Thailand’s Siam Organic wins Chivas Venture top prize

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on August 14, 2017 - August 20, 2017.

Chivas Venture finalists and judges toasting social entrepreneurs who want to change the world

THAILAND’s Siam Organic, which strives to eradicate poverty among small-scale farmers, went home with the top prize of US$400,000 (RM1.71 million) at the Chivas — The Venture 2017 finale at the Los Angeles Design Centre on July 13.

The winners were announced after five social entrepreneurs pitched their projects to a crowd of 300 guests, including Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry, who was also one of the judges. Other Hollywood stars present included Javier Bardem and Don Cheadle. Actor and comedian Josh Gad was the host.

“Our ambition is to work with 20,000 families, which will improve 100,000 lives, and to be listed on the stock market in five years’ time,” Peetachai Dejkraisak, founder of Siam Organic, told The Edge in an exclusive interview after being crowned the winner of the competition.

However, he said, it is still too early to tell in which country the company will list. According to Dejkraisak, who is also known as Neil, Siam Organic also aims to be the best organic company in Asia in five years.

“I use the word ‘best’, not ‘biggest’. ‘Best’ meaning we have quality products and good revenue,” he said.

On how the company intends to use the prize money, Dejkraisak said about 80% will be spent on expanding its production capacity with a view to penetrating the US retail market. The remaining 20% will be invested in information technology to enhance data collection and interpretation.

Siam Organic, established in 2011, had worked with only 25 farmers in its first year, but has since grown its network to more than 1,800. Its objective is to help Thai farmers — among the poorest in the world, earning only 40 US cents per day — by providing them with various forms of support such as organic rice seeds (Jasberry), organic fertilisers, training, access to microfinance and paying them a premium for all their produce.

Earlier, when making his pitch, Dejkraisak said the average yield per acre has been increasing 58% annually over the last three years, thus saving costs by 24% per acre. “More importantly, we are able to offer a purchase price about 200% higher than the market price.”

He said with higher earnings, lower costs and increased yield, the Jasberry rice farmers’ income is 14 times higher compared with that of those growing regular rice.

“Previously, we have been in contact with one of the largest American retailing corporations to sell our Jasberry rice at their stores, but as our capacity is not large enough, we couldn’t continue doing so. If we win this competition, we will be able to expand our capacity to meet this demand.”

He said the company is also looking to diversify into other products made of beans, rice or quinoa such as pasta.

Siam Organic’s Jasberry rice is being sold in Thailand and the US. It is touted to have 10 times more antioxidants than green tea and 2.8 times more antioxidants than blueberries. It tastes like the famous Thai Jasmine rice. The 100% wholegrain rice also claims to have the highest levels of anthocyanin, vitamin E and beta-carotene compared with other varieties of rice.

On social entrepreneurship, Dejkraisak said it is a difficult and long journey with a lot of pressure, so it is important to know the reasons behind the start-up. Passion is key to keeping social entrepreneurs going.

“In social entrepreneurship, the [success rate] is probably going to be about 1 in 50. The share of success is very small, which means if you are going to succeed, you need to have a lot of endurance to withstand failures and pressure.

“You are dealing with peoples’ lives, social problems. This is heavy. It’s not like a normal business where you [just] lose money [if you fail]. I have a farmer calling me, ‘Neil, I have no money to send my children to school. What are you going to do about it?’ I have to take phone calls like that. It’s stressful, so you have to know why you want to do it. For me, while it’s stressful, it’s my passion. I cannot imagine myself doing anything else.”

Nigeria’s RecyclePoints went home with the second prize of US$200,000 from the Chivas Venture fund.

Chioma A Ukonu, co-founder of RecyclePoints, said the social start-up sends WasteBusters or refuse collectors door to door and rewards households for recycling their waste.

“It’s a global validation for me — that I’m on the right track ... that what I’m doing, picking up trash from the streets of Nigeria isn’t stupid. People are watching and people are ready to embrace change. It just shows that we are doing the right thing. There is this assurance that I got here (winning second prize) from picking up trash,” she said.

The joint third-placing went to South Africa’s iDrop, Israel’s Intendu and Colombia’s Bioestibas, with each receiving US$50,000.

Malaysia’s Folo Farms and other finalists won US$10,771.62 each during the Chivas Venture’s public voting phase.

