Yellow Seed Reflections for an Evolution

Yellow Seed is closing our current chapter (and eventually our beta marketplace) in order to direct focus and energy on our next evolution.

Before we do, we took some time to reflect on our adventure to date. While Yellow Seed’s face may look different, its foundations will remain much the same — a vision grounded in choice and voice.

This document highlights 5 key themes that have formed the basis for our work. For each, we reflect on our original intent or assumptions, experience and learning along the way.

These insights have become fuel for our next iteration. Our journey is a collective one. We offer these reflections as an acknowledgement and thank you to the many many contributors who have offered their ideas, energy and support to make this work possible.

What’s next? This year we are engaging in 2–3 pilots with partners to test our current assumptions. Add your name to the newsletter to stay tuned for updates and a white paper with details of what’s to come.

Yellow Seed Model

Before we dive in, this section offers some context and history on what Yellow Seed set out to do and the progress made in its first iteration. For a deeper look at our strategy to date, please see additional resources at the end of this document.

We began with a not-so-radical idea. “What if food were traded in a way that is respectful of all farmers, their products and the land where food is grown? What if global food supply chains treated farmers and buyers as equal partners and held a shared vision of success? And what if all of the organizations, companies and individuals who believe in this vision worked together to make this happen?”

Yellow Seed’s platform was designed to “engage new voices to provide more choices” — from the millions of small farmers left out of today’s markets, to the growing base of buyers, importers and intermediaries looking for resources that exist but are currently invisible.

Like many budding non-profits, our mission statement evolved slightly over the years but followed the common thread: to build and strengthen trade relationships — from farm to port to maker to consumer — and to provide greater visibility and market access to the many farmers who are invisible to markets or selling goods for far less than fair value.


Yellow Seed looked for ways to accelerate the movement towards sustainability. We were inspired by movements, such as the Sharing Economy and Platform Cooperativism, rooted in democratic ownership. Namely we wanted the marketplace to be a commonly owned asset so its members could continually benefit economically and shape its ongoing development. We researched extensively and plotted ways to form an international, multi-stakeholder cooperative, and we later explored a 501C6 membership association.

From these inspirations grew the concept of Collaborative Trade, the idea that those who are most impacted by the system — a trading relationship, a supply chain, a market — should have agency to voice concerns and contribute to making that system better.

In early 2016, we hosted a Collaborative Trade Accelerator” in partnership with Impact Hub Berkeley and the Lexicon of Food, gathering 80 like-minded organizations to co-design next steps to “improve supply chain trust and transparency, remove logistical barriers to market access, and find ways to share resources and tools that support Collaborative Trade.” You can find key learnings here.

Discussion here led to ongoing conversations with Joanna Levitt Cea and Jess Rimington, visiting scholars at the Stanford Global Projects Center, to continue exploring how co-creative design processes and user-driven strategies can lead to better results. Yellow Seed participated as a co-learning partner, outlining 5 practices to “Creating Breakout Innovation,” an article published in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR). The research found that “these practices can (1) create solutions aligned with the needs of the system they are addressing, (2) deliver solutions that make a rapid leap from status quo and (3) generate a shift in power dynamics that activates more innovators, permanently changing the dynamics so that a far greater number of actors play creative leadership roles.”

A 5-year Vision

Yellow Seed saw the potential to support a thriving community marketplace by helping small food businesses compare the verifiable social and environmental impact of products, thus optimizing purchasing decisions for the benefit of the planet and its people.

Our approach:

As Yellow Seed aimed to make markets more transparent, accessible and participatory, we were guided by the following 3 basic objectives:

  1. Enable visibility of the product, people and information currently invisible to markets.
  2. Improve market connection and provide better channels for trust, transparency and transaction.
  3. Support community-driven projects using the information and tools we create together.

Current Yellow Seed Community Marketplace

We accomplished our first step of creating visibility of people and products, and we made strides on improving market connection. Using our marketplace platform, farmers could go online to create a profile and share stories and products online, while buyers could discover new origins and connect directly to trade.

To understand how to improve channels for connection and build trusted relationships, we conducted a year-long pilot connecting the Peruvian cacao origin Co-op ACCC to market. You can see Lessons Learned: Yellow Seed’s Pilot’s Journey here.

