23 August 2022 – We all yearn for a home and a sense of belonging. But it’s not so easy to find. Many may have a roof over their heads but lack the warmth of a safe home. Others may be surrounded by people but miss out on a nurturing community that brings out the best in them.
For Anek “Ped” Kaeopha, the 42-year-old owner of Numprig Baanchan, finding his true home and community has been a long and winding journey, involving a life of crime, time in prison, redemption and an exciting new career.
Born in Bangkok, he grew up in a broken home in Bang Phlat Nai Community. He was first exposed to illicit drugs at the tender age of 10, when he had a job accompanying a sand truck driver from his neighborhood to a sand yard in Bang Bua Thong. It was a job that paid just 2 baht per trip, and while riding in the truck, Anek saw the driver take amphetamine pills (nicknamed “pills for workaholics” in Thai). Anek was too young to realize back then that the pills were illegal and dangerous.
Anek himself became a drug abuser when he was in Mathayom 1 or the first year of secondary education. Impetuous, wild and filled with anger, he got carried away with bullying, stealing, sniffing glue and finally, persuaded by friends, taking methamphetamines.
Caught in a Vicious Cycle of Drugs
Anek became a drug peddler by the time he started Mathayom 2. At first, he just sold small amounts to his neighbors in order to pay for his own drug consumption. But during a long school break, he started working full-time for a drug dealer. Soon enough, he moved beyond peddling and started helping with moving drugs in bulk. By the age of 14 he was regularly using violence to get what he wanted.
His life of crime was interrupted when his first drug ring was busted. But even though he stopped selling drugs, he could not kick his own addiction. Anek went on to lead a gang of vocational students, and instead of attending class, his gang would gather and drink in front of schools. In the afternoons, they would jump on public buses and rob passengers together. The ill-gotten money was then spent on liquor and narcotics.
Anek’s drug habit continued to spiral out of control. In 1997, a methamphetamine tablet was sold for just 25 baht, so he became addicted quite easily. His addiction was so unmanageable that he agreed to work for a drug trafficker. This association led to legal trouble eventually, and Anek was convicted of drug offences and spent two and a half years at Thonburi Remand Prison.
“When I was first imprisoned, I was so scared. I cried and lost all of my appetite,” Anek tells dtacblog.
After serving out his first jail term, he left prison intending to start a new life, but soon discovered how difficult that would be. He started out selling steamed Chinese chive dumplings and noodles with fish balls, but rogue gangs who had heard about his notoriety approached him with offers of work. Anek finally took an offer from a gang to manage a long-distance van stand, where he would handle any problems the stand faced. And since van drivers also took “pills for workaholics”, Anek quickly started taking drugs again.
In and Out of Jail Six Times
In his younger years, Anek had a big reputation among gangsters, who admired him for his drug trafficking and violent encounters. His drug abuse, however, took a toll on his health. He became so emaciated that he caught the eye of the police. In a span of just 45 days, he was arrested three times, and eventually convicted of drug offences a second time.
“My second was not my last. I would end up serving five more jail terms on top of the many arrests. I could not count them all because after serving a jail term, I would be out for a month before going back in again. Repeated jail terms didn’t make me flinch anymore. I became accustomed to living inside prison. I was like the son of Corrections Department,” Anek says in a joking voice, but his eyes reveal the weight of those dark times.
When Anek walked out of jail for the sixth time, after a nine-month term, he felt hopeless. He had nowhere to go – no home and no one to stand by his side. Everywhere he went, people threw water and hurled abuses at him.
“I didn’t really want to walk out of jail because I didn’t know where to turn. Inside the prison, I had a place to sleep and food to eat. But once I was outside, I would be all alone without money or family,” Anek recounts his desperation.
Finally, he decided to call the House of Blessing Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps former inmates reintegrate into society through vocational training and other support. After Anek’s initial phone call, the House of Blessing Foundation sent a car to pick him up from his old community.
