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Thailand's social enterprises eye Asian markets

Some of Doi Tung's products for Muji.
Some of Doi Tung's products for Muji.PHOTO: YASMIN LEE ARPON FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Mr Jackrayu Kongurai, product designer at Doi Tung Development Project, supervises the work at the factory.
Mr Jackrayu Kongurai, product designer at Doi Tung Development Project, supervises the work at the factory.PHOTO: YASMIN LEE ARPON FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
A craftsman working at Doi Tung's factory in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.
A craftsman working at Doi Tung's factory in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.PHOTO: YASMIN LEE ARPON FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Ceramics for Doi Tung's collection for Ikea.
Ceramics for Doi Tung's collection for Ikea.PHOTO: YASMIN LEE ARPON FOR THE STRAITS TIMES
Ceramics for Doi Tung's collection for Ikea.
Ceramics for Doi Tung's collection for Ikea. PHOTO: YASMIN LEE ARPON FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

CHIANG RAI (Thailand) - Craftsmen are hard at work in a factory at the foot of Doi Tung mountain in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, part of Asia's so-called Golden Triangle where opium used to be the main trade.

The craftsmen are working on a new ceramic collection to be sold at Ikea stores in Europe later this year.

Mr Jackrayu Kongurai, 36, product designer at Doi Tung Development Project (DTDP), is in town to supervise the work, with only a few months left before the roll out in October.

The DTDP is in charge of implementing sustainable livelihood projects for villagers in the area, and creating local crafts is one of the social enterprises supported by the Royal Project Foundation founded by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1969.

The foundation encouraged poor villagers to plant alternative crops after their lands were left bare and barren because of their slash and burn farming method.

It helped them to start planting macadamia and coffee trees, which provided them with a more stable source of income.

Because of this, villagers were able to send their children to school. Some of the children have left to work in Bangkok, while others have opted to stay behind to continue farming, or work in social enterprises.

Doi Tung is now one of the famous Thai brand names synonymous with macadamia nuts, coffee and northern-style crafts.

Its new collection in collaboration with Ikea is called Eftertanke, which means "reflection" in Swedish, and will include handwoven textiles. This is the fifth collection under its partnership with the Swedish furniture store.

Mr Jackrayu, a graduate of Chulalongkorn University's Industrial Design Department, said there are 331 craftsmen working on the new collection, most of whom are women.

This is an impressive increase from only 40 craftsmen who worked on Doi Tung's first ceramic and handwoven textiles collection for Ikea which was launched in 2013.

The first few collections were initially sold only in Europe.

In 2015, Ikea Singapore requested to sell the products. It was Doi Tung's first market in Asia outside of Thailand.

"We agreed to sell two collections, Välbalans and Fullviktig, in Singapore in 2015 and 2016 to test the Asian market," said Ms Dollaporn Rujiravong, senior communication manager at the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which manages Doi Tung.

"We are considering expanding to other Asian countries outside of Thailand," she added.

Mr Jakcrayu said it takes about six months for the design and prototype development process, and eight to 10 months for the production process for each collection.

"I get inspiration from our local handicrafts and combine them with tribal culture, like the textures and patterns of local jewellery, clothes and costumes of tribes," he said.

Two more collections to be launched in 2018 and 2019 are now in the works.

Aside from Ikea, Doi Tung has partnered with Japan's Muji this year to produce ceramics, mulberry paper and textiles. These products, however, will only be available in Muji's Thailand stores but Mr Jackrayu said they may consider exporting them to Japan if the response is good.

Doi Kham, another northern Thailand-based social enterprise focused on rural farm development, has recently tapped into Asian markets as well.

The company produces fruit juices and concentrates, dehydrated fruits, jam, honey and even beauty products. It exports 30 per cent of its output to the Asia Pacific region.

Ms Piyaporn Tungboon, export and industrial sales executive, said their fruit juices are now available in Singapore's FairPrice. She added that their drinks products are also available at the Simple Eats - The Thai Noodle Bar at Changi International Airport's Terminal 1.

"Singapore is one of our promising Asian markets," Ms Piyaporn said. "Singaporeans love our mango, lychee, mixed berry and strawberry juices."

Ms Dollaporn said that the objectives of these royal initiative projects were to provide hilltribes and farmers a stable livelihood. She noted that when Doi Tung first came to the area in 1988, people were disconnected from the rest of the world.

"There was poverty and lack of opportunity and the foundation needed to help the villagers earn the same amount of money they were earning through opium," she said. "They needed jobs and the children needed opportunities to go to school."

Today, their children have either left for greener pastures or those who have stayed have contributed in making brands like Doi Tung and Doi Kham expand beyond the northern highlands.