Become a Farmer! Community-Shared Agriculture Platform

As Greeks struggle to adapt to a protracted period of harsh austerity, new initiatives have emerged that break with existing economic and social practices and offer new models of organizing the way we provide for and take care of our selves. One of the most interesting of these initiatives comes from the tradition of community-shared agriculture (CSA), in which individuals pre-book a share of the weekly harvest of small farmers. Although CSA’s have existed in Japan, North America and Western Europe for decades, Gine Agrotis (Become a Farmer!), which began operating in Greece in March 2012,  is something  new for Greece.

Home page of the (Gine Agrotis) “Become a Farmer” website

The idea behind Gine Agrotis is relatively simple. Register with the platform and book a field on one of the certified organic farms that belong to the service’s network. You decide how much land to reserve; there are two-, three- and four-person packages available, at a cost ranging from €14.20 to €20.90 per week. In contrast to many other CSAs, you also decide what vegetables you want “your” farmer to plant for you, selecting from a list of vegetables that can be seasonally grown. You prepay for a year’s worth of the harvest from your plot. About 30 to 90 days after the agreement has been made, your first weekly shipments of the vegetables from your plot start being delivered to your home or office.

The initiative is based on an innovative and disruptive business model that leverages the potential of a social networking platform to connect local  farmers, in large part young farmers, directly with consumers. Cutting out the middlemen means better prices for both consumer and farmer. Farmers are freed from distribution concerns and associated costs (they also benefit from lower fees for inspection that Gine Agrotis has secured for them in the context of the QWays ISO Certification system for organic farming, to which all the network’s farmers are committed to applying.) Subscribers are guaranteed organically grown food that is fresher than what they would probably find anywhere in the city and at lower cost.

As Gine Agrotis suggests, food is political. What and how we eat reflects positions we have taken on a range of social, health and environmental issues. In this light “becoming a farmer” can usher in other changes in the way its subscribers live. One involves trading in winter strawberries and fall asparagus for local seasonal produce with a decidedly smaller carbon footprint. The platform also ties its urban consumers more directly to the process by which their food is grown. Subscribers can visit their fields and receive regular posts with photos showing the progress of the crops in their field (apparently there’s also an idea of providing live video streaming from the field).

Gine Agrotis was founded by Dimitris Koutsolioutsos, a 26-year-old graduate of the Athens University of Economics and Business and son of the businessman who started the enormously successful Greek-based international luxury goods manufacturer, Folie-Folie. Koutsolioutsos rightly sees this initiative as an attempt to “break the market”, and a way to offer “a better quality of life to the city’s residents.”

Healthful eating is naturally part of this better quality of living. I am fairly certain that most subscribers wind up eating a greater quantity of fresh vegetables as part of their diet. And at times, such as those occasioned by a bumper crop of zucchini, in ever more creative ways.

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Lasagna Chips (Marcitos) from Chiotiko Kellari

These addictively delicious chips from the island of Chios are the Greek answer to the nacho. The marcitos are made from cut sheets of wheat-and-potato lasagne, flavored with things like spinach and dill, rocket or paprika, and fried in olive oil. The lightly salted chips are a bit thicker than a nacho and are sturdy enough to hold up to a dip of fava beans or chunky aubergine salad. Interestingly enough, they bear, if in description only, an uncanny resemblance to what is described in a 1st century CE recipe for lagana: sheets of dough made of wheat flour that is flavored, not with rocket but with lettuce (juice), and, once spiced, fried in oil.

Marcitos — lasagna chips from Chiotiko Kellari (the Chios Pantry), photo from enet.gr

No chip is particularly healthful food, but for a chip, the marcitos, which is preservative- and additive-free, does very well, thanks to the olive oil (50 grams comes in with only 1.2g of saturated fat). Though there’s clearly a market for an alternative, natural-ingredient Greek “nacho”, the chips haven’t been discovered yet to the degree they deserve to be. The distribution network for this hand-manufactured product, produced by the Hiotiko Kellari (the Chios Pantry), is still quite small. But I expect that will change soon.