In 2017 we also explored several business model approaches, including services such as pre-harvest loans for farmers, a concierge service for matching buyer, seller and service opportunities, that would automate over time, marketing services, and utilization of mobile-enhanced tools to provide direct feedback to farmers and to track social impact. We looked into improving the marketplace technology by providing global payment solutions that would reduce transaction fees. We geeked out about the use of blockchain smart contracts to easily create financial deals and escrow contracts, as well as the streamlining of order process and information flow.

After many iterations of a continuous design process, our attention continues to focus on how to create connective tissue and strengthen relationships in the supply chain.

The heart of the connection we wanted to create was never at the point of sale or in the transaction. If two parties want to trade with one another, they will find a way to do so. We thought we had to take on and build the whole system for transactions; then we came to realize that much is still needed at the points leading up to the handshake and establishment of trust. Communicating value that lies beyond the bounds of certification for buyers and their customers was by far the greatest challenge in our pilot. We are incorporating this learning into the evolution of Yellow Seed, thinking about how to establish stronger connection and empathy that leads to greater care for the earth and all people.

Five themes for an evolution

How will we create greater empathy and deeper engagement in the process of facilitating the market connection? Below we explore 5 themes that underpin and inspire Yellow Seed’s work:

  1. Values into Action
  2. Impact Priorities
  3. Farmer Voice
  4. Buyer Choice
  5. Solutions for Trust Building

1. Values into Action

Let’s zoom out and take a space shuttle view of the key motivations and greater ecosystem context that influence Yellow Seed’s thinking. Yellow Seed was inspired by a desire to address overwhelm across the value chain.

About 10 years ago I had a conversation with my sister in the kitchen, telling her about my worries for the environment, the climate, and our future as a population. I must have rattled off a litany of doom and gloom statistics without pause or consideration for her interests or capacity to relate. She responded with something like, “Nancy, I can’t take anymore of this talk. It’s totally overwhelming. What am I supposed to do about it?”

That experience in the kitchen inspired some nice drawings. (See below.) Looking back, these thoughts formed the basis for Yellow Seed’s work and still ring true nearly a decade later. To this day, we are figuring out how to create closer connections between people we care about, as well as between our values and actions.

Early thinking ~ 2011

Early thinking ~ 2011. Inspired from kitchen conversations with my sister.

Drawings created for IDEO’s Human Centered Design Challenge ~ 2011

My sister did have a point. If she was overwhelmed, I bet a lot of people felt this way. Apathy, disregard, escape, you name it: they all seem like completely rational responses to the crises of our time.

Originally, Yellow Seed looked at ways to build connection between buyers, farmers, and intermediaries in order to level the playing field for farmers and accelerate the movement of sustainability.

“Making value visible” has always been a driving force behind the work. (See “Making Value Visible: 3 Stories that Bring Yellow Seed to Life.) We approached what we viewed as a structural problem of inequity with a structural solution. We focused on creating new processes, new rules, and new infrastructure for connection.

We’ve now realized the call for a refined focus: aligning consumer concerns and wants with the real need to address the supply chain’s impact on both the environment and livelihood of producers. To do this, we are prioritizing the creation of empathy and connection. Namely, we will hone in on improving ways to build trust with consumers and educate them about their choices, so they will prioritize and pay for those things that we do know will lead to improved livelihoods.

This shift is a reinterpretation of how Yellow Seed’s core values and operating principles are applied and expressed.

2. Impact Priorities

“In the end, our society will be defined not only by what we create, but by what we refuse to destroy.” — John C. Sawhill (1936–2000)

Yellow Seed has been looking at “how to accelerate positive social and environmental impact” from the perspectives of farmers, buyers and intermediaries.

At the industry level we considered: Are we making progress? What do the indicators tell us? The data shows that as an industry our actions are not addressing important social and environmental concerns. Our Reflections on the Industry document offers more data and background on this insight.

This problem is explored in “Companies’ contribution to sustainability through global supply chain,” a report recently published by scholars at Stanford. It explains that while corporations are taking actions to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they do it when and it how it suits them best. “We find that companies’ sustainability efforts in global supply chains are largely focused on workers’ rights and compliance with national laws. Important social (e.g., health, education, gender, inequality) and environmental (e.g., climate change, energy) issues are rarely the primary focus of SSPs. This raises concern, as companies are expected to be a major player in achieving the SDGs via their global supply chains.”

