Spotlight Series

Regional Food Distribution Association

Volker Kromm – Executive Director of RFDA social enterprise.

Q: Tell us about your organization/social enterprise. What is your purpose or mission? What services or products do you offer? Who do you offer your services to? How long have you been running?
A: RFDA (Regional Food Distribution Association), a Northern Ontario foodbanks association, was incorporated back in April 2008 and is based in Thunder Bay. We are a hub and distributor for other food banks and feeding programs for those in need. We provide emergency food donations, we offer cooking classes, we have an incubator kitchen, we basically do most activities involving food. We cover a massive area from Marathon to the north of Hudson Bay, essentially all of Northern Ontario. We started off small, working with $26,000 worth in food and we are now working in the millions.

Q: Tell us about scaling up your organization/social enterprise. Why are you looking to increase your business? Why are you doing this now? How are you scaling up? (More employees, more products/services, more locations, etc.?) How are you reaching your preferred market?
A: We are looking to diversify our income stream, so we are splitting off into two parts. We are going to keep the not-for-profit side we currently have, but we are also starting a for-profit social enterprise. This is going to feed the not-for-profit side so that we can continue to comfortably offer our services. Because of the rules surrounding charities, we did not want to jeopardize our parent organization. We did a study to see what this model would look like, and it seemed to be in our favor.

Q: Tell us about the challenges you face while scaling up. What kind of challenges are you facing and how are you overcoming them? What advice would you have for other social enterprises who may wish to scale up?
A: As a food provider, we can’t compete with these established commercial products and we don’t want to compete with the local suppliers. It’s still difficult to get enough product to become viable, to be able to efficiently provide food. We want to be socially responsible and run solely from the local supply, but it gets expensive. So what we’re looking for is the ugly food, the stuff that doesn’t sell in regular grocery stores. We want those bruised apples so that we can process them into something else. Doing this really helped us find our niche market. To solve some of our problems, our team was looking at partnerships with remote communities where we would help them process their wild products and get a market exchange going. We have a great synergy going with the local farmers and indigenous communities.

In the past, we have spent a lot of energy trying to find the niche products that we could comfortably produce. My suggestion to others is to pick your products carefully to keep things running efficiently.

Q: What advice do you wish you could give to yourself as a start-up?
A: I would have spent more time with established entrepreneurs, those that have gone through this process. A team of experienced entrepreneurs would have saved us a lot of energy and frustration. You need to consult others because once you’re halfway through the process, you’re already committed to a trail and it’s too difficult to make changes if you need to go in another direction. I hate reinventing the wheel, find people that already know what works.

Q: What is your personal or professional background? Do you have previous experience in business or your sector?
A: I started off in forestry, then became a change agent in forestry. My job was to create business plans for others. What I am doing now is just an extension of that, and it’s all similar tools.

Q: Tell us about an interesting fact or story about your social enterprise.
A: I strongly believe that everyone should spend more time building relationships right across the board. In Northern Ontario, we have created an incredible network of economic groups, first nations leaders, fish processing plants, farmers, all kinds of people. It’s a huge benefit. In doing this, we have created a closed loop system with many of our products. We have partnerships in Kenora that gives us access to fish which goes to the people, then the waste from fish processing goes to fertilize the gardens. When you open one door, you’ll find yourself opening a Pandora’s box of communities and circles.