Italy's tomato startup that saves migrants

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Italian startup Funky Tomato is producing a fair trade passata and offering work to migrant workers in Italy. Photo: Ben Ostrowsky
10:13 CEST+02:00
One Italian startup is finding success selling the simplest of Italian products – tomato passata – and is doing its bit to help migrants at the same time.

Funky Tomato was founded this spring by a group of farmers in the southern Italian regions of Puglia and Basilicata.

“It's about giving people work and teaching them new skills.” Paolo Russo, one of the company founders told The Local.

Funky Tomato currently employs ten people, including four migrants – who work harvesting the tomatoes and producing the sauce.

Migrant workers in Italy are commonly employed as farm laborers collecting tomatoes but are often terribly exploited. Each year migrant workers perish under the hot sun of Italy's Meridionale while toiling 12-hour days for as little as €15 pay.

“It's been going on for years” said Mamadou Dia, a 39-year-old migrant working Funky Tomato, referring to the exploitation. “Most people don't know about it – but those that do simply ignore it.”

At Funky Tomato, migrant workers are employed on short term employment contracts. They work a 39 hour week and make €6.40 an hour.

Though seasonal, their contracts are longer than 52 days, entitling the workers to an unemployment subsidiary when they stop working.

“It's not just about making a profit, it's about showing that you don't have to enslave people to make the southern Italian economy work,” Russo explained.

Russo has been battling agribusiness in southern Italy for years, through his small-scale and low impact initiatives, and insists that their passata tastes better too.

"It's not an industrial product - it's a high quality artisanal one that boasts a really short and transparent chain of production."

But profit is possible. Fair Trade International estimates that the global fair trade market was worth €5.3 billion in 2014 and ethical start-ups are becoming increasingly successful among entrepreneurs trying make a difference with minimal initial investment.

While the idea of making artisanal passata may seem old fashioned and low tech – the company's success has relied on a cutting edge communication strategy to find buyers and attract investment.

They even raised part of the initial investment need though crowdfunding on the Italian platform 'Produzioni dal Basso.'

“Visibility and communication are the key,” said Russo. A strong online presence and vigorous social media campaign has allowed them to sell the sauce directly to restaurants and independent food shops across Italy - which is the core of their business model.

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In order to make the business model work, Funky Tomato offers generous discounts to buyers who pay for their order in advance - ensuring they have cash needed to negotiate the choppy waters of the first year in business.

“We've had enormously positive support that has made everything possible and we will keep on working next year and hope to expand,” said Russo.

“At the moment it's a drop in the ocean,” reflected Dia. “But today we are speaking about Funky Tomato – but tomorrow we could be speaking about Funky Oil or Funky Wine. We're trying to create a network across Italy.” 

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