From tourism to coffee, young Thai entrepreneurs blend profit with social good

Social entrepreneur Ayu “Lee” Chuepahad a hard time convincing coffee farmers in his community to work with him due to his youth and inexperience. (Reuters)
Updated 06 October 2017
0

From tourism to coffee, young Thai entrepreneurs blend profit with social good

BANGKOK: Six years ago, Somsak “Pai” Boonkam drew up a plan with two villages in northern Thailand for tourists to stay with local families and immerse themselves in hill-tribe culture. The aim was for the villagers to see some financial benefit from their country’s multi-billion-dollar tourism industry.
Pai was sure it would be a hit with tour operators in Bangkok — but he was wrong. “They weren’t even interested to go and inspect the places,” he said.
That pushed the former engineer, now 34, to set up Local Alike, a travel consultancy that promotes sustainable tourism in 70 villages.
“I grew up in the same situation where there weren’t many economic opportunities, so it attracts me to work for the people,” said Pai, who lived with his grandparents in a village in northeast Thailand until he was eight while his parents traveled in search of laboring work.
A growing number of young Thai entrepreneurs like Pai are getting involved in activities that have traditionally been the domain of the government and development groups — from providing water in remote communities to helping coffee farmers earn a fair income.
This new generation of business owners believes running companies that invest in tackling social and environmental causes is a better way to help than relying on donors’ whims.
“There are so many problems in Thailand that need to be solved,” said Pai. “I see (this as) the new pattern of doing business — doing good while making money.”
Half of Local Alike’s business units are now financially sustainable and it runs a development fund that supports local projects, he said.
Thailand’s transformation to an upper-middle-income country in less than a generation has lifted millions out of poverty, but inequality and deprivation persist.
Over 80 percent of Thailand’s 7.1 million poor people live in rural areas, and an additional 6.7 million are just above the poverty line, according to the World Bank.
The Southeast Asian nation of 66 million also faces serious challenges of environmental degradation and resource depletion caused by mass tourism, pollution, generation of waste and intensive farming, experts say.
Aliza Napartivaumnuay, 34, grew up in Kolkata, Rome and Seattle before moving back to Bangkok. She spent nearly a decade working in the retail supply chain before co-founding Socialgiver more than two years ago.
The online business offers deals on leisure services, including hotel rooms, restaurant tables and spa packages. The proceeds fund social and green projects, such as reforestation, children’s education and hospital beds for poor patients.
The idea was not to set up a business that spoke only to people who already care about such issues.
“We wanted to create something more inclusive and approachable by offering services users are accustomed to spending on,” said Aliza.
Many trace the birth of social enterprise in Thailand to the establishment in 1974 of Cabbages and Condoms, a successful Bangkok restaurant that funds sexual health education and provision.
But the concept only started gathering pace a few years ago, with incubators such as Change Fusion fostering start-ups.
Now there are businesses that enable blind children to learn using a special drawing board, or that train and employ people with disabilities. Others support widows and orphans affected by the conflict in southern Thailand, and use IT to help health professionals and charities develop mobile apps.
There are between 5,000 and 10,000 organizations in Thailand that fit the social enterprise model, said Nuttaphong Jaruwannaphong, director of the Thai Social Enterprise Office (TSEO).
Saks Rouypirom, 39, opened Broccoli Revolution, a trendy restaurant serving vegan, mostly organic food to help fund his non-profit Sati. Its projects include installing water filters in northern villages in partnership with US-based Planet Water Foundation.
“Sati means ‘mindfulness’ so it’s about being mindful of problems and solutions,” said Saks, who buys mushrooms for his restaurant from a street-child shelter and kale from farmers to whom he has provided the seeds.
“Being a business owner, you can make a conscious decision to support these causes,” added Saks, who was born and raised in the United States.
Still, for all the excitement about their potential, social enterprises face multiple challenges in Thailand, including a lack of regulation and limited access to finance.
It was “very difficult” to get investors on board to set up Local Alike, when they were told they would not see all the profits, said Pai. He received support from Change Fusion and entered business competitions to win funding.
In Thailand, companies seeking certification as social enterprises cannot pay more than 30 percent of their profits in the form of shareholder dividends, said TSEO’s Nuttaphong.
When Ayu “Lee” Chuepa wanted to help coffee farmers in his community earn a fair income, he had a hard time convincing villagers to work with him due to his youth and inexperience.
“My mother said that is to be expected. So I asked, ‘If you weren’t my parents, would you have joined me?’. They said, ‘Of course not. Are you crazy?’” he recounted, laughing.
Things have since improved. The Stock Exchange of Thailand, for example, now has an online platform that promotes investment in social enterprises.
But the public perception that such businesses offer lower-quality products still needs to be tackled, experts say.
“Since the beginning, I didn’t want to sell our products by making people feel pity. I want them to buy because they’re good,” said Lee, who belongs to the Akha ethnic minority.
He is now building his third branch of Akha Ama Coffee, with help from architects at Jai Baan Studio, another social enterprise that uses local resources and nature in its designs.
Lee hopes the division between social and traditional businesses will fade with time. “I want everyone in the world to be a social entrepreneur, doing good,” he said.