The Kellari was created by Nikos Konstantoulakis in Vessa, his birthplace and one of the mastikohoria in Chios, a complex of largely medieval villages renowned for the production of mastic, the aromatic resin from the tree of the same name that was known in antiquity as a chewing gum and is now used to flavor pastries, liqueurs, traditional Easter egg-breads and the renowned Greek ice cream kaimaki. Konstantoulakis left the village as a young man, traversing a professional arc that included a cook’s apprenticeship at sea, years of experience working with Athens hotels and caterers, and a stint at a small Corinth factory that produced pasta, before returning to Chios in 1999 to work, again as a chef, at various hotels on the island. In 2009 in a landmark building in his home village, he opened the Hiotiko Kellari, where he turned out and sold artisanal pasta that drew on traditional ingredients but in a decidedly original way: chick-pea or carob or whole-wheat flour could serve as a base for casarecce (striftari) or tagliatelle flavored with nettles or tender artichoke leaves or rocket.

The subsequent success of the Kellari reads like an entrepreneurial fairy tale. Konstantoulakis sends samples of his products to a widely read food journalist, who encourages him to move ahead with his plans to expand distribution of his products beyond the island. His products are gradually placed in a few of the city’s gourmet delicatessens and begin to receive some good press. The big break comes when one of the food emporiums, the Mediterranean Food Shop (To Παντοπωλείον της Μεσογειακής Διατροφής), organizes a live cook-in with a well-known Athens chef, who makes a dish with his carob-flour pasta. More write-ups and awards followed, including a listing in the highly esteemed annual “Gourmet Awards” put out by an Athens food magazine. And then the lasagne chips came out, once again to general acclaim. The rest isn’t exactly history—but it may be soon.

I am indebted to Elina Giannalopoulou’s article in the Ethnos for information on the history of the Chiotiko Kellari. 

Ourania Mouseti’s Fig Honey

Fig syrup or συκόμελο (miele di ficchi in Italian) is a product waiting in the wings to be discovered. It’s got a lot going for it. It’s as pure and natural as products get—just figs and water. The syrupy nectar is not honey at all, but rather the reduction of the liquid in which figs have been boiled. The raw material—the figs cultivated in the Taxiarchis area of the island of Northern Evia—are of high quality (the region’s dried figs have been recognized as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product by the EU). And it’s mythically delicious.

Ourania Mouseti's fig honey
Ourania Mouseti’s fig honey

Fig honey is still very much an artisanal product in Greece, put out, as far as I could discover, by only one local micro-producer, Ourania Mouseti (though obviously households through rural Greece make their own fig honey). Although the product could probably benefit from the kind of award-winning food-packaging design done by such Greek firms as Red Dot, mousegraphics and K2, there’s an element of charm in the fact that the fig honey is hand-bottled and sealed with a wax-coated cork, and the label for the expiration date is filled out by hand. But I’m not sure how well that can scale.

It’s not likely to make it to the big-time gastronomic Broadway that Greek feta, yoghurt and (to a lesser extent) olive oil have managed to break into, but the product has potential. Granted, it’s very much a niche product, but the niche is already there: cooks both professional and amateur, food enthusiasts, and health-conscious consumers on the lookout for natural sweeteners, the same people who drove the market for things like balsamic vinegar glaze and grape-must syrup. This honey-like concentrated essence of figs has numerous applications in the kitchen—in vinaigrettes, barbecue sauces and marinades, or a glaze for roast meats or a topping for custards, yoghurt and ice cream, drizzled over ricotta or used as a finishing element for sauces and an ingredient in cookies (as is the case in Italy).

And this market is still relatively competitor-free. Although fig syrup from Provence and Italy is available in delicatessens and online, in the great majority of cases the product has such added ingredients as sugar, spices and other flavoring. That said, there are a number of Italian firms that produce true fig honey. But why not a land like Greece that’s renowned for its figs? Unfortunately, Mouseti’s fig honey still has a very limited production run and a tiny distribution market. I managed to find mine at the Mediterranean Food Store (Το Παντοπωλείο της Μεσογειακής Διατροφής, Sofokleous 1, 210 3628738) but nowhere else in Athens.

I can only conjecture why this is so. Private venture capital in Greece is tight, and official state incentives even more so. Credit for investments from Greek banks has all but dried up, though this may change in the near future if the recapitalization of Greek banks proceeds as hoped. Another reason may be the actual return on investment. It takes a lot of figs to make this syrup (count on at least 1.5k of fruit for 220 g. of syrup), and it simply may not make sense to expand production for the honey when better margins are to be made in dried figs, jams, and fig paste. Though with the appropriate marketing and packaging, the product could command a price high enough for the producer to recover costs and earn a modest profit. After all, this fig honey is pure ambrosia, and who wouldn’t pay a bit extra for the food of gods!