Yellow Seed is asking the same question of our own efforts. We set out to support decision-making for impact and so far we are falling short. We are in constant iteration, taking an agile approach. As we evaluate our indicators and process, we find that more is needed around the point of building trust in markets for all of us to meet our goal in growing the movement of sustainability toward the outcomes we desire.

“We are using the wrong tools,” suggests Eva Gladeck of Metabolic in this video on “Why the Circular Economy Needs an Information Revolution.” See Industry Reflections for more on this subject. Much more is needed to understand the contextual limits of impact, whether the pathways set are effective, and whether we are making progress. An open data initiative that involves private and public partnership could be a key way forward to provide the depth and scale of information needed to better assess decision-making. While it is out of scope for Yellow Seed to lead this type of initiative in the short-term, we will look for the best ways to actively contribute to such an initiative. Our impact priorities will focus on building experiences that establish empathy and connection, while continuously improving the data collection process.

3. Farmer Voice

Yellow Seed set out with a vision to connect buyers with farmers themselves. However, Yellow Seed did not meet its goal of reaching farmers and effectively engaging their voices on the marketplace platform or pilot initiative.

While the peer-to-peer type platform allows sellers at origin to market their initiatives and products by sharing their stories, goals, and visions online, the voice of the farmer is often left out. Most of the content generated is by a manager at the co-operative level, the exporter, or another type of seller that serves as a representative.

We learned through our process, and the pilot specifically, about the problems that come up when the farmer is not in direct connection with the market.

  1. To tell one’s own story is to have sovereignty over one’s own personal narrative. Relying on second hand sources can lead to complications with accountability and validation. It poses a challenge to answering questions such as “Is the farmer really better off? Did interventions work? Did the farmer get paid?” It is difficult to quantify the agency of a human being, but only a farmer can ultimately tell you if they are doing well.
  2. The story itself is less connective, indirect, and inauthentic without the farmer’s voice. You miss the details when the story is filtered through someone or something else. Without the details, the story becomes more like a claim than a connective experience. Moreover, the teller of a story may have a separate agenda and unconscious biases that drive how that story is told or what information is shared.
  3. Coordination and accountability could be streamlined. During our pilot, we received different information from different people which caused confusion and delays. Direct connection with specific people would have yielded better results. It was also a challenge to coordinate details around the Farmer Choice Fund (FCF) without connecting directly with the farmers themselves. The FCF initiative was launched with the pilot as a way for buyers to support farmer-directed impact projects.

Real participation of farmers in many supply chains and agricultural development projects remains a challenge due to obstacles imposed by access to Internet and mobile connectivity, literacy, and access to technology in general. Nevertheless digital technology and the means of connectivity in rural regions are rapidly increasing. The next evolution of Yellow Seed will pilot technologies which close this gap to facilitate a more direct and meaningful connection to farmers.

Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General.

4. Buyer Choice

At the buyer level, Yellow Seed’s audience has changed. Originally Yellow Seed was focused on the B2B market. Our work has helped us better understand what tools are needed to address the gaps in the system. Moving ahead, our first set of pilots will focus on the end consumer audience while bringing social and environmental impact to life.

Key lessons from our pilot revealed that in order to sell to a B2B market with additional value attributes embedded in a product that fall outside of the bounds of certifications — quality, rainforest conservation, or agroforestry — a brand must effectively metabolize, translate and communicate those values to their consumer.

We learned that the way we were communicating impact was outdated. Static forms are not effective ways for buyers or their end consumers to understand impact or differentiate a product. For example, even potential buyers, who were actively engaged with us, did not read or digest the information on the profiles the way we had expected. In other words, buyers were not developing meaning or developing stronger connections with farmers through our platform.

Furthermore, the “sustainability story” of many of the sellers on Yellow Seed seemed to be lost or diluted in a sea of similar sounding product offerings. Buyers often asked, “But why should I pay more than the going market price?”

Conversation worked wonders. A 15–30 minute chat with the ability to answer specific questions and share specific insights was, of course, far more effective in creating connection.

However, one-on-one conversation produces bottlenecks in terms of feasibility and who can participate in the dialogue.