Click and save: websites help Asian maids escape debt bondage

Updated 18 June 2018
0

Click and save: websites help Asian maids escape debt bondage

  • From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages
  • Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws

HONG KONG/BEIRUT: Worn out and empty, it was past midnight when Filipino maid Genelie Millan dragged herself back to her room, took out her phone to search for a way to escape her abusive employer — and came across a website that changed her life. HelperChoice is one of several online services cutting out the middleman — recruiters who charge would-be maids exorbitant fees – and helping them to avoid getting trapped in debt bondage to exploitative employers.
Since leaving her 11-year-old son in the Philippines to work in Hong Kong in 2010, Millan had been forced to sleep on a sofa and hit with a pair of chopsticks before finding the site which let her choose her own, more sympathetic boss. “They treat me like their family, they trust me a lot,” the 39-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
From Asia to the Middle East, thousands of migrant domestic workers are trapped in debt and cannot escape, even if they are abused, as they have to work to repay the recruiters that found them work and often make deductions from their monthly wages.
Affluent financial hub Hong Kong is one of the biggest destinations for maids in Asia, with some 370,000 women from the Philippines and Indonesia heading in large numbers to work there, according to government data.
Millan borrowed 100,000 Philippine pesos ($1,915) to pay recruiters when she moved to the southern Chinese city – a huge sum for someone from a poor Filipino family.
The Hong Kong-based HelperChoice website provides a platform for employers and helpers to connect directly and promises to help them find the “perfect match in an ethical way.”

WIN-WIN
For a fee starting at HK$350 ($45), potential employers can log on to the portal and access a database of job-seeking helpers to set up interviews. Helpers do not pay to register.
Employers can choose to pay more for additional services such as having the paperwork done on their behalf.
“It’s a win-win situation,” HelperChoice’s chief executive Alexandra Golovanow said, adding that both employers and helpers can keep looking until they find the right candidate.
The website, set up in 2012, has found jobs for about 8,000 maids, Golovanow said, adding that its popularity was due in part to heightened awareness about their mistreatment.
In Hong Kong, laws stipulate recruiters cannot charge more than 10 percent of a helper’s first month salary but a study by campaign group Rights Exposure showed in reality maids are often overcharged, sometimes 25 times the legally permitted amount.
“In some cases, employment agencies also take away their passport. Helpers just can’t leave because they have no paper, no documentations,” Golovanow said.
“This is modern slavery — people have no alternatives.”
A similar initiative, Hong Kong-based Fair Employment Agency (FEA) also allows employers and helpers to register online and only charges the bosses for the hiring.
Unlike HelperChoice, a team of staff at FEA help match maids to bosses based on criteria they have entered on their profile.
The FEA has placed 2,000 helpers with employers since it was set up in 2015 and estimates it has saved these workers altogether some $3 million — money which would otherwise have gone to recruiters.
“Right now the reason why recruitment is so mired in these unethical things is because there are too many players and no accountability,” said Victoria Ahn from the Fair Employment Foundation, which runs the FEA project.
“Technology will play a huge role in clearing that up and reducing the number of players.”
EMPOWERMENT
Despite such efforts to clean up the industry, activists say the multimillion-dollar recruitment trade will continue and the government must step up its actions against unscrupulous firms.
Of about 3,000 recruitment agencies in Hong Kong, the government told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 42 were convicted between 2012 and 2017 for violating laws, but it did not specify if the convictions were related to overcharging.
“Vigorous enforcement action will be taken out against any employment agencies’ contravention to the law,” a spokesman from the labor department said in emailed comments.
Hong Kong this year introduced laws with heavier fines and three-year prison terms for recruiters overcharging helpers.
Such initiatives are also slowly making inroads in the Middle East, which is known for its notorious “kafala” sponsorship system that binds migrant workers to one employer.
The controversial system has long been criticized by activists for exploiting workers and denying them the ability to travel or change jobs without their employer’s consent.
Filipino helper Sheryl Cruz, who is based in Qatar, found out about HelperChoice through Facebook when she was searching for a job after her employer died from cancer in 2016.
Reluctant to go a recruitment agency that would give her no say in who she could work for, she used the portal to connect with a Pakistani family in the Gulf kingdom looking for a maid.
“You can see all the (employers) and what they are looking for and contact them directly,” the 31-year-old said.
Cruz, who has 12 years experience as a domestic worker, felt empowered as, for the first time, she was able to set her own terms when negotiating for the new job — she asked for a day off and a higher salary.
“I felt good setting my salary,” she said.
For Millan in Hong Kong, HelperChoice was a godsend.
Living with a boss she likes is a big change, having begged a previous employer to treat her “as a person, not an animal.”
Despite all the hardship, she does not think about quitting.
“I always think about my son — my son’s future,” she said, smiling at other domestic workers who, like her, were enjoying a Sunday break in a Hong Kong park.