Business Model Reconfiguration to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges

Cross-sector Collaborations

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a number of shocks on the food system. First, it led to the closure of what we term the out-of-home sector (catering, pubs, restaurants, food to go etc.). In the UK, this is a significant sector, accounting for nearly £30 billion to the economy per year. Second, the panic buying and stockpiling of food by consumers resulted in stock-outs and empty shelves in food retailers. This subsequently led to an initial breakdown of the independent food bank system in the UK, as donations ceased and volunteers who were often older people were unable to engage with the system due to their own vulnerabilities. This stimulated a number of collaborative responses to adapt to the crisis, which we term ‘hybridised collaborations’. In the region of Yorkshire, a social enterprise called ShopAppy used an online mobile app to aggregate supplies from farmers who had lost their market in the out-of-home sector for direct distribution to consumers through a business to consumers direct supply chain.1 This collaboration brought farm businesses, the regional local economic partnership, an online social enterprise and consumers together to scale up the direct supply of food to consumers from local farmers who had lost their traditional route to market. This hybridised collaboration, which brought together a number of different institutional logics (commercial and social), was formed quickly within a few weeks of the UK lockdown to ensure that farmers found a market for their goods and that food was able to reach vulnerable groups through a click-collect arrangement. Despite having no preexisting relationships, this effort succeeded due to the shared beliefs of ensuring the food security of vulnerable groups and not allowing food to go to waste on farms. Another example of social innovation through hybridised collaboration in the food sector is the formation of the new London Food Alliance. City Harvest rescues food that is going to waste and uses it to make meals for people experiencing food poverty.2 When COVID-19 hit the UK, City Harvest quickly formed collaborations with a range of private sector organisations, including Nando’s, Hawksmoor, Lidgate and Gails, whose out-of-home markets had suddenly dried up. This new alliance was able to scale up using workers from these private sector organisations, who then worked as volunteers for City Harvest. This meant that during the crisis City Harvest was able to scale-up to meet the increasing demand from people experiencing food poverty. There was a shared belief within the London Food Alliance that people’s food supply must be kept secure during the crisis and that it was crucial to prevent tonnes of food from going to waste. These shared beliefs ensured that any competing logics were managed in a synergistic way.

Opportunities for Reengagement

The challenge that COVID-19 posed was unusual in that it affected the fundamental needs of people in developed countries as opposed to those in the global south. People in developed countries are accustomed to having ready access to food and medical supplies together with all the materials and social options they expect. In the UK, approximately 1.5 million people were directly told to stay home and not to leave their homes even for food shopping. The initial widespread reaction of ‘panic buying’ of certain products (e.g. toilet rolls and sanitiser) caused a crisis for supply chains, as stated above. The response to this was a fascinating blend of both top-down and bottom-up initiatives. The top-down initiatives cannot, unfortunately, be credited to the UK central government, which did not engage, for example, in any significant direct activity or organising to provide food to vulnerable people until well into the crisis. Rather there was a rapid mobilisation of grassroots initiatives, many of which were not from established charities or NGOs but rather from citizen action at a local level. Some of the most interesting developments arose from private sector organisations, such as restaurants. Confronted with both a surplus of food and a ‘lockdown’—meaning that they had no customers—small chains such as Leons’ set up systems whereby the restaurant linked with others to provide food products and deliver food to health workers. To do this, Leons’ used a ‘GoFundMe’ mechanism more commonly used by charities to obtain resources.

Similarly, garment workers in Hackney in London realised that there was a need for protective clothing and rapidly set up a country-wide network called ‘scrub hubs’ to furnish protective clothing to local doctors and health workers. This represented a ‘microresponse’ by local small garment workers and people who had sewing skills, not an attempt to meet the industrial-scale needs of hospitals. However, the rapidity of its emergence was remarkable, making it a type of ‘social movement’, which brought together small businesses and individual citizens.

In Italy, similar grassroots social movements quickly arouse as the COVID-19 crisis was growing. The use of technological platforms such as GoFundMe rapidly became key to fund individual or collective projects that would benefit the community in various ways: from the supply of masks to the construction of intensive care departments or entire dedicated hospitals. This bottom-up approach proved to be very effective as a way to engage the community in issues and solutions that concerned everyone. There appeared to be a greater sense of trust, and people donated money without questioning the credibility of the fundraising projects. In some cases, the direct involvement, even financially, of people starting the money collection project functioned as a catalyst to attract more funds and obtain more visibility for the benefit of the project itself. On March 9, 2020, the number one fashion blogger in the world, Chiara Ferragni, and her husband, the Italian singer Fedez, commenced a GoFundMe campaign by making a first donation of 100,000 euros. They promoted the initiative on Instagram, calling for the engagement of other fashion bloggers, singers, institutions, companies, citizens and the brands that they regularly collaborate with. On the platform, more than 4 billion euros were raised in only one month and a half, and the money was given to the San Raffaele hospital in Milan to buy necessary equipment, such as fans, noninvasive ventilation devices, hemodynamic monitoring systems and monitors.3

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