The Real Story about Thai Fruit: Growth of Internet Sales and Pandemic Worries

Thai fruit has been the subject of controversy lately, thanks to a New York Times article that provoked the ire of both Thai readers and BIPOC writers in food media. The subjects of the story were exoticized into unrecognizability: rambutan as the fruit that “bears more than a passing resemblance to a coronavirus,” durian as “a fruit encased in a prickly armour that smells of a deep, dank rot.”

The emphasis of the story itself – the prohibitive difficulty of eating Thai fruit – was also unrecognizable to the consumers worldwide that have made Thailand the world’s 2019 sixth biggest fruit exporter.

But with Covid-19 restrictions shutting down markets, restaurants and bringing exports to a standstill, the real story about Thai fruit for Thai farmers and consumers has been the development of the direct-to-consumer model. Throughout the month of April, grade-A mayong-chit – the delicate fruit also known as Marian Plum or ‘Plango’ – found their way into Thai homes, as they were re-routed from temporarily closed export routes. High-quality mango and durian made similarly unexpected journeys to local markets, via makeshift crates and KERRY motorbikes.

In this process, the internet has become the farm’s best friend. Farmers accessed their customers directly through LINE groups, Facebook pages and Facebook groups, helped by the explosion of university and high school-based online ‘marketplaces’ that rely on alumni fraternity to give local goods a boost.

But it is an ambivalent relationship for farmers; the diversity of experiences representing the diversity of farms and their relationship to their fruit. For some, the direct to consumer model is part of a broader generational shift as farmers’ children step in to bring their parents’ business online. For others, this is a temporary arrangement at best – individual customers are far more demanding and capricious than their big business counterparts.

We spoke to four farmers who brought their businesses online during Covid-19, and the possible futures they envision for a closer relationship between farmers and consumers.

The Mango House Farm – Chiang Dao

Jareeporn ‘Biw’ Changprung owns her mango farm in Chiang Dao, and hadn’t thought of herself as an online businesswoman.

“I set up the Facebook page one year ago, and initially only used it for promoting the farm’s activities.” Her mangoes are export-grade, so are usually sold wholesale through export businesses at 60 – 90 baht a mango. But once export was limited, the price of mangoes fell to the high teens or low twenties – 18 – 22 baht a mango – which was devastating. “Some farmers were just throwing their produce away,” she says, “it was that bad.”

She decided to begin marketing her products online, and within a week, sold over 200kg of mangoes through Facebook groups alone. “The price is much better online compared to what you can get with middlemen who come directly to the farms.”

But with more pricing power comes the responsibilities of being a businesswoman – something farmers are usually insulated from by middlemen. “Actual farmers don’t have time to deal with customers, or chat with them on LINE. They’ll message us at 1 or 2am. Farmers, unfortunately, don’t have personal admins, we actually have to work the farm ourselves.”

Managing delivery can also be difficult. If it’s same-day delivery to her customers in Bangkok it works well, but any further – to the South, for example – and her produce can be delivered bruised and battered. In one trying incident, her mangoes were kept in overnight storage by KERRY, and mice ate through some of the precious produce. Predictably, the customers were not happy.

“Part of this is that Bangkokians are detached from farmer life and what farmers really go through,” says Dwight Turner, director of Courageous Kitchen. He relates stories of customers being surprised that durian weighed differently when delivered. “But the weight changes as durian gets more ripe!”

Biw acknowledges that she is somewhat of a rarity. “Most farmers don’t have that much time. Usually, the people setting up pages are farmers children, bringing their parents’ stuff to sell.” There are other well-meaning people who set up pages for farmers and deal with customers on their behalf, but she calls these people the “new middlemen.” They give farmers more pricing power, but farmers have to pack their own boxes and deal with delivery, something that traditional middlemen usually do on their behalf.

In future, however, the online business will probably remain a small component of her farm’s revenue. Customers just don’t buy in the volumes produced by her farm. She can sell 20 to 30 baskets to individual consumers but produces 400 – 500 baskets of mangoes. Currently, the rest is offloaded at cheaper prices in the local Chiang Dao market. And the traditional middlemen will come back with higher export prices eventually.

What she’s selling now: golden nam dok mai mangoes, which are usually exported abroad. Buy them (and other things) at Chiang Dao Mango House Farm’s FB page.

Kfruit Delivery – Chantaburi

Atitarn ‘Jib’ Krongsiripaisarn is one of the ‘farmers children’ that Biw speaks of. She graduated with an MBA and works a corporate job in Bangkok, but recently stepped in to help bring her family’s Chantaburi-based farm online.

“My parents don’t know how to do things online, and usually they will sell to middlemen who pick things up from the farm or sell their produce at the Chantaburi market.”

Covid-19 brought about two developments that drew her back into the family business: heavily depressed fruit prices, and more time away from her corporate job. That was important for setting up the online side of the business, she said, since it takes time to price a variety of fruit and fruit products from scratch, as well as develop a roster of customers.

Now that she’s invested in the start-up costs to set up the direct to consumer side of the business, she says it’s been much easier. Her core focus is on quality and customer retention. “If we just focus on high-quality products, people will come back to buy it even if it’s expensive,” she maintains.

An interesting segment on this list of repeat customers are Thai customers based in the U.S., purchasing fruit through Kfruit Delivery to send to their parents or relatives in Thailand. About 30% of her online revenue comes through this channel – a channel that has been developed through word of mouth alone.

