Crying fields no more
A native of Thung Kula Rong Hai seeks to help the farmers there make more from their grains
Many people are puzzled that Thai rice farmers remain poor, despite Thai rice being in high demand globally and creating wealth for many rice millers, traders and exporters.
Kornchawan Somphakdee was born in Roi Et, a province located in the middle of Thung Kula Rong Hai (fields of the crying Kula), a dry plateau. This query drove her to find ways to raise her fellow farmers' income.
Historically, the Thung Kula Rong Hai region suffered desert-like conditions during the dry season and flooding during the rainy season. Soils were plagued by salinity. The area has since been reclaimed and today has become a well-known premium rice-producing area of Thailand.
The area covers about 2 million rai of land and 13 districts in five provinces: Surin, Maha Sarakham, Si Sa Ket, Roi Et and Yasothon provinces.
Thung Kula Rong Hai hom mali rice is one of six Thai products that have geographical indication (GI) registration in foreign countries. Thung Kula Rong Hai hom mali rice, Doi Chaang coffee, Doi Tung coffee and Sangyod Muang Phatthalung rice has GI certification in the EU; with Isan indigenous Thai silk yarn certified in Vietnam; and Lamphun brocade silk in India and Indonesia.
GI is a distinctive certificate used to identify a product as originating from a particular country, region or locality that has specific qualities, reputation or other unique characteristics.
The certification typically increases the market value in developed countries.
GI registration also helps protect the branding of these communities' indigenous products and build consumer confidence in their quality.
Ms Kornchawan founded Kora Enterprise in 2017 with a commitment to develop the region, upgrade Thai rice and enhance the quality of life for farmers. The enterprise has registered capital of 50 million baht.
She graduated with a doctorate degree in education from Mahasarakham University and became a former public servant working as an educational supervisor. Ms Kornchawan, now 39, said inequality and farmers' poverty in Northeastern provinces inspired her to establish the enterprise, aiming to be a leader in research and innovation to produce, process and distribute high-quality rice products and herb-based products.
The company originally focused on premium organic rice only from the Thung Kula Rong Hai area, but supply from the area was insufficient. So the company has expanded to rice grown in other provinces nationwide, but mainly on premium-grade grains and specialities.
Kora also sells rice-based processed products such as cereals, rice crackers and hom mali rice tea.
The enterprise works with farmers in Isan and other parts of Thailand on a contract basis covering about 50,000 rai to supply premium organic and speciality rice varieties to the company, as well as 20-30 rice millers.
Kornchawan Somphakdee, chief executive of Kora Enterprise Plc.
The company aims to expand organic jasmine rice plantation from 50,000 rai to 200,000 rai within five years. Kora owns 500 rai of rice farmland, mainly in Roi Et.
"We were a bit lucky in building up the Kora brand. Our strong points are storytelling and premium products buyers want from real farmers," said Ms Kornchawan, the chief executive of Kora Enterprise.
She said the company is forming a joint venture with local and foreign partners from the Middle East, Malaysia and China, raising registered capital of 1 billion baht to ramp up its business. It is planning an initial public offering on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in five years.
"The company has the vision to be a leader in research and innovation. We want to set up our own research centre that makes use of existing research to develop Thai rice varieties and create a better income for farmers," said Ms Kornchawan.
Another one of her goals is to operate organic rice farmland nationwide that can link with the tourism industry in the future, with Roi Et functioning as the centre of the world's Thai hom mali production and as an agro-tourism spot.
Kora plans to continue investing in R&D on rice and herbs, promoting organic rice distribution along with other products in both the domestic and international markets.
In the domestic market, the company distributes its premium rice products to hotels and supermarkets such as Tops Supermarket, The Mall and 7-Eleven convenience stores.
This year Kora projects its revenue to top 500 million baht, up 200-300% from 2019.
Kora products span more than 30 items such as rice, cereals, rice crackers, collagen, coffee mixed with rice products, and tea.
Between 2020-2022, the company plans to produce and process all rice strains, as well as increase the varieties of processed rice products to serve consumers' varying demands, through wholesale and retail channels.
Kora also wants to raise the quality of its organic products to meet international standards in five years. A "zero waste" initiative during processing would see all unwanted parts of rice made into other products, such as broken milled rice and rice germ, which are full of nutrients, used for rice crackers and breakfast cereals.