Practical experience

A Successful Case of CSA that Embraces Alternative Commercial Values—a Hotel in Thailand

Ingredients for the food and drinks served by the hotel are sourced from local small-scale organic farmers. (Ranae So) 

Text and photos by Ranae So (Veteran fair trade campaigner, founder of Glocal Care, a voluntary organisation that advocates ethical economics)

Editor's note:

To promote the learning and practicing of alternative economics, last year PCD supported organisations from mainland China and Hong Kong that advocate sustainable living to take part in “The Mindful Markets Social Enterprise Course” co-organised by Thai NGOs. The course, which took place between August 23 and September 4 2016, aimed to provide training to those who wanted to set up their own social enterprises. On the course, participants learnt about the concepts of mutual help and cooperation between producers and distributors and discussed ways to change the profit-orientated consumerism seen in the global market economy into ethical consumption. Participants came from many countries, including China, Myanmar, Bhutan, Russia, Japan and Hong Kong.

Ranae So, a member of the fair-trade movement in Hong Kong and the founder of Glocal Care, a voluntary organisation that advocates ethical economics, participated in the course last year. The course participants visited four social enterprises, two farmers’ cooperatives and a food forest. They also listened to many cases of sustainable agriculture, one of which was Sampran Riverside Hotel, located in the central part of Thailand. Arrut Navaraj, the third- generation successor of the family business, introduced the element of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) into his business when he undertook reforming the hotel’s management. By adopting an alternative economic model that emphasised self-sufficiency, not only did he generate income for the hotel, he also helped small-scale farmers to stay out of poverty. Below, Ranae introduces the casestudy of Sampran Riverside Hotel, a successful example of CSA.

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Sampran Riverside Hotel from the outside. ( Meals and drinks offered by Sampran Riverside Hotel. (Ranae So)
The hotel’s plan on its fair-trade business. (Ranae So) Ingredients for the food and drinks served by the hotel are sourced from local small-scale organic farmers. (Ranae So) 
An introduction of the farmers who supply the food is placed next to the food served by the hotel. (Ranae So) Ranae poses for a picture with Khun Orawan, an organic pineapple farmer, after a chat. (Ranae So)
A corner of the hotel complex is used as a farmers’ market for organic small-scale farmers to display and sell their products. (Ranae So) During the course in Thailand, participants explored how organic agricultural production might reshape conventional agriculture and affect positive change. (Ranae So)
Course participants pose for a photo. (Ranae So)  

Arrut Navaraj’s grandmother was Thai and she loved roses. She opened the Rose Garden Riverside Hotel, a family business, in 1962. Arrut Navarai once worked as an investment financial analyst in the USA whose job involved reading graphs and figures and inputting trading orders everyday. Tired of his physically and mentally boring job, he decided to return to Thailand. After he took over the management of the hotel set up by his grandmother, he changed its name to Sampran Riverside Hotel and became its third-generation owner.

In memory of his grandmother, he grew a lot of organic roses in the hotel. He also began to think about using the hotel as a platform to source safe and healthy food, to bring hope to the farmers on the future of the country’s agricultural industry and even one day help them out of poverty.

Benefitting oneself and others—a new commercial value

In the beginning, Sampran Riverside Hotel continued to operate in conventional ways, but Arrut Navaraj knew that in the long run, it would not be able to compete. He decided to establish a completely new way of running his business by introducing reforms and integrating social principles, such as “organic”, “fair trade” and CSA values,. Adopting the economics of self-sufficiency, he introduced a chain of values into the supply chain and promised to take social responsibility by “purchasing ethically”. It sounded like a big melting-pot of ideas, but it was thanks to them that the business of the hotel became more diverse and the changes became more concrete. It attracted many visitors, including Thai politicians and even foreign visitors, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, former leader of Myanmar’s people’s movement. The success of the hotel helps people to realise that an economy built on small-scale farming and agriculture does not hamper social development and instead can bring wealth and honour.

Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand who passed away last year, advocated the philosophy of sufficiency economy and wanted to help small-scale farmers in Thailand build self-sufficient homes by clearing lands for farming to produce food. The agricultural landscape created collectively by small-scale farmers could also prevent rivers from flooding, retain water and conserve the ecology, contributing to the harmonious coexistence of all beings and all spirits. Arrut Navaraj supports what the king advocated, so he introduced the economic outlook of self-sufficiency as a business strategy for his hotel.

Ethical purchasing—a win-win solution

To create a chain of ethical values, Arrut Navaraj and his management team drew up an ethical purchasing policy. They do not rely only on the mainstream market for their supplies and instead send their chefs to neighbouring villages to buy fresh food and ingredients. An introduction of the hotels’ policy is displayed on the self-service counter and on it are stories of small-scale farmers who produce the food the hotel serves. Because of this, the customers feel that they know about the food they eat, and a connection between the producers and the consumers is built. Apart from being able to better inform people of where their food comes from, it also helps them to develop an awareness of mutual help.

In addition, Arrut Navaraj has allocated an unused part of the hotel to the Sookjai Weekend Farmer’s Market so that small-scale farmers may have a venue to sell their products to consumers directly. When we visited the market, we were fortunate enough to be able to chat briefly with Khun Orawan, an organic pineapple farmer. In the past six years, she, her husband and their daughter had been driving weekly for an hour from their farm to the organic market. She was grateful to the hotel for the market and her products were well received by the customers. Thanks to the market, her family could earn a living. Most of the pineapples that the hotel uses come from her farm. The purchasing price is higher than the market price and this motivated her family to continue to grow pineapples.

