Food connect

More than 500 investors, the majority women, chipped in $2 million in a crowd-funding campaign to turn a “grey old shed” in Brisbane into a sustainable food operation.

For Rob Pekin, a former dairy farmer and veteran of the Food Connect venture of a few years ago, and his partner Emma-Kate Rose, the success of the campaign is a vote of confidence for social enterprise and an opportunity to show that deep green on a shoestring is possible when you unite more than 500 minds in a single cause. 

The Food Connect Shed is the vision of Rob Pekin and Emma-Kate Rose, who are dedicated to reforming the food industry to make it more sustainable and resilient for farmers, producers and local communities.

A first-of-its-kind in Australia, the community-owned food hub will host a variety of food tenants along the couple’s fresh fruit and vegetable ethical food social enterprise, Food Connect, which Pekin started in 2004 after losing his dairy farm due to the deregulation of the Australian dairy industry in the 90s.

Pekin told The Fifth Estate that the success of the equity crowd-funding campaign “really broke some glass ceilings” for the social enterprise sector. 

“What this really demonstrated from a financial point of view is that there is a lot of money in community lying latent. This project brought this to the fore.”

About $2.1 million was made through the crowdfunding platform PledgeMe, with just over 50 per cent of this coming from the general public and the remainder from more sophisticated investors. 

“It took a bit of work [to get these investors on board] but as they got a hold of the importance of the food system, that it’s about building resilience, they started to get excited about the food shed.”

Pekin and Rose needed to raise a minimum of $2 million to buy the warehouse, which was the site they had been leasing already for Food Connect, with the balance of $100,000 to be spent on refurbishing and retrofitting the warehouse. 

They managed to reach the minimum goal despite the onerous limitations on equity crowd funding in Australia. 

The returns offered are only 4-7 per cent, but Pekin’s said investors felt this was reasonable given the current state of the food system where many farms are not run in financially sustainable ways.  

He was pleasantly surprised, he said, that people were willing to sign up given Australian shareholders tend to expect returns straight away, unlike investors elsewhere around the world who tend to not to expect returns until a few years down the track. “We had to tackle Australian sharemarket expectations head on,” he said.

A positive that helped get people over the line, he thinks, was the real estate play – albeit an industrial warehouse on the outskirts of town – rather than a technology startup or something intangible.

“It was overwhelming the people who got the depth of what we were trying to do… the appetite for people to get involved in real change,” he says.

Although open to everyone, Pekin’s says women are the “real movers and shakers in the food system” and make up 83 per cent of investors. 

He says that people responded well to the idea that the market is “no place” for basic human needs such as housing and food.

“For basic human needs the market doesn’t really work.

“With this, you’ll get total transparency, you bring back accountability.”

The benefits of the community-owned model are far-reaching

With this community ownership model, Pekin says tenants will answer to investors to run responsible businesses, pay their rent on time and “make great food”.   

“The investor is allowed to say you need to lift the game, and I’m the facilitator in the middle and I’ll say you need to raise your game.”

But this doesn’t mean tenants won’t have the support they need. In fact, tenants have the skillsets and knowledge of over 500 investors to draw from, as investors have started pitching in by offering up their various expertise and services at discounted rates because it’s in their interests to ensure the success of the enterprise.

Pekin’s says that a few investors are tradies involved in building some of the infrastructure.

There are also eight investors who are architects and excited to “sink their teeth” into the retrofit. But with only $100,000 leftover to spend on the renovations, he says this will be a challenging task. 

Along with investors who are engineers this team is running a design competition to crowdsource the designs for the retrofits, keeping as much existing infrastructure as possible.

“We want to illustrate that you don’t need to knock a whole place down and start again,” Pekin says.

“It’s not about being shiny and swanky like we see often see with the food industry.”

Site of Foodconnect Food Hub in Salisbury, Brisbane

Deep green retrofits are possible without spending a lot of money

It’s just a theory at this stage but as an advocate for sustainable design, Pekin’s wants to prove that the building renovations will cost no more with upcycling, even if it takes a little longer.

There will also be a solar and storage system that is owned and provided by a community-owned energy organisation, and Pekin and Rose have also had a couple of meetings with Nightingale Housing to talk about scaling up to whole precincts.

“They have housing model sorted but imagine if all the business owners could live onsite, and you have all those wraparound things like childcare onsite. 

“That’s a really exciting. This is bringing the village to life. Like when kids come home from school and they help down at the neighbourhood farm… it might be only for an hour and a half but that’s a massive saving for someone who is focusing on producing a quality product.”

Tapping into Indigenous knowledge and philosophies

Also important for the couple is working with the Indigenous community and incorporating First Nation people’s philosophies of custodianship and connection to the land.

“There are 513 investors and they are not owners in the traditional sense. Co-ownership really means custodianship,” Pekin says.

The idea of caretakers is important to the group, Pekin says, “because their duty is to care.”

There are two Indigenous women on the board to help drive and foster this approach.

What people can expect when the hub is complete

Food Connect and OzHarvest are anchor tenants but the shed will also be home to other tenants, with the 10 already set up offering things like conserves and pickles, as well as other goods such as fresh pastries.

Pekin has also put the call out to the community asking what they think is missing in the local food system. Fresh flour is one, with silos and other infrastructure to be installed in the shed – “no one knows what fresh flour tastes like. We all eat rancid flour.”

The model can be adapted for other regions

Pekin hopes the project will inspire others to do something similar in other regions and says that the only aspect he’d be prescriptive about is the ethics and governance systems to make sure the model isn’t “exploited by people who want to make money over and above the social and environmental mission of the company.”

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