Palmmy Wong founded Siam Organic in 2011, along with co-founder Neil Peetachai. Having discovered that the 17 million small-scale farmers in Thailand are among the poorest in the world, Palmmy and Neil set their minds to the problem. They saw the potential to tap into the global organic health food market to earn the farmers far more for their harvests. Their flagship product is Jasberry rice, an antioxidant-packed superfood.
In their first year, they partnered with 25 farmers, training them in how to gain organic certification and maximise their yields. Now, there are over 1800 farming households reaping the benefits of growing and selling Jasberry rice, earning 14 times more than the average Thai rice farmer.
Ogunte: Before launching Siam Organic, you worked in the finance and business consulting industry. What made you switch from being an intermediary to a front-line entrepreneur?
Palmmy: I found that path was becoming meaningless because it was all about helping rich people getting richer. A lot of them didn’t even have good financial discipline, which led their companies into financial trouble, and my job was helping them to have more access to funding. I thought there had to be a better way of doing business, so I decided to turn my skills and effort elsewhere.
Also, I’d always wanted to start my own business, inspired by my mother. My mom is a single mother and an entrepreneur. Despite not having an educational background, she managed to raise five children on her own.
The school system in Thailand tends to funnel students into set, good careers at big companies, so I had to break away from these professional expectations and find my own path instead.
Ogunte: How did Siam Organic come about?
Palmmy: I quit my job and left to complete an MBA in Bangkok. After graduating, I came up with the idea for Siam Organic during a business plan competition. A sustainable business with a great product that would target health-conscious consumers worldwide, to the benefit of Thai farmers. I founded the team, and we began to build the business.
There were originally five members on the team, when we were pitching the idea at business plan competitions. We won several awards both in Thailand and internationally. However, when we turned it into real business, only two of us stayed. Others left, as they didn’t expect the reality to be so much harder than the business plan.
I met my co-founder during the MBA. His skills are quite different to mine, so we complement each other well. Together, we built Siam Organic.
Ogunte: How do you build up a professional support network?
Palmmy: Fortunately, our coaches at the business school have been a great support to us, and we’ve also had help from some of our friends who are experienced entrepreneurs and professionals to guide us in the right direction.
More broadly, we’ve sought out mentorship from professionals who run large and well-respected social enterprises in Thailand. They have taught us a lot about how to partner with the local farmers in a sustainable way. We firmly believe that social enterprises can help each other grow, since we tend to face similar problems along the way. Our company is on the board of Social Enterprise Thailand, which encourages collaboration among Thai social enterprises.
Ogunte: Where do you draw your energy from?
Palmmy: The farmers that I work with. The first four years of growing the business were really tough and I struggled to make it a profitable venture. There were definitely times when I thought about quitting.
When I was conducting an assessment of our impact, I had the chance to talk to farmers in person. This was when it really sunk in that we were having a significant impact on the lives of the farming communities over the years. Through that experience, I felt so blessed to have the opportunity to affect real change in people’s lives.
I told myself not to give up and resolved to keep fighting to see the farmers smiling. The farmers had trusted me to help them transform their livelihood - that is something money cannot buy.
Ogunte: What are the three most valuable things you have learned so far, developing Siam Organic?
Ogunte: What obstacle are you battling right now at Siam?
Palmmy Wong: At the moment, our main challenge is to keep up with the demand by expanding our production capacity, while maintaining the high quality of our product.
Ogunte: How do you measure your impact?
Palmmy Wong: We have a template for SROI (social return on investment) and impact measurement from a third-party organisation called Shujog* to measure the impact we create each year with the farmers we work with.
Shujog conducted a six-month long impact assessment of our work in July 2015, and found that the 1,026 farmers we worked with earned 14 times higher profit compared to conventional rice farmers in Thailand, resulting in an incremental economic benefit of US$ 1.72mn for the farmers. Last year, by growing Jasberry rice instead of regular rice, our farmers earned 108% more from their harvests.
We also collect data from our field officers, who research the factors that impact farmers’ livelihood.
For instance, climate change means the frequency of extreme weather, both severe droughts and flooding, is rising in the northeastern region of Thailand.
We are working with the farmers on projects to help diversify their income and make the farms more climate resilient.
We carry out internal performance reviews to track our progress. This is a time to evaluate myself on a quarterly basis, too.
Ogunte: What does self-care mean to you?
Palmmy Wong: I have found that I need to take time to detach from work, so I can fully recharge myself and keep working at my maximum ability. I exercise regularly: yoga, weight-training, rock-climbing, and scuba diving. These activities bring me more in tune with myself and nature, which is rare for a person who lives in Bangkok. I’ve learnt to appreciate what nature has given us, which only fuels my energy to continue doing what I do in promoting healthy organic products and supporting organic farmers. I want to preserve the beauty of the natural world for the next generations.
These physical challenges also require a lot of mental focus and determination to overcome, which helps me see problems at work differently. They are just obstacles to be conquered, just like I push past my fear each metre I climb up a cliff. If you’ve ever tested yourself physically, I’m sure you understand what I mean!
Ogunte: Who inspires you in the social entrepreneurship sector?
Palmmy Wong: Durreen Shahnaz, the founder and managing director of Impact Investing Exchange (IIX), the home of the world’s first social stock exchange and leader in the impact investing space in Asia.
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