Dopios: Community Travel Marketplace

A city is more than a built environment, more than the architecture, monuments and museums, the bars and cafés that one can find described in travel guides (and in cases like TripAdvisor, supplemented with helpful crowd-sourced ratings). A city is also the people who live there and their stories. It is a vast collective depository of lore and legend and a reservoir of insiders’ knowledge that would take months if not years of living in the city to acquire. Admittedly, guide books do contain such insider tips and their writers make an effort to recommend things to do, see and eat that are off the beaten track. But what you wind up with is a thousand different keys to the city, whereas it might be ideal to hook up with knowledgeable locals who their own set of keys to the city to unlock the kind of experience you’re looking for.

The home page of the Dopios website
The home page of the Dopios website

Dopios (ντόπιος), which means ‘local’ in Greek, is an online platform that does just that. It connects visitors with locals who are willing to share their knowledge of the city—or rather, the particular version of the city they experience—with travelers. In the words of the firm’s founders, this open-market model seeks to “open up every last square mile of this world to be safe, unique and breathtaking to step onto.” The word unique is deliberate: Dopios’ directory of locals are not tour guides but instead enthusiasts of one sort or another. They could be cyclists or sailors,  foragers of wild greens or collectors of handicrafts, denizens of underground clubs or upscale cocktail bars, gallery hounds and neighborhood historians.

The service is fairly straightforward. Both locals and visitors register with Dopios to use the service (though you can browse the listings without logging in). You’re encouraged to link your Dopios profile with your Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts as a way of enhancing your credibility and trustworthiness. Considering the traveler might be going out on a bar crawl or to someone’s house for dinner, the safety factor is understandably important. Locals are also encouraged to be interviewed by a member or associate of the Dopios network to have their identity verified, and the Dopios team is developing more ways to provide the early adopters of the platform with a sense of security and trust. Obviously, the more travelers a local has worked with—and thus, the greater the number of ratings he or she has received—the more information a traveler has to evaluate the service being offered.

Locals describe and post the experience they’re offering and the price. Recent entries in the directory include a stroll to the studios of local craftsmen, a motorcycle excursion to the hills outside Athens, an afternoon of personal shopping, and a sail to the island of Evia. Ah, yes, and a home-cooked meal. Locals can also list their availability to provide general advice about Athens, help on planning the trip and mobile support while the traveler is in the city.  Visitors browse through the listings to find an experience they’re interested in or can request a custom one, and then use the platform to contact the local and make arrangements. The Dopios team reports having received 1500 emails from people who expressed interest in becoming a local and  more than 300 profiles are in progress.

Dopios was founded by Manolis Kounelakis, Nikos Sarilakis, Anand Henry, and Alex Trimis, who are based in San Francisco. The team is rounded out with Evi Choursanidi, who serves as community manager in Greece. Although the project was launched for Athens, the platform is open now for London, San Francisco and Istanbul, with plans to extend it soon to other countries.

Though the name of the platform comes from the Greek, it also brings to mind the Italian doppio, or double. By overlaying the sights and delights of the city with a layer of the personal, Dopios provides a double service to both traveler and local by giving each an opportunity to meet new people (and the local with the chance to earn a little bit of money). It’s also a double provision of “good Greek stuff”, helping travelers experience not only the less accessible delights of the city but also the city’s greatest resource: its people.

MyPlanet Eco-friendly Detergents

I’ve been using the MyPlanet series of environmentally friendly fabric and household care products for more than a year, but it hadn’t occurred to me to write about them here, because I just assumed that they were imports. Laundry detergents, window cleaners and dishwasher tablets, especially their green alternatives, were the kind of things I (naively) thought were manufactured only by multi-nationals. What Greek company, or for that matter any SME, would be crazy enough to try to gain a foothold in a market dominated by the Goliaths of a few deep-pocketed conglomerates?

MyPlanet series of eco-friendly fabric and household care products
MyPlanet series of eco-friendly fabric and household care products

It turns out that the David that produces the MyPlanet series is Rolco,a Greek company that  has been making fabric and household detergents for more than half a century. The company also has a track record of environmental friendly manufacture. In the 1970s it became the first Greek company to introduce fully biodegradable surfactants (a component that breaks up stains) in its detergents and in 2003 it began to use natural gas to heat the boilers in its factories. Incidentally, it’s been included in the “Strongest Greek Companies” list of the most credit-worthy firms published each year by the business consulting firm ICAP.

