – Silke Berger @lotuyo_info
Lo Tuyo is reflection of its founder’s ambition, summed up in two words: it means “your health,” “your environment,” “your future.” The Lo Tuyo Society, founded in Germany, encourages environmental education and sustainable agriculture in Panama. There, one finds a house for seminars, accommodation for attendees and a demo garden. From there, courses on art, culture and environmental education are taught to boys and girls, as well as workshops for small producers. In the garden, one may discover a wide range of traditional plants and its uses.
The society has its own product line, also called Lo Tuyo. The company buys, at a fair price and directly from producers, fruits and vegetables cultivated without toxic chemicals from Las Lajas and the surrounding areas. Lo Tuyo then makes fruit and vegetables preserves out of these fresh harvests, combining German quality standards with the authentic flavor of the Panamanian cuisine.
The project started in 2011 and since then, they commercialize jams, jellies, chutneys, hot sauces, different types of flour, dehydrated bananas, among others. Always committed to small-scale producers, they donate fruit trees seedlings from the project’s nursery to farmers for sowing and later on, buy these crops for its transformation and commercialization.
Lo Tuyo’s main goal is to increase awareness of healthy foods that are respectful of the environment, as well as to contribute to expand knowledge on proper land usage: worldwide, there are about 75,000 edible plants, but the vast majority of foods we eat come from very few species.
Their only distribution channel in Panama is Mercado Urbano, in addition to direct sales in Las Lajas and some fairs they organize themselves, where the farmers have a stall to sell their fresh products. Since day one, Mercado Urbano helped them build a personal relationship with customers, allowing them to receive direct and immediate feedback, which facilitated the birth of new ideas.
RÍO DE JESÚS FARM – Migdalia Woo @finca_rio_de_jesus_
At eight kilometers from the Anton Valley, is nestled a farm with rather cool weather and plenty of vegetation: the Río of Jesus farm. It is named after the river that runs through the entire area, filling it with life. Organic produce like bananas, watercress, leeks, peppermint and mint are all cultivated at the farm, working with people from the community, always taking care of the land. Much more than farm workers, they’ve become friends.
At the farm, they engage in a process of recognizing the value of the seeds and respecting native crops, since they support planting species that ‘flow’ naturally in the farming space. They are unique in that they’ve chosen to cultivate species that have been uncommon in the last decade, but that are, on the other hand, indigenous to Panamanian land, such as cocoa or the “Chinese” banana (plátano chino).
Harvests are commercialized at Mercado Urbano; where they’ve established a whole array of valuable, positive interpersonal relationships, since the farm trades with other farmers from the area to collaborate mutually into a win-win situation for all involved in the production process.
In addition to being a networking scene, Mercado Urbano was the first platform the farm employed to sell produce. Mercado’s format facilitates continuous learning and collective creation, since it has allowed its participants to form a tightly bonded relationship, letting customers know that the products are carefully produced, keeping the planet and the communities in mind.
Each crop has a history. Finca Río de Jesús dreams of, someday, becoming a botanical garden, where people may learn from the area’s fauna and plant life, enjoy and appreciate nature, and engage in sustainable tourism.
RED JASPE FARM – Carlos Celis @redjasper_lapalaconsciente
The Red Jaspe Estate is a ‘mixed farming’ project that mainly produces coffee, but also dehydrated fruits, spices and medicinal herbs. The name comes from the high concentration of red jasper found at the farm; whose color also resembles ripe coffee berries.
They also sell seedlings and topsoil compost produced in their garden center out of the farm’s organic matter. In addition, they produce raw ingredients for seasonal fruit beverages depending on harvests; as well as carimañolas (a traditional yuca fritter, stuffed with meat) and vegan burgers, made out of banana and carrot.
The ideas for the products sold today were born at Mercado Urbano – since it was there that Red Jaspe found focus for their business idea. They first product was the vegan burger, made out of their own farm crops, which ensures quality control from sowing to final delivery.
Slowly they began marketing other products, such as medicinal herbs. Aware of the disappearance of ancestral crops, they’ve set out to rescue the regional elders’ wisdom, perpetuating millennial medicine through the commercialization of these herbs.
Red Jaspe’s definition of farming implies natural agriculture, that is, without much human intervention. The plants grow on their own and require minimum care. Five different farmers, with good agricultural practices, support the production of raw materials that the farm doesn’t cultivate on its own – which helps create jobs in surrounding communities.
Mercado Urbano is the farm’s main distribution channel, but a few merchants also sell Red Jaspe’s products in their establishments.
In the medium term, the farm’s objective is to widen its network and thus be able to commercialize its products in kiosks and other local platforms for larger scale distribution.
The entrepreneurs behind Red Jaspe claim Mercado Urbano has evolved to become, not only on a platform to boost business ideas, but also a space for exchanging experiences. The idea of competition, as we know it, changes; “customer” and “consumer” become neighbors in a collaborative community that generates mutual learning and multiple alliances.
PORTO VIEJO’S HOMEMADE – Aracelly Suñé de Ortiz @porto_viejos_homeade
Porto Viejo’s Homemade is a family business established in Puerto Armuelles (Chiriquí) that manufactures sweet and salty confections: coriander (culantro) pesto, spicy pickled onions, paprika and piña colada jams, as well as green mango and nance (byrsonima crassifolia) preserves.
Besides wholesome, the products are also 100% handmade. They start their production process by selecting the best produce, which are then cut by hand in standardized measurements. All processing, packaging and labeling is done at home.
In just four years of business, they’ve already expanded their product portfolio: initially, they commercialized just five products and today, they have 31. For Porto Viejo, Mercado Urbano is a collaborative platform where they are able to connect with other producers who might become suppliers of some of their raw material. In the future, they hope to continue exploring with flavors and textures to offer greater options to their customers.