Each year in January in Ban Nong Khiao, located in Chiang Mai, next to the Thai-Myanmar border, hundreds of villagers don meticulously embroidered clothes and intricate ornaments. They gather at the village square to celebrate the Lahu New Year festival for 12 consecutive days. The Lahu people, also known as the Muser hill tribe, perform a dance called Cha Kue to express gratitude to their deities and eat Khao Puk, steamed black sticky rice mixed with sesame.
Unfortunately, the Lahu community often faces poverty and exposure to drug traffickers who must cross the borders they occupy. Ban Nong Khiao is therefore considered one of Thailand’s red zones for drug trafficking.
Complex Social Problems
“Ninety five percent of the people here are farmers, but because of plunging crop prices and rising farming expenses, they face insecure livelihoods and unstable income,” Marisa Jitbunpot, officer at Plan International Thailand, said.
Due to financial struggles, many Lahu men are induced into joining drug-trafficking gangs while many women fall victim of human trafficking.
“Lahu people usually lead a simple life. We grow plants and raise livestock for household consumption. And most of us are farmers, growing corn, peanuts, cassava and other vegetables,” Kannika Naka, the 27-year-old Lahu who is a representative of Ban Nong Khiao youth, said. “Volatile crop prices and rising input costs has made many of us plunged into debts.”
A decade ago, the Royal Project Foundation came to the village to promote avocado as a cash crop, distributing free seeds to hilltribe people. Depending on the varieties, their harvest season takes place once a year between July and November. Ms. Kannika now grows six varieties of avocado, including Peterson, Hass, and Buccaneer.
In the past, middlemen would visit the village during a harvest season to buy the produce. The villagers had no power to determine or negotiate the price. But the situation had improved when Plan International Thailand and dtac Net for Living went into the village and offered training to ethnic people in the area, from how to create their own page on social media to online marketing tips.
“Before, we knew nothing about doing business or entrepreneurship. We were reluctant to get in contact with outsiders and nervous when talking to them as we are not fluent in the standard Thai,” Ms. Kannika said. “But dtac Net for Living and Plan International have equipped us with necessary skills and courage to start our own businesses.”
Boosting Sales with Online Marketing
According to Ms. Kannika, storytelling and beautiful images depicting the way of life of ethnic groups have helped them reach wider audience online and boosted sales. She used to sell just about 20 kilograms of avocados per week. But after joining the program, the sales volume shot up to about 400 or 500 kilograms per week during peak seasons.
Currently, avocado sales accounts for more than 80 percent of Kannika’s income. With her skills in online marketing, her annual income has more than tripled from about 40,000 baht to 150,000 baht per year. She has paid off all her debts and is seeking opportunities to expand her online business further.
“We are so proud that people living in the cities hear about our story and support our products. When they buy directly from us, they get fresh produce delivered to their door. Meanwhile, with better living conditions, we start seeing fewer drug-related problems in the village,” Ms. Kannika said.