We are free because we self-sustain

Vitoon Panyakul, Greennet, Thailand

“ I am an agriculturist and economist by training. More than twenty years ago, I did research on sustainable agriculture and the constraints for farmers. The main constraint was lack of market access, so I thought I would do something about it. I was working for NGO’s in those days, but they were wary of venturing into commerce. That is why I started Green Net, a social enterprise.

I knew many producer groups, so I focused on buying and selling. I hoped it would convince farmers to join the ‘alternative market’, as we called it then, which was much the same as Fair Trade. We were approached by Swiss Fair Trade and they were interested in rice. It was a huge learning process, because we had no business experience. I remember big issues with the quality. We exported a container of rice to Italy, but too many grains were broken and the rice ended up as animal food.

In the beginning, we focused on the domestic market. I started with classmates, friends, health shops, hoping to eventually reach supermarkets. But health shops did not survive the financial crisis in Thailand of 1997. Now we focus more on export. The domestic market is still limited. Our export incomes subsidize our activities on the domestic market.

We set up cooperatives of consumers and producers, so we cover the whole chain. In 2000 we created a non-profit foundation to sustain our work with the organic farmers. We make some profit, which makes us self-financing.

With Fair Trade we work on export of organic production of rice, coconut milk and baby corn. We are now considering pineapple and coffee. Together with the Thai organic movement we set up a local organic certification body, recognized by the relevant countries. We continue to focus on helping farmers with certification, and do some consultancy for the government and the private sector.

Most problematic are the quality of the products and economy of scale. We are a social enterprise, not a commercial business – that is a different culture. You can’t fire farmers who make mistakes. If you find a piece of glass in the rice, you have to talk to the producers, you have to keep on checking the quality, to create more quality control. The scale remains a problem, because the production of farmers’ groups is small. Their rice mill does not work 24/7, like commercial mills do. We have to find a balance between doing business and social objectives.

At the start, some people talked about linking up with consumers and becoming a political power. We gave up on that. We are not Superman. Right now we concentrate on reducing the costs for the farmers.

We see a new market emerging, called ‘urban farming’. Since the heavy flooding in Thailand during the previous rainy season, and inspired by His Majesty the King’s philosophy of self-sufficiency, people start producing their own food. We think of selling vegetable seeds, potting compost and other inputs. I hope it works. You never know if you don’t try. We are free to choose what we do, because we are self-sustaining. We don’t have to write proposals!”

GreenNet: www.greennet.or.th

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