Locals Leading The Way In Sustainability
The co-founder and CEO of Ricult, the award-winning social enterprise established in 2016 to help lift farmers in northeastern Thailand out of poverty, 32-year-old Aukrit Unahalekhaka positively beams as he talks about sustainability and technology. For the holder of a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Illinois and master’s degrees in research and information engineering and systems engineering and management from Cornell and Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) respectively, the two go hand in hand.
Born to a family with interests in agriculture, he first started to think about high technology as an aid to sustainable farming around the time he applied to MIT. “I suppose the idea to use satellites, in particular, to help farmers crystallised in the essay I wrote proposing my master’s thesis there. I wanted to create a social enterprise that would give those who wouldn’t normally have access to it the benefits of remote technology. Basically what Ricult does is use satellites in combination with weather data, machine learning and artificial intelligence to help farmers make better decisions about what they grow and when and how they grow it. The ultimate aim is to improve productivity and yields without damaging arable land,” he explains.
As Aukrit points out, the decision as to when to plant rice, for example, is crucial to the farmer. “Different times of year receive different amounts of sunlight and rainfall. So through our application, or platform, we provide farmers with data that indicates not only the best times to plant but also when to fertilise and harvest in order to maximise their chances of success.” Ricult’s satellite technology, built in-house, detects what’s going on in the field based on AI algorithms. It can even pinpoint problems such as pest infestation and drought. “The satellite does this by reading the reflection both crops and the soil give off, measuring the health of the plants as they reflect different wavelengths, thereby determining their ability to photosynthesise,” the visiting Chulalongkorn University lecturer explains.
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But more than that, by providing data analysis on the agricultural sector, Ricult can connect buyers directly with farmers (cutting out expensive middle-men) and connect farmers with banks. Buyers can pre-order in the knowledge that quality and yield will be high, while the farmers receive a better price and can secure financial assistance from banks based on the same data. “The data helps banks understand the risks of the farmer. These people don’t have regular salaries to use as collateral, so banks can be reluctant to give them loans. But with our technology and the information it generates, banks can see crop projections and the prices those crops will command and be assured that the farmer is good for his loan,” Aukrit smiles.
Ricult, which became the first Thai social enterprise to receive funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also offers hands-on help in the form of workshops that impart sustainable technical knowledge. Aukrit explains, “Once the harvest is in, many farmers opt to burn the stubble left in their fields. But we are trying to show them that this is not only harmful to people and the environment—look at the annual problem of smoke pollution around Chiang Mai—but also wasteful. We do this by providing incentives to change such practices, introducing farmers to companies that will buy the residue from their fields and turn it into clean energy. Hence the farmer generates income that previously would have gone up in smoke.” The message is catching on. Ricult already assists over 100,000 farmers up and down the country and is attracting the interest of thousands more.
On a much smaller scale but no less noteworthy is the initiative being undertaken by chef-patron Deepanker Khosla at Haoma, the restaurant the jovial Indian native co-established in Bangkok in 2017. DK—as he likes to be known—is brimming with enthusiasm when it comes to producing food in a sustainable way. “This is where we do what we do, growing our own ingredients that go straight from backyard farm to fork,” he grins as he gestures to the aquaponics-inspired set-up in the garden at the rear of Haoma. “We even conserve rain water in tanks out here to rear our own fish for the table and to water the plants. The fish thrive on the waste from the kitchen while their waste becomes nutrients for what we grow.”
Modest urban farm in a Sukhumvit back soi it may be but it contains growing beds that produce 40 different varieties of salad greens, herbs, spices and edible plants, all used in Haoma’s kitchen. But for DK sustainability means much more than sourcing locally and having a neutral carbon footprint. It is a personal journey he has been on since he was a child. “I come from a family that is oriented towards sustainability. My mum would take old bed sheets and turned them into linen bags and glass bottles were never thrown away in our house. They, along with many other things, were repurposed by my dad and grandfather,” he says. “This is how I grew up in India, so Haoma is really an extension of that.”
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DK’s route to the restaurant, named after the Zoroastrian symbol for the plant that gives the elixir of life, took in the traditional and eclectic. Following a five year stint with ITC Rajputana’s Peshawri Restaurant in Jaipur and Fraser Suites’ Charcoal in Bangkok, where he rose from chef de partie to chef de cuisine, he decided to do something radically different and travelled Asia in a food truck. “It was a fantastic way to experience other food cultures and gain inspiration,” says the chef. “But once I had saved enough capital my best friend and I pooled our resources and opened Haoma. The idea was to offer something unique, hence our urban farm with its vertical system. We put in over 10 months of study and hard work to establish it before we opened. I researched growing techniques day and night and YouTube was my classroom,” he laughs.
The soul of the restaurant is very much the backyard farm but DK also sources produce from suppliers he calls the pillars of Haoma—organic vegetables from Chiang Mai, free-range poultry from Pathum Thani, line-caught fish from Phuket, antibiotic and hormone-free dairy from Khao Yai and so on. “At the end of the day we are all responsible for Mother Earth and as someone who works with what she produces I am very conscious of her health. Nurture her and we nurture ourselves,” he says.