Chivas Venture’s experience

On the Chivas Venture competition, all the finalists from 30 countries said developing connections and networks has been their key takeaway.

Will Chua, a civil engineer turned organic farmer and co-founder of Folo Farms, told The Edge that the competition provided an opportunity for him to meet up with other social entrepreneurs who are trying to bring positive change to their societies through the businesses they are involved in.

“I think the great thing about this is, you meet 29 other crazy people. Hanging out with one another gives us a lot of assurance that we are not alone in our quest. This also help us to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses. And now, we’re going back to the world to continue our mission,” he said.

Chua also feels more confident after the competition and he hopes improve Folo Farms in areas such as technology for data collection.

Dejkraisak also shared that the networking developed during the competition has been a morale booster and offers collaborative opportunities with some of the finalists.

“I’m open to it. I like Will and the other finalists,” he said, when asked about a potential collaboration with Folo Farms.

Robin Jun Lu, who founded First Respond, a finalist from China, said expectations were high at the beginning of the competition.

“Coming from China, there were a lot of expectations initially, but after getting to know the other finalists, a bond was created. We are more than just competitors; we all know we are trying to make a positive impact on our communities through the business that we run,” he said.

First Respond provides first-aid training courses to encourage mutual aid in emergency situations.

Robin shared that cardiac arrest is an issue that affects the Chinese community, regardless of age. He said the company has so far saved 11 people who suffered from cardiac arrests and aims to save millions more in the future.

Chivas Venture also ensured that the finalists are able to take away some real-life experience and practical steps to grow and sustain their businesses through talks by well-known social entrepreneurs such as Leila Janah, founder of Sama, a social enterprise that helps people lift themselves out of poverty, and Adam Braun, founder of Pencil of Promise and MissionU.

What the judges say

The Chivas Venture is an annual competition that sees social entrepreneurs compete for a share of US$1 million in funding for their world-changing start-ups. In its third edition this year, the competition was sponsored by Pernod Ricard, which owns whisky maker Chivas Regal.

Pernod Ricard chairman Alexandre Ricard told The Edge that the competition has led to more than 6,000 projects across more than 40 markets this year.

He said the competition is critical for the brand as it reflects its values.

“The competition has become more intense. The finalists are also giving a stronger case for their businesses and causes. It’s much stronger than before, but I think the finalists should be able to show us that.

“First, the market size and second, the ability to measure the social impact. Third, the feasibility ... can they ensure that the business is sustainable in the long run? However, above all, after these boxes are ticked, it is the people who run the business.

“My advice to social entrepreneurs is to hold on to that belief that you can do things that others can’t. Perseverance and commitment are key,” said Ricard, who is one of the judges for the competition.

He shared that the intention of the Chivas Venture is to provide funding to accelerate the businesses of social entrepreneurs.

“The calibre of finalists this evening was extremely high. To see Neil (Peetachai Dejkraisak) and the other finalists succeed was the ultimate fulfilment for us judges. We wish them all the very best,” he said after the finale.

The other judges were Adam Braun, Sonal Shah and Halle Berry.

Braun is the founder of social enterprises Pencils of Promise and MissionU, and the author of bestseller The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change.

Braun said the strength of the team that runs the social enterprise is key to success.

“The strength of the team, the execution and ambition of the team are important, not just the conviction of the leader. Of course, it has to be based on a sustainable business model that can achieve scale and expand beyond a country or region, making global impact,” he said, highlighting the importance for a leader to have a long-term vision for the company.

“We cannot escape the myriad issues that need to be addressed in today’s world, from broken higher education systems to a lack of clean water, environment degradation and maternal health. It’s our duty as residents of the planet to make a change. The finalists of the Chivas Venture are all ambassadors of driving positive change through business,” Braun said.

Sonal is the founding director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation under President Barack Obama. She concurred with Braun. According to her, a clarity of vision, management and business plan are the things social entrepreneurs should focus on.

“The clarity of the vision is important because you must be able to hold on to that in difficult times,” she said.

Host Josh Gad, who is known for his voice-over as Olaf in Disney’s Frozen, suggested that social entrepreneurs are superheroes similar to the role played by Berry in X-Men.

Berry, however, said while she acted as a superhero in that movie, “all the finalists here tonight are our modern-day heroes. They are all fighting to make a change and have a positive impact on the world”.