Introduced in 2008, the MyPlanet line features laundry powder, fabric softener, hand dishwashing liquid, all-purpose household cleaners and window cleaners. Its products today are all boron- and phosphate-free, and use, where possible, pant-based active ingredients and alternatives to petrochemical components. Naturally, the products come in fully recyclable packaging (as do many conventional detergents). The Planet line is not entirely chemical free, however. Some chemical substances, such as perfumes and antimicrobial agents, are used but within the limitations set by the EU Eco-Label guidelines in terms of toxicity and biodegradability. (That said, the hand dishwashing liquid does contain methylisothiazolinone, a commonly used biocide that some studies have shown to be allergenic, although after reviewing relevant studies in 2004, the European Scientific Committee on Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers concluded that its use as a preservative in cosmetics and other products at concentrations of less than 0.01% (100 ppm) in the finished product does not pose a consumer health risk.)

Data on market share are not available, but MyPlanet seems to have gained a toehold, judging by the amount of shelf space given Planet products in the supermarkets I shop at (admittedly not a representative sample). It seems fitting that Rolco won the 2009 Effie Hellas 2010 David vs. Goliath award, a distinction in the field of marketing communications given to “smaller, new or emerging bands making inroads against big, established leaders.”

There’s certainly room for the firm to increase its market share, not only in Greece but also in the export markets it’s begun to be distributed in. The percentage of the population who believe that the state of the environment influences their quality of life is higher in Greece (92%) than anywhere else in the EU. And although three-quarters of Greek respondents in a recent Eurobarometer survey stated they intent to buy environmentally friendly products in the future (a figure close to the EU average), only 16% actually had bought at least one such product in the last month (again, on par with the EU average).

Some of the difference between intent and action is due to the price differential between green and conventional products. But in a recent comparative survey of Athens supermarket prices of laundry detergents, I could find Ariel at a best price of €18 for a 68-wash bag and MyPlanet at a cost of €20.76 for a 67-wash bag, which works out to be only a four-cent difference per wash. The supermarket price obviously does not factor in such environmental costs as eutrophication, energy waste and the disposal of non-biodegradable ingredients that are part of the “invisible costs” of conventional products.

And effectiveness? In a comparative test of five green laundry detergents conducted by the daily newspaper Kathimerini, MyPlanet, outperformed the other products in cleaning difficult stains.

Taxibeat Smartphone Taxi Service App

Hailing a cab used to be like going out on a blind date with someone you met on the internet who didn’t have a face pic. You never knew who’d show up. It could be a guy with an old beat-up stinky compact cab who smoked through the whole ride with trash music blaring through the speakers behind your seat. Or it could be a decent and courteous driver in a clean and spacious air-conditioned vehicle who actually used the polite, and not the familiar, form of address.

Taxibeat, smartphone app to locate, select and hail your personal driver
Taxibeat, app to locate, select and hail your personal driver (here the PC version)

Actually it was worse than a blind date, because you couldn’t really get out of it. It usually took such a long time to find a cab that you couldn’t afford to be picky about the drivers. Many Athenians will remember the pre-crisis days when we were thankful for any ride, when hailing a cab meant bending down in a busy street to shout your destination to a driver as he slowed down to see if your destination fit with those of the passengers already in the car. In those days, passengers didn’t hail cabs; drivers hailed passengers.

It was the perfect example of a perversely distorted market. Consumers had little or no information on the quality of the service before making their purchase. They couldn’t “punish” bad service-I mean, what were you going to do, threaten to go somewhere else the next time you needed a ride?–and there was no sense in rewarding good service.

Although five years of recession and deep cuts in pay and pensions have reduced passenger volume, it can still be hard to find a cab in the suburbs, especially at night. But even if you’re in the city, you still have the blind-date problem.

But things are changing. Taxibeat is an innovative smartphone application, currently available for iPhones and Android phones, that makes it easy not only to find a cab through its network of freelance drivers who have signed on to the service but also to know in advance something about the driver and car you’re getting into. Actually, it’s even better. You get to choose what driver you want to pick you up.

Here’s how it works.