But, like Biw, the majority of their income is still likely to come through middlemen. “70% of our revenue is from durian of the monthong variety, and we produce 500 – 600 tonnes a year. Because they ripen and need to be sold within 2 – 3 days, we still need to sell it through traditional channels.” This year, their durians command two thirds the usual price, but the online market is too small and capricious to risk it there.

“People don’t like their durian the same way, especially with regards to ripeness,” she cautions. The spectrum of durian ripeness is broad and customer preferences highly particular. That NYT reporter Hannah Beech can only identify the “dank”-ness of the overripe kind says something about her limited view on the complexities of the durian market.

Now that Thailand is moving past Covid, Jib is likely to continue the online business. Her parents will continue to work through middlemen. Perhaps the revenue mix of online vs. offline will change over time, but for now, she’s happy to keep delivering to equally happy customers.

What they’re selling now: their high quality longan, and some experimental fried durian products. Buy them (and other things) at Kfruit Delivery.

Rai Bon Doi – Chiang Mai

Rai Bon Doi, or ‘Farm in the Mountains’, has had a direct to consumer business model for two years. They produce cold weather fruit like persimmon, plums and avocado which are in high demand, and do so organically. Facebook is far from the only place they sell their produce. They have a LINE group that is 200-strong, made up of customers who follow them very closely. Their produce is usually reserved in advance, at prices they determine.

“Covid-19 had a minimal on our business. Before Covid, we used to sell to Laos, but now the border isn’t open. But we have many customers to support us, who learn about us through word of mouth,” says Nichapa ‘Ou’​ Sirichatyantee. Her family owns and works the farm, and she conducted the entire interview from the fields.

She is part of the generational change that, like Jib, is working to upgrade the family farm business. Her mother and father’s generation would only sell things through middlemen and had to deal with massive price fluctuations owing to market dynamics. Now their plums and longan have their own market, across Bangkok, Isaan and Thailand’s South.

Among indigenous farmers in Thailand’s mountainous north, however, she’s part of the minority that have accepted technology as a way of life. “Other chao khao rely on middlemen, so they were really affected by Covid-19 and the way that middlemen underpriced the produce.”

Unfortunately, it is difficult for her to share Rai Bon Doi’s channels, since they are one of the few organic farms in the area. “Other groups use lots of chemicals in their products, and we can’t guarantee that our customers will be satisfied with that.”

The direct to consumer model works especially well for them, because they are happy to sell organic goods for cheaper than middlemen eventually will. Since they believe in the health benefits of organic produce and sell a large portion of the produce within the indigenous mountain-based community, it functions partly as a community service.

What they’re selling now: crunchy, cold organic Asian Pears. Buy them (and other things) at Rai Bon Doi’s FB page, and see if you can get an invite to the exclusive LINE group too.

The Natural Resources and Environmental Development Research Institute – Chiang Mai

Nai plays a somewhat different function in the farming community. She’s a researcher, not a farmer. But her Institute has been helping farmers access business for 14 years, and she has a close working relationship with the five farming communities that the Institute supports.

The unique thing about their sales model is that they don’t grade farmers’ produce.

“When farmers can only sell a certain grade of produce, they can only sell half of the vegetables they grow and have to throw the other half away. We’ve seen farmers crying at all this waste. With our model, consumers have to overlook beauty, but the food is safe, organic and comes from farmers directly.”

Her farmers have been hard-hit with Covid. “Usually we have regular deliveries to restaurants,” she notes, “but some of them were closed temporarily, some of them are now closed permanently. So, we had to explore different methods.” The institute staff – herself included – stopped taking salary, to continue supporting the farmers.

Nai echoes a concern that many others have articulated: that customers online just don’t buy enough fruit or vegetable to make up for lost revenue. “We’ve posted in the Chiang Mai University alumni group and have been able to sell a quarter of all of our purple sweet potatoes,” she laments. Customers can also be unreliable, reserving produce one day and disappearing the next. The fleeting nature of online interaction allows people to do this with little shame.

It’s also more difficult to sell ungraded products to internet consumers. “There’s a gap in what the public knows and what the public should expect – starting with what vegetables actually look like,” says Turner.

For other products, however, the Facebook groups have proved very successful. Through Let’s Help Farmers, for example, Nai has been able to sell woven cloth on behalf of the Ban Ka Mun community.

She doesn’t have experience in business but works around the clock to make sure as much of the produce is sold as possible before it becomes overripe. “I’m a researcher, so the words I use are very stiff, not good for sales,” she laughs, “I’m still learning.”

Online channels provide opportunities – no matter how limited. “It’s better than having the farmer’s produce go to waste,” she acknowledges. At the same time, she emphasizes the need to develop more locally driven online marketplaces, which are tied not just by community but by location. This can make online shopping more approachable for those who want good quality produce quickly. Meanwhile, she’s working with the farming communities to develop more durable goods.

What they’re selling now: Woven cloth, avocado and purple sweet potatoes! Buy them (and other things) at their Facebook page

Looking forward

For most Thai fruit and vegetable producers, direct to consumer sales will not be the panacea that the internet has promised. The hybrid model may become more popular in the future, but for now, the traditional middleman – with their purchasing power in the hundreds and thousands of kilograms – will live on.

For Turner, Thai consumers also have to take on more responsibility in supporting their farmers. Bangkokians in particular aren’t often willing to pay high enough prices for export-grade goods, since they have limited knowledge about the arduous process of going from farm to table.

In Turner’s words: “There has never been a better time than now to get curious about how our food is produced, to seek out farmers directly, and support people who support farmers.”

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