Filippo and Lorenzo from Italy, founders of What Nature Offers
26 November 2014
Filippo Valentini and Lorenzo Tedeschi, from Italy, both gained master’s degrees in Finance and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), part of the University of London.
Together with another Sicilian partner, Felice Bonfanti, they founded What Nature Offers – a food producers' union that helps organic fruit and vegetable farmers in Sicily to reach consumers in the UK.
Tell us a bit about your business!
Lorenzo: I always received a very theoretical education in Maths and Economics, and I wanted to do something practical. So I started looking around for something interesting. In Sicily I found there was a lot on offer from farmers, but people were not able to commercialise these products – there was a huge chain of intermediaries, and the products were seasonal. I explained to the farmers they could offer whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, internationally.
Filippo: That is the Sicilian side of the story. In the UK, there is a variety of fruit and vegetables, but there is a problem – the concept of quality is associated with how much something costs. Some things you can only grow in southern Italy – for example, certain oranges and specific kinds of lemons. In the UK, the idea that we want to get through to people is that something organic does not have to be more expensive. The reason it is more expensive is because there is a huge chain of middlemen.
Lorenzo: We are not competing with the local UK market; we are complementing it. For example, winter is the peak of our production in southern Italy as the summer is too hot to cultivate much, while winter in the UK only offers things like cabbages and radishes.
Was employability a big part of your decision to study in the UK?
Filippo: Personally speaking, that was the biggest factor that brought me here. We both love our country but we thought that coming to London would be an opportunity – London is a big hub in so many respects.
Lorenzo: I chose SOAS because it was special that I could study somewhere where London was my campus, and my home would be one of the most international places on earth.
I was also looking for a place where critical thinking was actively encouraged. At SOAS, there is a good combination between academic study and personal study. You confront yourself with topical issues, and people come from different backgrounds, which made it a really interesting place.
I studied Economics and Finance, but I could also study languages – SOAS offers the option to combine a language with lots of other fields.
Filippo: Also, we were really helped along by the SOAS entrepreneurial hub and Leonie Le Borgne there. SOAS Ventures (the university’s student enterprise society, which helps students to set up their own businesses) has also been great. We couldn’t have done it without their support.
Was there a ‘lightbulb moment’ when you realised you could create a viable business?
Lorenzo: I was walking around a field in Sicily, and I asked why farmers were travelling to pick oranges in bigger productions while they had their own trees. They explained that their own oranges were not valuable, because they would have to go through so many intermediaries to commercialise their products that it would be useless. So we looked at ethical purchasing groups (EPGs) – the concept is very popular in France and Germany, but we weren’t sure why it wasn’t so popular in the UK.
Filippo: We broadly follow the EPG model, but in that traditional model, there are many disadvantages to the customer. In 99% of cases EPGs are local groups – there aren’t many international EPGs because the logistics are very complicated. You have to be in contact with the producers, the final consumers, and be able to aggregate orders and give your customers the guarantee that things will go well.
Lorenzo: It’s about uniting the offer and uniting the demand, and then making one single payment go through.
Filippo: As far as we know, we are the only ones to do this in our online shop (launching next week).
Check out the dynamic team's eye-catching website!
What did you learn from volunteering or internships while studying?
Lorenzo: I was studying banking and I was focused on commercial agricultural investments on a large scale. I realised I knew how to invest in a field of soy in Argentina, but I didn’t know how to plant a tomato! I think what I learnt from internships was how to use Excel and PowerPoint, and how to present myself to clients. One key lesson I learned from the investment sector was that if it doesn’t go well it isn’t the end of the world – you can always try again.
What tips do you have for students who want to build up their CVs while they’re at university?
Filippo: You shouldn’t limit yourself to your field of study. You may study languages, for example, but that doesn’t mean everything you do in life has to revolve around that. I studied Japanese, for example, and a lot of my former classmates in Italy ended up being locked into one thing. The struggle to use your Japanese skills may end up being a hindrance. So be ready to reinvent yourself.
Lorenzo: I think he’s playing the good cop, so I’m going to play the bad cop! Don’t just choose what you like; think about something that will be useful, and adjust to what you like later. Use your summers for useful internships.
In many other countries, during the summer, you go to class – whereas in the UK you have four months in which to do internships and get a lot of experience. If you don’t get an internship, build your own portfolio. The internet is a fantastic tool to do this – write a blog or get involved in an online project. Have something to show.
And your advice for graduates who want to start their own business?
Lorenzo: Do something useful. People usually do things just because they like them, which is amazing, but you need an interesting idea and you also need to make sure it is commercially sustainable. In general, the fact that you’re self-employed is compatible with a job.
What are your ambitions for the future?
Filippo: The moment things slip out of control, it means that we are doing well!
Lorenzo: We want to expand our business customers, not just private customers (consumers). Our company has these two branches, and we launched to consumers last year. This will not just be the supply of fruits, but also finished products like fresh juices and juicing machines, for example.
This is not just in the UK by the way – we would like to be in all of Northern Europe, and Finland is a real possibility right now.
What is your number one memory of the UK – the one you would tell your grandchildren about?
Lorenzo: I remember my induction meeting, when the head of the economics department said, ‘You will never get a First from me unless you disagree with me.’ That was so powerful to hear, and I have remembered it throughout my education. It highlights the power of critical thinking.