Liam McNamara of the London Agri-Food Innovation Clinic on why innovative small businesses and traditional food markets make for perfect bedfellows
While big businesses currently dominate the landscape of food production and retail in the UK, it is small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have the potential to change it. SMEs may have smaller budgets, but they often have big ideas, and it is those ideas that the London Agri-Food Innovation Clinic (LAFIC) was set up to nurture.
LAFIC, which is jointly funded by London South Bank University and the European Regional Development Fund, has a focus on transferring knowledge to London-based food and drink SMEs through workshops and boot camps and, for those with the most innovative ideas, by providing access to academics, facilities and a network of consultants. These SMEs bring the concepts and the conviction; we provide access to the resources and the knowhow. Some of our cohort are focussed on the positive potential of technology in the creation or distribution of food, some have bright ideas relating to health and wellbeing, others are looking to design eco-friendly production systems. All have the potential to do significant good.
This summer, 12 of the most forward-thinking small businesses on our programme are each spending a week at Borough Market, selling their wares. At first sight, a traditional food market might not seem a natural setting for a group of highly innovative entrepreneurs, but nothing could be further from the truth: it may be old, but the Market is an active promoter of innovation. For businesses at the start of their journey, developing new and sometimes quite bold ideas, the opportunity to test themselves in front of such a large and knowledgeable audience is incredibly valuable.
Often, the story behind the product is as compelling as the product itself. Being there in person, speaking to shoppers, allows the producer to tell that story in a way that a bottle or packet in a supermarket display never could. For consumers, having the chance to listen is just as important—people who visit markets do so because they want a connection, with food and with people, so their feedback is invaluable. There are also many important lessons to be learned and connections to be made within the Market community. Being small and agile, our businesses are set up to make the most of these connections and respond quickly to everything they learn.
Encouraged and educated
There is a further parallel: at LAFIC, just like at Borough Market, sustainability is at the core of what we do. Some of the businesses on our programme tackle sustainability issues head on: Halo Coffee makes home-compostable coffee machine capsules; F-ish Not Fish reduces our reliance on dwindling fish stocks with a smoked salmon alternative. Even businesses that didn’t have their environmental impact in mind are encouraged and educated to build sustainability into their processes. It is better and easier for a business to embed a sense of responsibility at the start of its journey than it is to change a culture further downstream.
Borough Market is a real beacon for this way of thinking, for finding ways of working that minimise negative impacts. It is our intention that the young businesses we are nurturing now will carry that thinking with them as they evolve into the big businesses of the future.