“Have you eaten yet?” This was the first question Anek was asked by a member of the House of Blessing Foundation staff. It was a simple question, but to Anek, this rare gesture of care meant the world. No one had asked him that since his release. His old neighbors usually greeted him with, “How long before you’re back in jail this time?” His neighbors’ jabs made him feel worthless and tempted to return to drug dealers. But something shifted when he arrived at House of Blessing Foundation.
No Looking Back, Only Forward
Although the foundation does not give its residents any money, it provides housing, food, and basic necessities. The foundation’s programs also offer vocational opportunities, which former inmates would normally rarely have access to. Best of all, Anek found a friendly community at the foundation, and seniors readily extended moral support and advice to him.
During Anek’s time at the foundation, his old boss from his drug-dealing days visited one day out of the blue and invited him rejoin his old gang.
“To be frank, I was somewhat tempted. I had never turned down this man before. It would have taken just one step to reunite with him and my old life. But when I thought of my life in prison, the fierce competition to be a boss there, and the feeling of looking up at the sky without any future to look forward to, I was hesitant. I did not want to end up with that old life. I wanted to be independent,” Anek recalls with tears welling up in his eyes.
The foundation’s staff noticed what was happening and came forward to end the meeting. And just like that, Anek stayed and has been with the foundation ever since. Through the personal-development training offered here, he has learned how to resist temptation and cherish his freedom. Anek understands that a free man enjoys freedom of thought and is free to design his own life.
New Opportunities Through the Online World
It has been more than 3 years since Anek joined the House of Blessing Foundation. During this period, he has played a vital role in running the foundation’s Hero Cricket Farm. Initially, this farm operated inside a makeshift hut and sold crickets to workers at just 30 baht per bag. But after Anek joined the farm, its operations have improved. Crickets are now fried and sold for added value. Anek’s efforts have helped the farm achieve the Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) standard, and he has even launched the Numprig Baanchan brand.
He explains that although crickets are considered an alternative protein source, selling crickets does not make business sense as people do not consume them on a daily basis. Processed food such as Thai chili paste, or numprig, with crickets, is more lucrative as it is a new product in the market and faces less competition.
Since capital was limited, the foundation staff advised him to set up an online presence rather than a physical store, which needs a higher investment. But online commerce isn’t easy either, requiring diverse digital and marketing skills.
“I could not sell any products online in the beginning,” Anek says. “But after dtac Net for Living stepped in, we got our own coach. We learned online-selling techniques such as product photography, interesting photo presentation, and setting up a Google Business Profile. And those techniques really work.”
Anek had an additional challenge at the foundation’s cricket farm project. His key responsibility was to pitch to donors and acquire additional funding for the farm. Many donors had detailed questions, such as “Why do crickets make that sound,” and “What do the sounds mean?” After his first pitch, he spent three full months studying cricket behavior to ensure that people’s investments were worthwhile. Eventually, he was able to secure sufficient funding and achieve his goal of a Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified cricket farm.
It’s still early days for Numprig Baanchan, but as of now, the brand sells 100-200 cans of chili paste per month. Some customers have even ordered them in big lots for reselling. The main distribution channel for Numprig Baanchan is an online platform developed with the help of dtac Net for Living. Thanks to dtac Net for Living’s coaches, the brand has successfully established an online presence.
When asked whether he is proud of himself today, Anek tells dtacblog, “I am super proud.” His voice choked with emotion, he continues, “I am always proud to be a part of this farm. I am very proud of my job.”
By turning down his old boss’s offer that day, Anek embarked on a new and purposeful journey. Despite the challenges of his personal- and business-development training – as well as the temptations of his old life – he has kept going and embraced opportunities offered by the foundation. For his next goal, Anek has drawn up a long-term plan to produce crickets for factories, and to start exporting within the next three to five years. In the meantime, he has taught others how to raise crickets for a living.
“Thanks to the opportunities I’ve received, I realize the value of life and the kindness of humans. My lifestyle has changed completely,” Anek says. “As I no longer try to get everything I want, cursing and anger have disappeared. People in my old community now invite me to meals. I enjoy get-togethers with friends. I am accepted and recognized as the New Me.”