The Joy of Rice
by Agnes Chung (photo credit: Nikao Media)
My cooking class at Rim Tai Kitchen had just ended when the first drop of rain fell. No sooner had the thought of a relaxing swim crossed my mind, the tropical downpour came. This rain brought down joy to the rice farmers at the onset of the planting season. Smiling and stooping in the shallow pond, they gently uprooted and rinsed the bundled green rice shoots for transplant to the flooded rice paddies surrounding the Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai.
Rice is the essence of Thai life, a national staple, and the country’s top agricultural export. About 3.5 billion people – over half of the world’s population – depend on rice for more than 20 per cent of their daily calories cites
ricepedia.org. Rice is gluten-free, whether it’s white, brown, red, purple, black or the glutinous (sticky or sweet) variety.
Besides carbohydrates, rice, depending on the variety, is also rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and antioxidants. A grass species (Oryza sativa), rice was first cultivated in China. In ancient Israel, rice was grown in the Second Temple period says jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Today, over 40,000 varieties exist.
Thailand is the world’s second largest rice exporter. The nation has made great strides advancing from a low to an upper-income country over the last four decades, according to The World Bank. However, poverty remains, particularly among rice farmers who earn below the country’s monthly poverty threshold of about US $74 (THB 30,000).
Transforming Farmers’ Lives
In their mission to resolve poverty among small-scale Thai rice farmers, MBA students Peetachai (Neil) Dejkraisak and Pornthida (Palmmy) Wongphatharakul co-founded a Thai-based social enterprise Siam Organic, in 2011. “I wanted to pursue a sense of purpose in life and work, by doing something good for the society,” says Dejkraisak of his social enterprise motivation. “Thai rice farmers are earning six times below the poverty line. Currently, a rice farmer earns about 40 cents a day, US $12 a month. It’s because of low crop yield and high production cost.”
Jasberry – High Antioxidant Rice
To help alleviate rice farmers’ hardship, the co-founders developed innovative organic products with global appeal. Jasberry rice is one of their flagship products created using non-GMO, natural crossbreeding of Thai fragrant Jasmine rice and a specific Thai black rice variety.
“Jasberry has 2.8 times higher antioxidants than blueberry and 10 times more antioxidants than green tea,” says Dejkraisak, pointing to his exhibit at THAIFEX – World of Food Asia held in Bangkok recently. “It has the aroma and softness of Jasmine rice and the antioxidant benefit of the blueberry fruit. Our products are delicious and healthy.”
Labour of Joy and Health
According to a 2015 social impact audit, Siam Organic’s business has resulted in boosting the income of over 1,100 farm households to 14 times higher than average Thai rice farmers. Farmers who are all from the Isan province of Northeastern Thailand have also reported improved health.
“The only way to have a sustainable solution to poverty is to empower farmers. They work with us as our partners” explains Dejkraisak. The company supports farmers by providing organic seeds, training, microfinance and technical advice on organic farming.
Farmers are required to keep at least 25 per cent of their harvest for household consumption. The rest are bought by Siam Organic to be sold as wholegrain or used as an ingredient for the production of innovative products including gluten-free superfood pasta, flour and soap.
Jasberry products are available in Thailand and the United States, and will be offered in Canada later this year. Over the next three years, Siam Organic plans to increase participating farm households to 20,000 (about 100,000 farmers) as well as distribute their organic products globally.
Innovation is Key
“Failure rate among social enterprises is high. To remain competitive and successful, innovation is very important,” shares Dejkraisak, who hopes to share know-how with farmers in other countries and learn about their best practices too. “Our product may cost more, but you are helping a lot of people, doing social and environmental good.”
It has been extremely challenging but a wonderful learning experience, he says about running the business. “We are all connected. One of our jobs is to give back – to give opportunity to those who don’t have it so they can make something of their lives. Eventually they too will find and share with the world.”
Siam Organic has received numerous awards for their social contribution, including the USA Global Entrepreneurship Summit 2016. Dejkraisak hopes their business model will draw the attention of multinationals and governments to implement it on a bigger scale, and make a positive impact socially and environmentally.
The Four Seasons Lanna-style resort is set amid lush landscaped gardens, overlooking a beautiful lake, terraced rice paddies – and forested mountains of Northern Thailand’s rice-growing region. It’s an idyllic escape for leisure, romance, food and nature enthusiasts, a place to experience true Thai hospitality at its best. Guests can learn rice planting, Thai cooking and culture, enjoy a spa, yoga or simply relax in tranquility of nature’s paradise. You even get greeted by happy water buffalos!