These young changemakers are setting Thailand on a new path

Today’s young people are guardians of the future, but the world they inherit faces many pressing issues, from climate change to social inequality. As one generation cedes power to another, many young people set out to solve these problems.

In Thailand, these five changemakers point to the bright new possibilities that await when young people take the power to shape the world in their own hands.

Aukrit Unahalekhaka, co-founder and CEO of Ricult

In Thailand, about a third of the working population works in agriculture, according to the UN, but farmers earn an average of just US$200 a month. Droughts, floods and other natural disasters exacerbated by climate change further threaten their well-being and security.

With Ricult, Aukrit Unahalekhaka, a former software engineer and MIT-trained consultant, is leveraging machine learning and satellite imagery to solve these problems and help farmers lift themselves out of poverty.

“You think of farmers growing rice or maize, but at the end of the day it’s a small business,” he says – and a high-risk, low-return business. “Farmers only earn twice a year: when they harvest. And at the beginning of the season, they take out loans to invest in their crops, labor, machinery, etc.

The startup, which he co-founded with fellow MIT alumnus Usman Javaid, offers an app that provides microclimate forecasts, the latest market prices, and more to mitigate risk and increase productivity.

The app is free. So far, 600,000 Thai farmers are using it and seeing a 20-30% increase in productivity, according to Aukrit. He notes that their technology also reverses the dynamic between buyers and suppliers to create better economic outcomes for farmers. “We want to empower farmers so they can choose who to sell to,” he says.

But Aukrit is not just about improving farmers’ livelihoods. As food safety becomes a bigger global issue, Thailand is in a unique position to meet the demand for sustainability and traceability throughout the supply chain. “We want to use AI and technology to improve the competitiveness of the entire Thai food industry,” he says.

Another 250,000 Pakistani farmers use Ricult, and the start-up recently expanded into Vietnam, highlighting the potential of its technology to do good further afield. “The beauty of our platform is that we can have geographic expansion without investing too much in operations,” says Aukrit.

“We can take our technology anywhere.”

Sorawit Paiboonrattanakorn, founder of Saturday school

Thai education is historically rote, leaving little room for active, student-focused learning. A former computer engineer turned educator, Sorawit is trying to modernize this system, one class at a time.

His nonprofit Saturday School not only allows students from underserved communities to choose study programs that interest them, but also encourages them to explore, experiment, and be themselves.

“Thai students have a lot of potential, but they don’t have the right environment, the right learning methods to reach that potential,” he says.

With Saturday School, program managers ask students what they want to learn and then find volunteer educators who have the skills to teach those lessons.

Dance, board game design, adventure and first aid, ‘how to be a game launcher’ – ‘We don’t limit subjects, but students don’t tend to choose to learn math on Saturdays,’ says- he laughs.

“When students learn what they really want to learn, they grow even more than they would when they’re in the classroom,” he explains. He adds that many teachers at participating schools say Saturday School students have higher self-esteem and perform better in their classrooms.

“The more they learn, the more they can improve their own lives and their communities.”

Since 2014, the association has worked with around 3,000 volunteers in total. Last year, these volunteers taught around 1,500 students in the provinces of Bangkok, Phuket, Nonthaburi and Khon Kaen. “We are trying to expand to all Thai provinces in the next five years,” says Sorawit.

Along the way, he hopes to drive change from scratch.

“I don’t think the change will come from within the system,” he notes. “But many people in society would like to see education improve. Saturday School is a space where people outside the system can help.

Kamonnart Ongwandee, national manager of Fashion revolution in Thailand

Words like “revolution” often land with a thud in Thailand. “It doesn’t fit the mainstream conservative narrative,” says Kamonnart Ongwandee, designer, Thailand country lead for Fashion Revolution and Forbes Asia ’30 under 30′ winner. “But I love the fashion industry and I want to improve it.”

With Fashion Revolution, a global non-profit initiative trying to make fashion sustainable at all levels, she is leading a kind of less daunting revolution that aims to bring about a narrative shift in Thailand.

“Our goals focus on several areas: ending the throwaway culture; help people understand the cost and value of clothes, especially since behind your clothes are humans who deserve fair wages; and promoting indigenous heritage and crafts,” she says. This latest effort is unique to Thailand, she adds – local traditions and wisdom still exist and can be applied to sustainability initiatives.