To meet the needs of being both highly connective and scaleable, we have been exploring how to create and curate a more interactive experience. Data shows that consumers today want more of an experience, not just a transaction. See our Reflections on the Industry for more about these trends.

Moving forward Yellow Seed will focus on creating mutual reciprocity in the buying experience. Our aim is to facilitate awareness of social, economic and environmental realities experienced by rural producers, their families and communities while developing moments for meaningful interaction, engagement and continued learning.

This brings us full circle back to the early drawings and visions of Yellow Seed after chatting with my sister in the kitchen, in hopes of connecting consumers and farmers more directly.

5. Solutions for Trust Building

Yellow Seed has always existed to build more trust and as a tool for listening. And we know we can do better by making needed conversations visible and more interactive, while including more and more voices.

We are developing a deeper understanding of the components of building trust, scientifically, technically, and emotionally. We know that technology in some ways has brought us closer together, and it’s also had the opposite effect. We aim to use tech in a way that meets people’s needs for meaning and connection while giving small farms a voice.

“I believe we can change the world if we start talking to one another again,” Margaret Wheatley declares in her writings aimed to restore hope to the future. Wheatley invites us to consider, are we asking the right questions to start the conversation? Are the right voices at the table? How do we further the conversation?

We also find ourselves going back to the ageless process of thinking together, and how to best spark conversations that can lead to social change. We hosted a 6-session Collaboration Accelerator in partnership with the Impact Hub that focused on figuring out how to create more transparent and equitable supply chains. Sessions were topic-led with questions that were created beforehand and refined by the people at the table. The resulting conversations were emergent, meaning each comment and response led to the next, allowing a diversity of input regardless of position or expertise. Participants shared that they learned something new and that the discussions facilitated new partnerships and ways of working together. For Yellow Seed that topic-led process was a success. The organizational design and structure of those discussions will be applied to Yellow Seed’s next evolution. For more info see, the program and session summaries.

As a team, we have been curious about organizational strategy and social architecture for greater collaboration and learning of groups. We have taken courses on facilitation, Holacracy, TheoryU, and authentic relating practices to see how we could bring those principles into what we were building. At this time in history, it feels more necessary to have better skills and tools to stay curious and engage authentically, especially when conversations become difficult or uncomfortable, in order for learning and understanding to occur.

As we research and test new ways to build trust interpersonally, we continue to seek tactical solutions that go beyond stamps of proof and third parties in order to truly make markets more participatory, accessible and connective. This includes better use of technology and ways to curate experiences, as well as practices for working better together.

When Yellow Seed participated in creating the SSIR article “Creating Breakout Innovation,” five practices emerged as important tools for thinking and working better together: (1) Share Power, (2) Prioritize Relationships, (3) Leverage Heterogeneity, (4) Legitimize All Ways of Knowing, (5) Prototype Early and Often. Yellow Seed constantly seeks to embed these ways of working in our organization and in collaboration with others.

Moving forward, we know that building trust and deeper connection will require better engagement of farmers, makers and designers. There are a number of experiments we are actively designing that involve using technology in new ways, while ensuring accessibility even in remote areas where cacao is grown. We hope this will create a deeper connection between consumers and farmers and spark empathy for the beauty and challenges of living and farming conditions. Our intention is to help consumers feel and know that their higher-dollar purchases are bringing direct value to people at the source. As we refine our approach, we will look to expand into markets beyond cacao.

In Closing

“There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.” ― Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

We would not be at this inflection point without hundreds of people who are passionate about making a difference coming together to advance our shared goals. It is humbling, important work to hold the intentions and hopes of everyone who has engaged with us for years.

In the end, this is about humans and our experience together, not just process, advancement or growth. I go back to the conversation in the kitchen with my sister: we have more choice than ever before. How do we find and seek meaningful connection? That will be Yellow Seed’s focus moving forward — creating more empathy and connection as we bring impact to life for consumers.


Lesson’s Learned: A Pilots Journey

Reflections Beyond an Industry

Yellow Seed 1.0 Strategy

“Making Value Visible” video 3 Stories that bring Yellow Seed to life.

Community Guide 2015

Yellow Seed Deck 2017

Collaborative Trade Accelerator with Impact Hub