How a new kind of rice is combatting inequality

“The millennial generation is more purpose-driven,” observed Unilever CEO Paul Polman, in his keynote address at the DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia 2016 Awards Ceremony, an Asia-wide competition that provides multi-dimensional support for the region’s innovative, scalable social ventures.

Peetachai “Neil” Dejkraisak, 34 (above right), and Pornthida “Palmmy” Wongphatharakul, 31 (above left) are two of the millennials Polman was talking about. The social entrepreneurs achieve a combination of passion and sustainability through their social enterprise, Siam Organic. Siam Organic came out top in the competition, receiving SGD 75,000 in funding. 

Both MBA holders turned their back on lucrative financial careers and used their personal savings from previous jobs to invest in a bigger vision: to eradicate poverty among Thailand’s small-scale rice farmers through a nutritious, organic innovation: Jasberry rice. 

With their combined savings of 100,000 Singapore dollars they paid for Jasberry’s staff, farmers’ rice stocks, packaging, and marketing. 

Jasberry rice is a new strain of non-genetically modified rice that achieves a higher yield and consistency of quality. It was developed by a leading rice scientist in Thailand with the input of the famers. The process is akin to the mixing of grapes in blended wines.

The dark purple rice is 100% whole-grain, soft in texture and has the aroma of Thai Jasmine rice. It is also very nutritious, being high in vitamin E and beta-carotene. It also has 10 times the antioxidants of green tea.

The visionary founders’ passion for social responsibility began with a deep sense of personal responsibility for their surrounding environment. Raised on a farm in Australia, Neil was taught to “respect the land”. 

For Palmmy, organic farming is a worthy cause to invest in. “We have a choice in life, and that is a privilege we must not take for granted. We only have one chance to live life, what will we do with it?” These was the soul-searching question Neil and Palmmy asked themselves before starting Siam Organic five years ago.   

Consequently, a sustainable world is the founders’ topmost concern. Not willing to accept the status quo of Thai farmers being amongst the poorest in the world on a net income of USD$0.40 a day, Neil and Palmmy set out to develop a solution to address the prevailing problems of low crop yield, high cost and misplaced government pricing intervention. 

Jasberry rice is popular with ethically minded and health conscious consumers in both Thailand and the U.S – over 62,000 U.S. households have bought the rice to date. 

Jasberry’s high nutritional content and uniqueness appeals to these consumers, thereby allowing Jasberry rice to command a higher market price. Thus, the team is able to pay a premium to the farmers they work with. 

The uniformly high financial and social returns demonstrate the effectiveness of this market-driven solution. In 2015, Siam Organic helped to increase the income of 1,026 small-scale farmers by 14 times, to USD 5.8 per day. The lean team at the organisation – seven currently – expects to impact up to 20,000 farmers by 2019. 

In addition, it has a social return on investment of 4.3, with each dollar invested in the company generating over four times social return to the farmers. Despite generating decent revenue, the challenge of scaling up remains. Siam Organic still needs US$600,000 to be able to expand farmer cooperatives production base to meet international demand.

For Neil and Palmmy, purpose is found in practically, sustainably benefiting the lives of others through business – one grain at a time. At the core of it, they believe that doing good – and doing it well - will lead to long term happiness.

The DBS-NUS Social Venture Challenge Asia is an Asia-wide competition for social enterprises organised by NUS Enterprise in partnership with the DBS Foundation. This competition identifies and supports innovative social enterprises that have the potential to generate positive, scalable and sustainable social impact.