A Food Magazine For A Good Cause

Image Courtesy: NPO Tohoku Kaikon

In November last year, just before finishing my term as President of ESADE Net Impact Club, I had the great pleasure of inviting on campus Yuki Homma, co-founder of Tōhoku Taberu Tsushin, an award-winning, Japanese food magazine that is bridging the gap between local food producers and urban consumers. In just two years, the food magazine has achieved impressive scale and covers twenty-two areas. As its co-founders get ready to roll out the concept to around 100 locations across Japan, I take this opportunity to share with a global audience the inspiring narrative of Tōhoku Food Journal.

THE CHALLENGE

In 2011 a deadly triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident) severely impacted Japan’s north-eastern Tōhoku region, exposing a looming demographic crisis. About a third of Tōhoku’s local population was over 65 years old, a significantly higher ratio than the national average of 22.7 percent. In the years preceding the earthquake several young people had migrated to big cities of Japan in search of better opportunities, leaving the elderly behind. Furthermore, the state of Tōhoku’s primary industries (agriculture and fisheries) was even more fragile. Nearly 72% of Tōhoku’s local producers were above 60 years of age and, between 1970 and 2010, the percentage of local population employed in farming and fishing occupations had declined by 74.6% and 64.9% respectively. At a time when Tōhoku was spiralling into decline due to issues like ageing, depopulation, falling incomes, and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, the extensive and unprecedented damage caused by the natural disaster in four of Tōhoku’s six prefectures only made matters worse.

In 2012, seeing the disaster as an opportunity to economically revitalize Tōhoku region, the Japanese Cabinet launched a scheme called ‘Team of 600 Entrepreneurs’ with an objective to attract young talent in the affected areas and spur business activity that could benefit local communities. Each selected project received a grant of ¥3 million (≈ US$25,000) from the government. While the scheme encouraged social entrepreneurship in many areas like education, medical welfare, town planning, and forestry, the prospects of the coastal communities, whose livelihood depended heavily on fishing and crop cultivation, did not improve much.

At around the same time, two dynamic Japanese entrepreneurs Hiroyuki Takahashi and Yuki Homma founded a non-profit organization NPO Tōhoku Kaikon (literally ‘cultivation of the Tōhoku region’) with an aim to support rebuilding efforts in the earthquake and tsunami-damaged region. Their objective was two-fold: First, they wanted to save the shrinking yet rich food industry of Tōhoku region, long known as the ‘Granary of Japan’. And second, they hoped to address issues like food security, food safety, and identity crisis that had plagued the younger generations of Japanese living in urban areas. So, the duo decided to focus on reconstruction by encouraging and promoting local food production.

THE INNOVATION

In July 2013, Takahashi (a former member of assembly in Iwate prefecture) and Homma (a serial entrepreneur and avid traveller) launched the first issue of ‘Tōhoku Taberu Tsushin’ (literally Tohoku Food Journal). Tōhoku Taberu Tsushin is a monthly magazine delivered to regular subscribers together with a local food ingredient advertised as the ‘feature of the month’. Each issue of the food journal also features the food producer’s life story, educates readers about the history and cultural traditions of the ingredient’s place of origin, and provides them an opportunity to learn traditional and novel recipes. For instance, along with the inaugural issue of the journal readers received a box of Pacific oysters farmed in Makinohama in Tōhoku’s Miyagi prefecture. They also got a glimpse of the local aquaculture industry and efforts to restore oyster beds in quake-hit Miyagi through the story of Takatoshi Abe, a passionate local oyster fisherman. In this way The Tōhoku Food Journal helps connect consumers in urban areas with their food growers in rural areas.

Image Courtesy: NPO Tohoku Kaikon
Image Courtesy: NPO Tohoku Kaikon
Image Courtesy: NPO Tohoku Kaikon

The magazine is priced at ¥2,560 (≈ US$21) and deeply rooted in the philosophy of community supported agriculture (CSA) whereby consumers pay an advance at the onset of the growing season in return for a share of the anticipated harvest. The subscribers can also engage with other subscribers through the food journal’s Facebook community where they can share photos and/or post recipes of dishes prepared using the featured food ingredient delivered with the magazine. Some members have also organized themselves into little volunteer groups to hold events and meetings, plan farm tours, and help the producers with farm work, etc. Now, the magazine also offers its subscribers a chance to place additional orders as well as send ‘Thank You’ notes to local food producers. As Yuki Homma puts it, “The Tōhoku Food Journal is neither just a magazine nor a food delivery service. It is a whole experience that allows subscribers to read about the food they eat, think about its origin, savour its taste, and share the process with a like-minded community.

THE IMPACT

Since its inception in mid-2013, The Tōhoku Food Journal has been received well by its target audience. Within just four months of its launch, the magazine reached 1000 subscribers. Since design is an integral part of the service, the company emphasizes a lot on visual communication. Each issue is carefully and eclectically designed to hook readers’ interest. In 2014, the journal received the prestigious gold award at the Good Design Award event, the biggest design award in Japan and hosted by the Japan Institute for Design Promotion. It is then little wonder that the magazine enjoys the loyalty of its members and the attrition rate is only 2% per annum.

The co-founders Takahashi and Homma firmly believe the idea of a food journal is profitable, scalable, and highly impactful. In 2014 they set up another non-profit company called NPO Nippon Taberu Tsushin League (literally ‘the Japanese Food Journal League’). Since then the magazine has spread to 22 areas. The new parent company will focus on fulfilling the growing demands of its existing subscribers by scaling the Tōhoku Food Journal, using the franchising model, to around 100 areas across the four islands of Japan by 2017. Among their partners/franchisees include local NPOs and municipalities who want to start their local Taberu Journal to revitalize their respective regions. Tokyo-TV, one of the six biggest TV networks in Japan, is also a partner of Nippon Taberu Tsushin League. By connecting urban consumers with local food growers, The Food Journal is projected to impact thousands of lives cumulatively in Japan by 2018. The company ultimately aspires to take this successful, double-bottom line business model beyond the boundaries of Japan by collaborating with suitable foreign business partners.