Butterflies are frequently seen in Haoma’s garden—an indication of its rude health—and the delicate creatures also figure in the story of how Pear Amata Chittasenee came to champion artisanal Thai products and the communities that make them, particularly those that produce rare silks. The self-described make-up artist turned activist better known online as Pearypie rose to fame a decade ago posting make-up tutorials on social media, quickly attracting almost 400,000 followers. Today she is using her celebrity to support Thai craftsmen and women via the butterfly effect—in her own small way she hopes that by highlighting traditional artisanal skills on her various social media platforms her influence will encourage wider interest in them and thus a more sustainable future.
“I have to say, the whole beauty blogging thing became too much in the end and a few years ago I really wanted to switch to doing something that had more social impact, something more worthwhile,” Pear explains. “I dropped off the blogging scene altogether and, tired of Bangkok, I took up an offer to do some part-time teaching at Chiang Mai University. Then on a trip to Khon Kaen a fellow lecturer gifted me a piece of beautifully stylised Thai mud mee fabric that had been woven in a small community in the area. It was the catalyst for a mini adventure to find the village where the silk was made.”
The following day, after much driving about and getting lost, they spotted a woman weaving silk. “We invaded her home but she was very welcoming,” laughs Pear. “When I explained what we were doing she took us to another house and introduced us to a village elder who pulled out a two-metre piece of silk of a sort that I had never seen before. It had an unusual dark grey and black sheen. We asked her how much it cost and were dumbfounded when she said 30,000 baht!” The reason for the high price became apparent when the lady took them on a tour of the village. “She pointed out that this house grew food for the silk worms, this one looked after the silk moths, another took care of the silkworm larvae, and under each house there was a loom to weave silk. Then it dawned on me just how much community effort goes into producing the fabric. I bought the 30,000 baht piece and wore it to a Christian Dior fashion exhibition in Paris where it attracted a lot of attention,” she says.
The whole experience inspired Pear to travel around Thailand visiting rural communities and the hill tribes and blogging about her experience. “I was deeply impressed by the way these communities live within nature, mindful of the natural resources they rely on and never taking more than they need. They are inspiring examples of sustainability. And they are great fun. Now when I visit the silk weavers it has become a tradition that I do their makeup and they teach me about weaving. I don’t want what I do to become a business. I show a different side of Thai silk. It’s not just a piece of beautiful fabric but the community behind it. The meaningfulness of what I am doing will take fruit as more and more people become interested in it too.”
Another influential lady who considers herself an earth mother is Natalie Phaholyothin, CEO of World Wildlife Foundation Thailand. Her position makes her a powerful voice for sustainability and conservation. “Our mandate is really to conserve biodiversity on this planet, so we work on the conservation of wildlife based on the philosophy that human beings and nature should be able to co-exist in balance,” she says.
A former associate director at the Rockefeller Foundation, she made the move to WWF at the start of 2019 and cites personal values as a factor. “I have a deep respect for nature and while at the Rockefeller Foundation, I came to realise that Thailand needed a lot of work in terms of how the public can be more mindful of natural resources. The chance to do something related to nature and the environment made the move to the WWF a natural step.”
In Thailand, the WWF works principally on wildlife, forestry and freshwater conservation but also advocates sustainable finance and market transformation for rural communities. “Did you know that Thailand has one of the last remaining populations of Indochinese tigers in the wild?” asks Natalie. “In Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos the tigers are all gone because of hunting.” One of the goals of WWF Thailand is to ensure that the public is more aware of the richness of the country’s natural resources. Another is making sure that the tigers are properly cared for and monitored. Having scientific information on the animals is important. By gathering data through fieldwork, WWF compiles biological and biodiversity profiles to assist studies on tigers in the region.
“But why tigers?” Natalie asks rhetorically. “They are a proxy indicator of how healthy an ecosystem is because they are the apex predator in the food chain. If there are lots of them, it signals the ecosystem is healthy and robust.” This is why WWF works on habitat improvement, including what species to introduce as prey to help sustain tiger numbers. “Sadly the threat of poaching remains very real but it will be interesting to see if the Covid-19 outbreak will change people’s perception of bush meat, because we are all suffering because of the illegal wildlife trade,” she adds.
She also thinks we should be aware that 75 per cent of diseases in the world have zoonotic origins. “It’s a fact that our ecosystem is being changed by man. The vector of transmission has changed and I think that’s a real worry. Awareness is important and we should modify our behaviour rather than put blame on the animals.” In the final analysis she admits that sustainability is multidimensional and she says if we are serious about it we must be prepared for trade-offs. “Are we willing to go that extra mile? Are businesses, for example, willing to invest more in becoming sustainable? After all, if we don’t have a viable planet with healthy people, no business can survive.”
Related: Meet World Wildlife Fund Thailand's New CEO, Natalie Phaholyotin