POOKPINTOKAO | Thailand
Since the moment we started to look for changemakers in Thailand everybody told us: you’ve got to meet with Be. She leads an amazing project which aims at connecting together organic farmers with potential customers. On top of that she is also a master in branding and she supports many young social entrepreneurs with her know-how. As a matter of fact, what you first notice in her own project, Pookpintokao, is the striking way the ideas are presented with.
Be: We have only 2 groups of people in Thailand: those who grow rice and those who eat it. Rice is something which bonds us together. That’s why in our project instead of having buyers and sellers of rice, we call them brides and grooms.
As the information materials about the project says: „Grooms” are farmers who already grow organic rice or farmers ready and willing to tease chemicals-intensive farming altogether. “Brides” are urban folks or city dwellers that wish to consume rice that is promised and guaranteed to be safe, in the matter that directly supports Thai farmers in their endeavors to live their lives sustainably.
Seasun (project team member): We act as „matchmakers” who introduce the „Groom” – farmer - to the „Bride” – rice consumers. That’s what makes our project unique. The relationship between farmers and consumers is the key. Sellers and buyers have different obligations toward each other than brides and grooms. Let’s imagine that the consumer gave money to a farmer in advance but then a flood comes and the farmer is not able to provide the rice. If they are buyer and seller, the seller will have to compensate. But if they are bride and groom… we try to explain brides, that what they should do is not to demand compensation but rather to go and help the groom, who maybe has nothing to eat. The farmer becomes a friend and in difficult moment we help our friends and relatives.
B: And it is really happening. It works also the other way around: sometimes grooms give rice for free to brides when they are sick or have other problems. There are so many inspirational stories.
Inspirational is the origin of Pookpintokao itself. Everything happened at high speed. To report a few key dates from the project timeline:
· January 2014 - News in media about a farmer’s suicide.
· February 2014 – Be posts on Facebook about her wish to do something to change the farmers’ situation in Thailand. Within a week a group of interested people meet together and discuss possible solutions. They also create a Facebook page, which immediately starts to be popular.
· March 2014 – Creation of the final project model, which aims at re-establishing harmony and good relations between Thai people using rice as a medium. In the same month the media mentioned for the first time about the initiative.
· April 2014 – Registration of the first bride (up to now there are over 3.000 registered brides) and the first groom (66 of them enrolled as of 2015).
· June 2015 – first VIP, a famous singer, joins the action. Thanks to that the project hit the headlines and gained more than 10.000 likes on Facebook. Today Pookpintokao is promoted by 20 celebrities called Celeb-brides and by the prime minister who mentioned the project three times in his program broadcasting nationwide.
Considering the rate of development, the project seems to tackle a real problem. To better understand it we need some introduction. Be takes a piece of paper and starts to draw for us the story of rice in Thailand.
B: 50-60 years ago people knew each other, they created communities, lived close to one another. We had a kind of give and take culture. I have my rice; if I have too much I give some to you, exchange or sell. It was enough to make a living. But then one day some guys came and told the farmers that they have to grow as much rice as possible so they could improve their revenue, and to do so they introduced chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers. The government decided Thailand should get the first place in rice production; they gave money to farmers to switch to mass production with chemicals and that changed everything. Because of mass production middle man appeared in the game and eaters and growers became disconnected. Farmers started to depend on the support of middle men and politicians. They don’t know anymore how to rely on themselves, they are too used to receiving help from outside. But they are not able to use it properly since they have poor finance education; they make debts and need more money and more support. It’s a loop. What’s more, they stop thinking about eaters, consumers. They just don’t know them anymore. It’s much easier to add any chemical to the rice.
S: Another problem is soil. In Thailand we have a great soil. Whatever you plant, it grows. But if you start to use chemicals, you destroy it. In some parts of Thailand the soil is dead, you can’t grow anything.
B: So what collapses with the new system of mass production is soil, wealth of farmers, health of consumers and occupation itself because farmers don’t want their children to become farmers. It’s a hard job and you never make much money.
In order to get the full picture of the situation basic information about history and contemporary rice industry are not enough. It is essential also to notice the differences in daily life between farmers and consumers. Both realities are drowned by completely different rules. And to accept and truly understand this, you really need to build a relationship.
