Spicing up the economy

Spicing up the economy

Ex-teacher's humble curry paste recipes, now made on a commercial scale, help locals make up lost earnings hit by the insurgency, writes Teera Trongkamonmard in Narathiwat

Chilli paste, produced using community-grown vegetables and herbs, is packed in jars and marketed under the brand Prik Kaeng Khru Sudjai (Teacher Sudjai's Curry Paste).
Chilli paste, produced using community-grown vegetables and herbs, is packed in jars and marketed under the brand Prik Kaeng Khru Sudjai (Teacher Sudjai's Curry Paste).

Money is tight when jobs are hard to come by in the far South although with a sense of creativity and perseverance, one can turn crisis into a gastronomic opportunity.

Narathiwat is one of the southern border provinces rocked for 15 years by unrest. Security may have shown signs of improving but many still fear for their safety, which has has taken its toll on employment.

Economics experts agree that personal safety concerns close many windows on business opportunities. For example, people cut back on shopping after dark and keep evening entertainment hours to a minimum.

Now, however, community enterprises are coming to the rescue.

Many local farmers were confronted with the critical challenge: Where could they find supplementary income to make up for the lost earnings which result when they stay indoors rather than venture out to the fields or tap rubber on their farms, where they fear getting attacked?

One eureka moment came 10 years ago when Sudjai Aesa floated the idea of concocting a curry paste recipe.

Now manager of a local community enterprise in tambon Tanyongmat of Narathiwat's Rangae district, Ms Sudjai looks back at the height of the violence and how those dire circumstances stoked locals' survival instincts.

Ms Sudjai, a former school teacher, figured farmers were spending more time at home so that is where extra money could be made.

Many farmers, including the parents of her students, in Rangae district grew backyard vegetables and kitchen herbs to earn an extra income.

But the vegetables did not sell well because the unrest dampened demand for fresh produce at local markets.

One way out of the problem was to "reinvent" by processing the oversupply of vegetables and herbs -- particularly lemon grass, commonly known as takrai, galangal (kha), turmeric (khamin) and chillies -- into a curry paste which most people use every day in their cooking, according to Ms Sudjai.

The takrai, kha and chillies are the mainstay ingredients in many household curry pastes. They also grow fast and are quick to harvest. Farmers plant them in bundles at home.

Back in Ms Sudjai's lab kitchen, she sliced up the lemon grass, galangal, turmeric and chillies before adding them to other fresh herbs and condiments and pounding the mixture away in a mortar.

She was experimenting with new curry pastes that use more lemon grass, galangal and other garden herbs than conventional paste formulas, while delivering a delicate taste that is friendly to the palate.

From that exercise sprang a variety of blends, each with a unique taste, look and smell. Ms Sudjai started out with five new pastes and soon the line of products expanded and now 24 chilli pastes carry the label of "Prik Kaeng Khru Sudjai" (Teacher Sudjai's Curry Paste).

But making the paste was only half the story. Ms Sudjai's vision was to produce new pastes on a commercial scale so there would be money flowing in to get the supply chain going and functioning.

Her idea read almost like a page from an economics textbook. Ms Sudjai thought commercial production of the pastes would require workers to be recruited locally on a permanent basis. This would sustain the manufacturing process with a guarantee of consistency in quality.

It dawned on Ms Sudjai at this point that the pastes were no longer a back-kitchen affair. Their production has to be systematically and professionally run.

She decided to register a community enterprise based on her paste venture since the business was built on local labour and resources and breathing new financial life into the communities.

The products were also Halal certified, which allowed the enterprise to tap into the Muslim market, which accounts for a large proportion of customers.

"Orders continued to come in and sales kept climbing," the former teacher said.

The pastes were well-received by housewives in the district. The enterprise's big break arrived when the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC) invited the group to attend regional product fairs at the government-sponsored Khlong Phadung Krung Kasem market near Government House and the Impact Arena, Muang Thong Thani.

Through the fairs, the pastes were getting visibility outside their home turf. Ms Sudjai said the enterprise presents clear proof that even in the direst of circumstances, good news can emerge, and hard-working people determined to pursue honest jobs should not feel despondent.

The SBPAC has earmarked a budget for community enterprises to improve community enterprises' production capacity and standards so their products are fit for export.

"We buy the raw materials from local farmers who in turn have more money in their pockets," said Ms Sudjai.

"They [the farmers] are all fired up and ready to get cracking with planting more galanga, turmeric and other herbs. They know for sure they have a place where they can sell their vegetables. A big part of that helps spur jobs for people in the neighbourhoods," she added.

Schools are also learning to be the nuts and bolts of the community enterprises. Ban Lupoh Kayoh in Rangae district is working with the chilli paste enterprise in teaching youngsters how to help push the community into solving its own problems and to prosper.

Jehsulaiman Bamae, director of the Ban Lupoh Kayoh School, said students are taught the value of local involvement which can help get them through tough times.

The school and the chilli paste enterprise have signed a memorandum of understanding where the students grow vegetables and herbs and sell them to the enterprise. Some vegetables are set aside for cooking meals for the students.

In the process, the students also practise hands-on techniques of raising crops and come to grips with basic botany, according to the school.

Mr Jehsulaiman said some residents have asked to tour the school's vegetable plots and take the seeds home to plant in their family gardens.

The fresh vegetables they pick are turned into an assortment of dishes for the family who are able to save on grocery bills.

This has been the central concept of the "From School Kitchen to Home Kitchen" project initiated by Her Royal Highness Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.

A local source close to the SBPAC said community enterprises were like the engine driving the grassroots economy. Economic strength is one of the keys to stabilising the situation in the far South.

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