Powering up rural Wakayama with e-commerce

Since 1997, Rakuten has pursued a mission to empower local businesses through e-commerce. This mission is ongoing; there remain many crucial industries that continue to operate offline and face a difficult path in an increasingly tech-driven market.

The agricultural sector of Wakayama Prefecture in Japan’s south is one such industry. Recognizing a need for e-commerce expertise, Rakuten joined forces with Wakayama’s prefectural government in May 2023 to launch an ambitious collaborative project.

Self-driven e-commerce

The project aimed to equip Wakayama businesses, primarily in the farming space, with the knowledge and skills necessary to navigate the world of e-commerce and help them compete on equal footing with large, nationally operating companies – not only in the short term, but long after the project’s conclusion.

“We saw that Wakayama Prefecture was aiming for its producers to achieve a self-driven state,” said Yuki of Rakuten’s regional revitalization team.

Yuki of Rakuten’s regional revitalization team (left) with Takenobu Honda of the Wakayama Prefectural Government.
Yuki of Rakuten’s regional revitalization team (left) with Takenobu Honda of the Wakayama Prefectural Government.

The project saw producers with a broad spectrum of e-commerce experience take part, for whom Yuki and the team designed a comprehensive course covering everything from the basics to high-level e-commerce skills.

“We felt it important to provide accompanying support tailored to each individual’s level,” Yuki explained. “Instead of one-off seminars or assistance making a website, we prepared a program that allowed for gradual step-up through courses tailored to the participants’ levels, regular individual consultations, submission of assignments and reflections – all aimed at providing comprehensive support leading to self-propulsion.

“Since most of the participants engage in harvesting fruits such as plums, mandarins, persimmons and peaches, during busy seasons, we switched to online lectures and archived the recordings for later viewing by those who could not attend,” Yuki continued. “In cooperation with the instructors, we also provided audio recordings of responses to individual questions in a podcast-like format, allowing participants to listen while working.”

Over the initial months of the program, the team saw participants making great strides.

“For example, I observed participants actively posting and experimenting on their own social media accounts,” remarked Tsuyoshi Miyazaki of the Wakayama Prefectural Government Food Distribution Division. “Even those who had not been active on social media before have now fully embraced it. I feel that this circle of experimentation is expanding. I believe this is a significant outcome of the seminars.”

Tsuyoshi Miyazaki (left) and Kohsuke Ohshima of the Wakayama Prefectural Government.
Tsuyoshi Miyazaki (left) and Kohsuke Ohshima of the Wakayama Prefectural Government.

“The enthusiastic participation of everyone in Wakayama was remarkable,” commented Yuki. “Participants always attended voluntarily, maintained high attendance rates and eagerly tackled workshop assignments. As someone involved in program development, I was truly delighted.”

Building community

Another area of importance for the team was building a sense of community – something that Rakuten has worked to achieve among merchants on Rakuten Ichiba for decades.

“We also provided support for building a local community among business operators, which is one of Rakuten’s strengths,” Yuki explained. “We surmised that since e-commerce operations can be quite solitary, by connecting business operators within the region, they could expand their mutual support network and create an environment where they can motivate each other while becoming self-driven.”

The strong collaboration between public and private was what allowed the program to happen.

“The prefectural staff proactively made phone calls and reached out to business operators, widely publicizing the project,” Yuki said. “They had already built those relationships, and they took the lead. This is what allowed participants to take the first step and think, well, I might as well at least listen to what they have to say. I am truly grateful for this.”

Kohsuke Ohshima of the Wakayama Prefectural Government observed Rakuten’s spirit of empowerment firsthand.

“While I knew that Rakuten had accumulated years of expertise as an e-commerce platform, I initially had concerns about whether that would be applicable for agricultural, forestry and fishery business operators,” he told Yuki. “However, you prepared programs tailored to the participants’ perspectives and accompanied them closely. I felt that Rakuten was strongly promoting its concept of Energizing Japan! and Empowering local regions!

“When we have the opportunity to work together with local government staff and business operators like in this case, people are sometimes surprised at how ready the Rakuten team is to get our hands dirty,” laughed Yuki. “Personally, I take this as a compliment. As part of regional revitalization, we have a strong desire to sweat together!”

Getting online is just the beginning

“In the end, it is the connections between people that will become the driving force to grow the business,” one program participant remarked. “Even if my operations are still small, I want to cherish each customer while pursuing e-commerce and overall management.”

“As a first-time participant inexperienced with e-commerce, everything flowed smoothly into my mind in a very understandable way,” said another. “We’ll consider using social media and marketplaces to boost sales, but the most important thing is to create a store that customers will love. I was able to reaffirm this premise, and I’m glad I took this course.”

Looking ahead, both Wakayama Prefecture and Rakuten remain committed to sustaining this momentum.

“Through this project, I believe we were able to start a movement to spread awareness of these skills and marketing approaches to those who were previously unaware of them,” Ohshima remarked. “However, our efforts must also lead to actual sales… We will remain vigilant and maintain a strong awareness to ensure that this e-commerce pillar does not falter.”

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