Cost efficiency for the hotel and benefits for all stakeholders

Over 1,000 people come to the farmers’ market every week, and that has generated considerable amount of income within five years. In terms of organic certification, participants are allowed to hold certifications such as Good Agricultural Practice (GAP), the standards of which are lower than some other certification systems. In the past, there was public uproar over reports that food organisations and the media found pesticide residue in GAP products. However, GAP farmers need a transition period to change from conventional farming to organic farming and to save money to apply for a certification from the Organic Agriculture Certification Thailand (ACT), which is more recognized professionally. Arrut Navaraj does not want to stop farmers from taking part in the farmers’ market because of the issue of certification even though he is very active in promoting ACT certification and the Participating Guarantee System (PGS) promoted by International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements-Organics International (IFOAM). The latter is a system that does not rely on a third party to guarantee the quality of the products. Instead it emphasises the role of the community itself in establishing rules and order. It also explores how trust can be built through interaction between producers and consumers (for example, consumers can visit the farms themselves to find out how farmers cultivate their products organically).

People around the world have been reflecting on the shortcomings of the organic certification system. People are questioning whether the certification fees are too high. When the fees are too high and small-scale farmers are not able to certify their products, the certification system would only serve wealthy and powerful agricultural enterprises and transnational food corporations. People are also questioning the amount of emphasis placed on the strict implementation of standards while the need to raise awareness of producers and consumers regarding their responsibility for problems created by the production-consumption chain (such as climate change and environmental degradation) is ignored. Other questions include whether or not the need to build a relationship between producers and consumers based on mutual help has been disregarded; and whether or not we can replace the conventional certification system with a “trust economy” built on exchanges through telling the stories of producers and the production process.

The hotel works with 10 farmers’ organisations and as many as 60 farmers are certified by IFOAM. Farmers should receive a decent reward for their strenuous labour and Arrut Navaraj is willing to pay farmers for their products at the minimum price set down by fair trade standards. For most businessmen, this seems to violate the logic of economics. Many people are surprised to learn that the cost of running the hotel has not gone up. Instead, what would have become commission for agents is now part of the income of small-scale farmers.

The mainstream economy endangers the environment

The way the alternative supply chain works shows the unfair side of the mainstream market in Thailand and the harm it brings. Mainstream enterprises procure goods through agents who exploit producers for a higher commission. In the pyramid relationship of the supply chain and under very difficult conditions, farmers are forced to use cheap pesticides and chemical fertilisers in order to boost production. In the end, the wellbeing of farmers and nature is sacrificed for the sake of profit.

Many local groups in Hong Kong have been through the experience of launching collective purchasing initiatives which are often criticised for their cost inefficiency, placing them under a lot of pressure. If enterprises in Hong Kong were more committed and did not see these initiatives merely as “greenwashing” or “fairwashing” publicity stunts, would things be different? The reason why Sampran Riverside Hotel is admirable is that they practice what they believe, down to the most inconspicuous things. Every bowl of rice that the hotel serves is cooked from rice supplied under a collective purchase scheme. Sampran Riverside Hotel and six other hotels purchase organic jasmine rice from farmers regularly. Small-scale farmers often have difficulty competing with large corporations because the cost of transportation and logistics is high. In the collective purchase scheme initiated by Arrut Navaraj, farmers have the support of trustworthy corporations and the problem they face in distribution is alleviated considerably. They can therefore concentrate in managing their farms and cultivating crops.

Learning from Thailand

After I got back from Thailand, I kept reminiscing about the model of small-scale farming in Thailand. When I compared the situation of Hong Kong and that of Thailand, it dawned on me that there was a role social enterprises could play in the production chain. They could be the bridges between producers and consumers.

In 2013, my friends and I set up Glocal Care. The goal was to introduce the experience of small-scale farming overseas and ethical consumption into local food education.

In the summer of 2015, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to start working for a local organic farm for a year. During this period, I experienced the truly difficult circumstances under which local farms exist. Consumers are worried either about the heat or the rain and afraid of mosquitoes and insects. Eventually we decided to accommodate the urban mode of consumption of Hong Kong people and bring farmers’ products into the city. At the same time, we created innovative educational projects, such as DIY projects to make corn noodles, corn butter, corn lattes, etc. through which concepts and ideas about ethical consumption were introduced to the participants.

In the last two years, more and more people have got to know our work. Teresa Camou, a Mexican movie director had given us permission to hold free screenings of her documentary, Sunú (2015) so that Hong Kong audiences may learn about the danger that genetically modified maize poses to the livelihood of Mexican farmers; KUC Space and com n’ sense in Hong Kong sponsored this activity by providing venues for screenings. At the invitation of Hong Kong Broadband Network, a local telecommunication company, we organised a “Week of Sustainable Corn” in the office during which corn was introduced to the menu of the company’s canteen. Later we were invited by City Farm to talk to local teachers and students about the issue of exploitation and market monopoly in the production chain of corn.

The experience we gained from our visit in Thailand has helped us improve the ways we run our programmes in Glocal Care. Now we work with more than 22 local farms and aim to help local farmers search for areas of development by organising more innovative and meaningful activities together with farmers and other stakeholders.

Translator: Cheung Choi-wan
English Editor: Dominique Hua