• This report is the first of a series being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region
DUBAI: Jordan’s agriculture sector could be transformed by a local business-to-business start-up. Ghoorcom, which launched its services in January 2018, promises to swell farmers’ income and improve the quality of produce in shops.
Its premise is ingeniously simple: With the help of technology, it eliminates the middleman and enables Jordan’s smallholders to sell directly to retailers, hotels and restaurants. That means higher prices for growers, lower prices for buyers and a more efficient distribution model; currently, goods transportation is often unreliable and can lead to spoiled produce.
“Small farmers face lots of difficulties,” explained founder and chief executive Mohammad Oqeili. “There are many struggles that need to be solved. We first enabled a few transactions between farmers and retailers offline, also taking care of logistics, payment and quality assurance. Now we’ve built a platform to do the same online.”
The company, which began testing its platform in June 2016, has ambitions to become a regional agricultural platform, said 28-year-old Oqeili, citing China’s Alibaba as his inspiration. Major source and destination markets will likely include Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Our vision is to expand across the Middle East. Our mission is to connect with farmers and help solve their problems. Then we go to potential buyers.”
For now, Ghoorcom’s main destination markets are Amman and Irbid, with buyers segmented by their size and geographical location.
“It’s a very challenging process to convince retailers to buy from us. They worry about our commitment — they want reliable, fresh, quality supplies,” said Oqeili.
Already about 200 farmers have signed up to the platform, which began by focusing on oranges and now sells seasonal produce.
“We match farmers with retailers. Each season produces different types of crops — in winter it’s citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, while summer produces watermelon and grapes.”
Ghoorcom is partnering with an IT company to build a blockchain system to ensure product quality. The system will verify the quality of the produce by adding a code to every box of both vegetable and fruits. This code incorporates various details on the produce including seed type, soil type and country of production.
Ghoorcom’s various features should help farmers reduce their reliance on intermediaries.
“The big issue with middlemen relates to micro-financing,” said Oqeili. “Some middlemen lend farmers money to grow their produce at a high interest rate. This sometimes creates unfair trade terms for farmers who are restricted to growing specific types of products for the middleman.
“Late payments are another huge problem for small farmers — we’ve reduced the payment period so that farmers using our platform are paid on time.”
Oqeili’s grandparents were agricultural workers and he knew from a young age that he too wanted a career in the sector. He has a degree in accounting and finance, plus a masters’ degree in agricultural economics from the University of Birmingham in Britain.
On returning home from his studies, he worked full-time as a business development manager, creating Ghoorcom in his spare time. The company, which has a staff of six, participated in a six-month, EU-funded start-up incubator in 2017.
Currently, Ghoorcom is self-funded, having turned down potential investors, although Oqeili is keen to find the correct partner to help the business to grow.
“I’m seeking a visionary investor who believes in helping farmers, who believes in social enterprise as well as in creating a successful, profit-driven business,” Oqeili said.
“Someone who believes in our capability to add value to the market. I’m very willing to collaborate with investors who can support us in achieving our vision.”