Your phone broadcasts your location to the application (though you can change this if it’s not where you want to be picked up from. The app displays a real-time map with your the location of drivers in your area, as well as such information as the driver’s name (and picture), the model and license plate of the car and, importantly, the ratings the driver has received from other passengers. It even has info on what languages the driver speaks, if there’s a charger for your mobile and whether credit cards (or pets!) are accepted. You select the cab you want and once hailed, the app shows you the vehicle’s approach on the map. Once in the cap, you can click a “boarding” button that will then record your ride (which you can post to Facebook I assume). Like a good social network citizen, of course, you rate the driver and ride when you finish. Future plans include the ability to pre-arrange a ride.

Taxibeat is the quintessential disruptive technology, one that’s changing the rules of the market by putting control in the hands of the passengers. Its feedback mechanisms create an ever growing reservoir of crowd intelligence that obliges drivers to improve the quality of their services.

Taxibeat was founded in early 2011 by Nick Drandakis and Nikos Damilakis. It received initial funding from Openfund, an Athens-based investment fund that provides business advice and seed funding to start-ups. In addition to Athens, the company has already launched its application in Rio de Janeiro and plans soon to expand operations in southern European cities with similar taxi markets to the one in Athens.

For more on the Taxibeat business model, see the interview with founder Nick Drandakis on the eu-startus.com site.

Lake Kerkini Buffalo Meat

It sounds almost too good to be true. Entrepreneurial vision, community action, and enlightened policy measures at the national and European level all come together to promote the sustainable utilization of a rare habitat and an endangered species.

The endangered species begins to recover and is once again bred and raised for milk and meat. The free-range grass-grazing animals, for all intents and purposes organically raised, yield meat rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and with more protein but with 50% less cholesterol and an eighth of the saturated fat of beef. Demand far outstrips supply. Agro-tourism in the region begins to gain momentum, creating new jobs, along with those of the mostly young livestock breeders, some of whom used to farm tobacco. Idyllic, don’t you think?

Boras Buffalo Meat
Boras buffalo meat, here as a kind of smoked ham-steak

The animal is the water buffalo. The habitat is Lake Kerkini in the prefecture of Serres in Northern Greece (though the buffalo is raised elsewhere in Greece, including the Nestor delta). This lake began as an artificial reservoir on the site of an extensive marshland. It was later redeveloped and the 110m2 wetlands area, now protected part of the Natura 2000 network and protected by the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, has become one of the most important birding sites in Greece.  It is also home to over 2500 water buffalos, a noteworthy population when one considers that the entire population of the species in all of Greece in 1984 was just under 400 animals.

In the early 1950s Northern Greece alone was home to over 70,000 water buffaloes. Their numbers begin to diminish rapidly with the import of enhanced cattle stock, the contraction of the buffalo habitat as the wetlands were dredged, and the loss of almost half the agricultural population between 1961 and 1991 as farmers abandoned the countryside to move to the cities or emigrate abroad.

It’s not exactly clear when and how the turnaround started. The buffalo ranchers were undoubtedly helped when the European Commission granted the buffalo the status of a livestock animal in 1997, a decision that made breeders eligible for EU agricultural subsidies. According to one account, EU MP Mihalis Papagiannakis played a decisive role in securing this recognition. Another factor was likely the establishment of a buffalo ranchers collective that would advocate for the adoption of common production and hygienic standards and lobby for the interests of its members.

In another story, Zelios Boras, a butcher in Livadia, Serres, hung a sign outside his shop in 1999 saying “Buffalo meat for sale”, only to garner the scorn of his fellow butchers and many of the local residents, and perhaps rightly so, given the variation in hygienic standards in the processing and storage of buffalo meat at the time. Undeterred, Boras launched a buffalo kavourmas, a cumin-scented confit of cured buffalo meat (along the lines of the more widely known pork version and a distant cousin of the pastourmas).  This kavourmas was later presented at the Agrotica 2004 trade fair to favorable reviews. At the same time, consumer interest in leaner, free-range, antiobiotic-free meats grew, a godsend to the buffalo ranchers, whose animals spent their lives grazing on grass in the wetlands of Serres. Bournas’ buffalo meat, and that of other producers, such as the Hasapiko, began to garner awards at gourmet food expositions, whether in the form of kavourmas or sausages or fresh meat.

Supply is still limited and, unless you happen to be in Serres, for the time being available only in selected delicatessens in Athens and Thessaloniki. Admittedly it’s more expensive than corn-fed, antibiotic-pumped feedlot beef—and given its low fat content, somewhat trickier to cook—but it’s a flavorsome and healthy addition to the larder.