B: Sometimes the brides complain that the ice tastes differently than last month. It is up to the groom to explain that this is because of soil and water. It’s a creation of nature, you can’t control it unless you use chemicals. It will be a little different every time, but that’s what makes it unique and beautiful. We work a lot also on the brides’ mindset.
S: Brides expect things to be fast, like in the department store, in big companies. With farmers it just doesn’t work. Their lifestyle is slower. It depends on nature, on weather, on many factors which brides are often not aware about.
A different sense of time is one of the aspects which we also experience during our travel. Providing things on time, in the proper shape, following a precise pattern is often the expectation of city people like us. During everyday life in the farm, or while travelling, time starts to have a completely different meaning. The rhythm of nature, chance, adjusting to the situation, being in harmony with the surroundings instead of fighting for a particular date and hour, are much more decisive. Things happen when there is a time for them to happen, it doesn’t follow the schedule. The GoodNewsLetter itself is a perfect example. Maybe this is a mark of the GoodNewsLetter – to be unpredictable, not easy to fit into routine, in the box of the European idea of time.
Coming back to the story, the word “relation” appeared constantly in the conversation with Be and Seasun. It plays a very important role in the case of bride and groom. But it is also crucial to carry on the project, which stands without money and with no formal status.
B: This is the first rule: no money.
S: The sponsors we get money from pay directly to the company which, for example, provides us food or room for a given event. Brides pay directly to the groom. We don’t touch money at all. We don’t want people to misunderstand. Often when money starts to flow into the project people become suspicious.
B: We also want to show others that you don’t need to have money to do something good for society. What’s more, we don’t have any official status. Whatever we do is informal. We don’t want to register anything. We want to devote our time to support farmers and create relations, without wasting it on formalities. What makes the initiative to be sustainable are the people who want to join, not the form itself. People have to consider buying healthy, organic rice a normal thing in their daily life. Only then the real change happens.
Leading the project requires quite a lot of courage and commitment from volunteers. But no less from farmers.
B: Most of the people think doing organic is crazy. You have to stop using chemicals for 3 to 5 years before you can claim to produce organic. During that time you can bank on nobody. There is no system to migrate people from chemical to organic farming. You produce 30 % of what you produced before and your rice is not as beautiful. In addition, you have to find another mill to avoid your crop to be mixed up with mass production rice. For most farmers this is a dead end, they can’t go that way. That’s why they stay with chemicals. They have to be very brave to change it.
S: They also have to find the market. But it’s disconnected since 50 years. If they can’t find clients for their organic rice, they have to sell it as standard to survive, so they often come back to using chemicals. Those who are able to continue with organic are already leaders strong enough to find the market. We help them with finding clients but we never promise to match their capacity. We empower them, train them, support them, give them knowledge so they can stand on their own feet. Organic farmers are true heroes. Leaders and examples for their own communities. Soon you are going to meet Tor, one of them.
Indeed, we met him. Leader and example for his own community is the perfect description of Tor, with whom we had a chance to spend a few days working on his farm and observing his daily challenges. But this is the story for the next issue of GoodNewsLetter.
As rice is so basic to Thai society the issues related to its production are very sensitive. In the short period we spent in the country we met several organizations working on improving farmers life and quality of food. Among others we mention:
FolkRice – organization with headquarters in Bangkok, which focuses on fostering the local varieties of rice, associating organic farmers and connecting them with customers. The leader of the organization, named Action (Anukool Saibejra), is a farmer himself. Currently, he is preparing an application which will make it easier to buy organic rice. They also develop other rice-based products, f.e. cosmetics.
An initiative from Udon Thani, a city close to the border with Laos. It aims at challenging the mass production society via a microfinance program to implement game-changing solutions for the rice producer and the consumer alike. Poa (Pichci Uamturapojn) and his team are Collaborating now with six villages, putting their idea into practice and networking the villages together.
Pradhana Chariyavilasakul (Be) – founder and volunteer of Pookpintokao project, which aim at building relations between organic farmers and customers. She is professional marketing specialist.
Seansun Tanesvivat – volunteer of Pookpintokao project. She is professional trainer and coach.
Contacts thanks to the Ashoka Thailand Foundation which supports social innovators and Ma:D Club for Change.
Check out Pookpintokao's Facebook and website