China's farmers reap rich harvest through video-sharing apps

Farmer Ma Gongzuo working while being filmed on a smartphone. Such videos enable Chinese consumers to see how their products are made and have helped farmers out of poverty.
Farmer Ma Gongzuo working while being filmed on a smartphone. Such videos enable Chinese consumers to see how their products are made and have helped farmers out of poverty. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HENGZHANG (China) • "Do you want a piece?" beekeeper Ma Gongzuo says, looking into the camera of a friend's smartphone before biting into the dripping comb of amber-coloured honey.

The clip goes out to his 737,000 followers on Douyin - the Chinese version of popular video sharing app TikTok - which has 400 million users in China and has turned Mr Ma into something of a celebrity.

Creating videos has become a popular sales tactic for Chinese farmers: The clips show increasingly discerning consumers the origins of the product and provide a window into rural life that captures audiences' imagination.

For some, it has helped them find a way out of poverty, which the Chinese government hopes to eradicate by this year.

"Everyone said I was good for nothing when they saw I'd come back," Mr Ma, 31, says of his return to his village after a failed attempt at running an online clothing business.

"They tell us that we can only get out of poverty if we study and get a job in a city," he adds.

Today, Mr Ma drives an expensive car and has already earned enough to buy property and help his parents and fellow villagers with their homes and businesses.

"I SHOW MY LIFE"

In 2015, Mr Ma took on his family's honey-producing business in the verdant hills of Zhejiang province and, thanks to e-commerce apps, managed to turn a yearly revenue of 1 million yuan.

But sales began to stagnate. So in November 2018, with help from his friends in the village, he began posting videos about his life on the farm.

They showed him opening up a hive surrounded by a swarm of bees, swimming bare-chested in a river and chopping wood.

"I never advertise my products. I show my daily life, the landscapes of the countryside. That's what interests people," Mr Ma says. "Of course, people suspect that I'm selling honey. But they decide to get in touch with me to say they want to buy some."

Like most transactions in China, where hard cash is less and less popular, orders are paid through apps such as WeChat or AliPay.

Mr Ma says he now sells between 2 million yuan (S$390,000) and 3 million yuan worth of honey each year, as well as dried sweet potato and brown sugar.

"When I was young, we were poor," he recalls. "At school, I used to admire other kids who had pocket money, because I never had any."

Now, he drives a 4x4 BMW that cost around 760,000 yuan. He has also invested in building a B&B.

"Using Douyin, that was the turning point," he says. "Today, I can buy my family what they need. I help the other villagers to sell their products too. All of the local economy benefits."

MASTERING THE ART OF MAKING VIDEOS

In China, some 847 million people access the Internet via their smartphones, so online apps have played a vital role in Mr Ma's success.

"It's progress," his father Ma Jianchun says happily. "We old people are overwhelmed. With the money, we've been able to renovate our house."

China is home to the world's largest market for live video broadcasting, according to American audit firm Deloitte.

Getting in on the trend, Douyin's parent company ByteDance says it has organised training for 26,000 farmers on how to master the art of making videos. Some other similar platforms are Kuaishou and Yizhibo.

Taobao - China's most popular ecommerce app, which is owned by tech giant Alibaba - launched a project last year showing farmers how to become live-streaming hosts, in a bid to help them earn more.

The number of people living under the poverty line in rural China has declined dramatically - from 700 million in 1978 to 16.6 million in 2018, according to government figures.

But the depopulation of the countryside continues, as many Chinese head to cities in search of better-paying jobs.

"We want to be an example, to show young people that it is entirely possible to set up a business and earn money in rural areas," explains the younger Ma, who is university-educated. "We hope that more will return, so that life and the economy can resume in the villages."

With his newfound fame, Mr Ma says he has already received many proposals - and not just from those interested in his honey.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2020, with the headline 'China's farmers reap rich harvest through video-sharing apps'. Print Edition | Subscribe