Fashion Revolution does all of this through content, campaigns with figures like the British Council, and events like workshops and clothing swaps. “We encourage people to swap items, extend the life of their clothes, and rethink ownership and access,” she says. “It’s still a very new concept for Thai people.”

The group also organizes community meetings that bring together stakeholders from across the industry: designers, factory owners, students, seamstresses and more. “It is very rare, in Bangkok at least, for people in the fashion value chain to come together, exchange opinions and discuss the way forward,” she notes.

Above all, she sees her role as a bridge between governments, brands and consumers – someone who can communicate the value of indigenous traditions, highlight labor issues in the production industry fashion in Thailand and create more agents of change.

“You can’t wait for governments or brands to save you,” she says. “Social change will come when many people are ready to lead. I think that will happen in the next generation.

Pornthida Wongphatharakul, co-founder and CMO of Organic Siam and jasberry

“We take rice for granted,” says Pornthida, co-founder of Siam Organic, a social enterprise that seeks to solve farmer poverty by producing world-class organic products, including its brand of Jasberry rice. “In Thailand, we will pay $5 for a cup of coffee, but we won’t pay $1 for a plate of rice.”

But behind every bowl of cheap rice is a farmer who could be trapped in a cycle of poverty or debt.

“We have seen that too many Thai farmers are selling their land or putting in as many unnatural pesticides and fertilizers as they can. [into their fields]to maximize yields, says Pornthida.

To improve the quality of their rice as well as their lives, Siam Organic works closely with farmers in rural Thailand to develop organic products that can achieve higher yields and higher prices. The company also offers training and low-interest unsecured loans to farmers for the purchase of cows. “This [gives] additional savings and an additional source of fertilizer,” says Pornthida.

The company’s flagship product, Jasberry — a non-GMO organic cross with 133 times more antioxidants than white rice, according to the company — benefits both health and farmers. Jasberry provides work for 2,500 small farmers, mostly middle-aged women with only a high school diploma. The company pays farmers nearly 80% more than the market rate for conventionally grown rice, meaning they can earn 11 times more on average.

This year, Jasberry ready-to-eat will hit shelves in the United States and Europe as the company expands into other markets.

“Thais consider farming as one of the lowest professions because most farmers are poor and lack access to education,” Pornthida says. “We want to give them back their dignity by making farming a viable business and giving them access to better opportunities in their lives.”

Sirasar Boonma, Founder of Listen and find

What is the value of a sound? For groups at risk of losing their traditions, invaluable.

With Hear & Found, Sirasar Boonma hopes sound recordings can change perceptions of Thailand’s seven million indigenous people – a number that represents 10% of the population – and preserve its endangered cultures.

“Indigenous people in Thailand sometimes don’t want to be themselves because it’s not easy to be themselves,” says Sirasar. This dynamic pushes young people to leave the villages for the big cities, where their ways of life are lost in the pursuit of money and acceptance.

“I believe that music is another way to solve social problems [like these]says Sirasar.

The social enterprise currently works with 15 musicians across eight tribes in Thailand and has so far recorded over 100 songs and sounds, as well as dozens of music videos. This year, Sirasar plans to work with 10 more musicians and reach more communities in all corners of Thailand.

“For many Indigenous communities, their songs aren’t just songs. They are like a book: they transmit rituals, traditions and knowledge acquired over generations,” she says. “Without preserving these sounds, we lose entire philosophies, entire ways of life.”

Hear & Found has worked with Wonderfruit Festival, Thailand’s Creative Economy Agency and UNDP to produce music videos, sound installations and more. It also operates a stock market website; 50% of the profits from sales go directly to the creators.

So far, it’s brought in $12,000 for the Indigenous musicians they work with, money that often goes back to the community. One Karen musician, Sirasar says, has built a music school in his village and another has invested in forest fire protection tools.

But Sirasar believes that Hear & Found primarily serves to open minds to the qualities these communities add to Thai society. “We try to encourage and empower these groups to see their creative potential,” she says. “And we have to remember that in Thailand we are not just one people.”

Discover the reading list here.

– Asia Media Center

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