*This article is part of a series highlighting GEN Starters Club members making an impact around the world. Members have been battle-tested by GEN programs and demonstrate significant potential to scale.
In 2011, Peetachai “Neil” Dejkraisak slept on the floors of Thailand’s poorest rice farmers’ houses, planted and harvested crops, and searched for ways to break an antiquated system that worked against the country’s 17 million hard-working rice farmers.
With the help of a top rice scientist, a new grain of antioxidant-rich rice called “Jasberry rice”, and the very farmers he set out to support, he launched Jasberry, a social enterprise providing business education and organic products to farmers while partnering with them to market and sell their goods globally.
Over the last decade, Neil’s work has turned heads – catching the attention of actress Halle Berry, who presented him with the winning cheque at a 2017 pitch competition and of former U.S. President Barack Obama, whom Neil met after winning the Spark the Fire Competition at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2016.
The impact of his social enterprise speaks for itself: farmer profits have grown from $0.40 to $5.80 per day and in the first five years, a farmer’s yield improved by 40 percent year-on-year while production costs decreased by 25 percent. Jasberry started with 25 farming families in 2011 and is now working with over 2,500 farming families.
GEN caught up with Neil to learn how his social enterprise is building a better future for Thailand’s rice farmers.
*This interview has been edited for length and readability.
GEN: Introduce yourself to our readers – what do you want them to know about you?
Neil Dejkraisak: I like to describe myself as – conventionally – a very “unreasonable” person. I believe that the world should be a certain way and it is not. Many people think it is not practical for the world to operate with equality, fair opportunities, and prosperity for everyone – but that’s my core belief. People deserve equal opportunity regardless of where they're from, their social status, their race or their gender. I've lived my life by that principle and I've tackled my work with it too.
GEN: Where did the idea for Jasberry come from?
Neil Dejkraisak: I came across a problem in 2011. At the time, Thailand was the world's top rice exporter but our farmers were among the poorest, earning just $0.40 per day. That’s six times below the poverty line in Thailand. There are 17 million farmers in the country – that’s 25 per cent of the entire population. I was really shocked by this.
Long story short, I had been on a journey to make a difference. I was trying to find work that I could believe in and that I could start a company to tackle. Jasberry was started with the belief that we could solve farmer poverty.
I did a Google search for the “best rice scientist in the world” and found a gentleman from Thailand who developed a new variety of rice, which is one of the healthiest in the world. It has seven times more antioxidants than kale and is extremely delicious. We gave this amazing Jasberry rice to our farmers to plant and created a market for it.
GEN: Tell me about your relationship with the farmers and how you work with them.
Neil Dejkraisak: When I first started this project 10 years ago, I went to live with farming families for a year. I didn't want to make any assumptions about what I could do to help them. By sleeping on their floors and working with them in the field, I learned what it's like to be a farmer and I gained the trust of the community. I made many new friendships and my relationships with the farmers became very personal. They became my family. I gained a much deeper understanding of the system that kept them in poverty for centuries and I learned their perspectives on what could be done to break the system.
GEN: What progress have you made in solving this problem since starting your company?
Neil Dejkraisak: We track key metrics related to yield. In the first five years, farmers improve their yield by 40 percent every year. We reduce on-farm productions costs by 25 percent. We figure that if they have high yield and low costs, their income will be stable. Even with market price volatility, they are able to have a much higher income.
GEN: Tell us about one of the farmers you work with.
Neil Dejkraisak: Miss Ma is a farmer we’ve worked with since 2012. When she first joined us, she had $10,000 of debt, about six acres of land for growing rice and she used chemicals on her farm. Within three years, she was able to pay off all her debt, double her land holdings to 13 acres and her farm is now certified organic. The most important thing is that she has three children who formerly worked in a factory near Bangkok but are now back working with her on the farm. For the first time, they have hope for a brighter future.
GEN: Earlier in your career you worked in investment banking. Thinking back to those days, did you dream that you would be where you are today?
Neil Dejkraisak: Yes and no. I went into investment banking because I wanted to learn about business. But going back to my childhood, my heroes were always social entrepreneurs. I look up to people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. I didn’t have Warren Buffett on my wall. I was always searching for a purpose.
As an investment banker, I learned to understand the world from business, political and power perspectives. This background helped me to adjust to dealing with different people and relationships. Now, when I work with the farmers, I operate at their level and when I talk to a CEO or a politician, I operate at a different level.
GEN: How has the Global Entrepreneurship Network (GEN) impacted your entrepreneurial journey?
Neil Dejkraisak: The Global Entrepreneurship Network has been very valuable in my entrepreneurial journey. I have developed many relationships that have led to many business opportunities and lifelong friendships. I’ve also learned of many opportunities for startups, such as awards and events, through GEN.
GEN: What’s next for you and for Jasberry? What is your vision for the future?
Neil Dejkraisak: When we first started, we wanted to be the next Patagonia or Ben & Jerry’s – a company that isn’t just successful but stands for something bigger than profit. Five years from now, I hope Jasberry will be not only be a global organic food brand, but that we are giving people – especially those who are neglected by society – the opportunities they deserve in life. We will do that by making it easier for consumers to make healthier choices while helping farmers out of poverty. The consumers will be the agents of change. We believe that big change almost always starts with something really small, like a tiny grain of rice!
It's one thing is to survive and it's another thing to be transformative in the way you do business. We definitely aim to do that over the next five years. We may not make it, but we have a shot and I’m going to give it 110%.
Learn more about Neil and his work at www.jasberry.net and on Instagram @Jasberryrice.