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E-commerce is embraced in rural China as a stepping stone to vitalization
By Zhang Shasha & Li Nan  ·  2020-11-20  ·   Source: NO.48 NOVEMBER 26, 2020
A worker feeds chickens in a free-range chicken farm in Wuyi County, Hebei Province in north China (COURTESY PHOTO)

At He Xiaofei's chicken farm, each bird wears a contraption reminiscent of the step-tracking device worn by fitness conscious people. These electronic trackers tied to the feet of the chicken record the number of steps they take. Buyers could scan the QR codes attached to the chickens to see how many steps they had walked.

At least 1 million steps have to be taken before they are put on the food chain because as He, manager of the farm in Wuyi, a county in Hebei Province in north China, explained to Xinhua News Agency that is the minimum exercise needed to ensure that chickens have tight muscles, which enhances the taste of the meat.

The free-range farm has about 10,000 chickens, many of them feeding only on natural food. The chicken has become a popular product on JD.com, one of China's e-commerce giants, basking in media attention.

For years Wuyi was one of the poorest counties in China, its alkaline soil making it unsuitable for agriculture. Also, nearly 60 percent of its residents were either old, ill or unemployed.

In 2016, JD.com signed an agreement with the local government to start the chicken farm as a poverty alleviation project. The company provided farmers with micro loans to buy chicks and logistical and marketing support after the chickens matured. Later, a cooperative was established to collectively raise the chickens.

Residents in the county also sell chicken feed, fruits and vegetables, and part-time jobs are available at the farm to increase their income. This single project provides 10 percent of the income of impoverished households in the county.

JD.com's founder and CEO Richard Liu once said that the agricultural industry in poor rural areas faces two challenges. One is the difficulty in selling produce at a good price, and the other is insufficient quality produce.

"E-commerce contributes greatly to poverty alleviation and rural revitalization," Cui Lili, Director of the Institute of E-Commerce at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, told Beijing Review.

Yang Ming, the deputy chief of Luonan County, Shaanxi Province in northwest China, sells local products through live-streaming on September 1 (XONHUA)

From fields to online market

In December 2014, the State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development decided to implement 10 projects for targeted poverty alleviation in China. They included relocation, developing tourism, delivering vocational education, dispatching officials to villages to lead poverty alleviation drives, and boosting e-commerce. The decision gave momentum to e-commerce in rural areas.

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has resulted in a boom of online sales. Live-streaming and short videos have become new tools driving online sales amid the epidemic. It has become a trend for local officials like mayors and celebrities to sell agricultural products online.

During the Chinese New Year, Baishui, a county in Shaanxi Province, northwest China, with a history of growing the fruit for 2,000 years and known as the hometown of apples, still had nearly 200,000 tons of the fruit in warehouses. The situation drove Qin Fengju, head of the county, to contact JD.com and they arranged a live-streaming with Qin himself, asking viewers to try out the "juicy, crispy and sweet" apples. In two hours, they had sold 100 tons.

The growing number of e-commerce platforms provided by other Internet companies like Taobao.com, Tencent, Douyin and Kuaishou has also contributed to the development of e-commerce and live-streaming sales.

In April 29, Fuping, another impoverished county in Hebei, struck a partnership with Tencent's Weishi, a live-streaming and short video platform, to expand its online sales channel. Miao Bingsong, Deputy Director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs of Hebei, said the cooperation will consolidate the results of the poverty alleviation work. Miao also said e-commerce is an important way to build brand, create diverse sales channels for market players, and create new master sellers.

Fuping already has agreements with Alibaba and JD.com to set up online-to-offline rural e-commerce experiencing centers and service centers to promote its specialties such as wolfberry drinks, walnuts and mushroom sauces. Local governments, companies, cooperatives and poor families have become integrated into a dynamic chain to advance poverty alleviation through e-commerce.

The past years have also seen an upgrade in the attempts to alleviate poverty through e-commerce. People with low incomes have been trained and supported to open online stores and an entire e-commerce chain has been formed, covering more diverse areas, and involving more local people, directly or indirectly.

According to a report by the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) in September, online sales of farm produce reached 193.8 billion yuan ($29 billion) in the first half of 2020, an increase of 39.7 percent year on year. Poverty-stricken counties contributed to 68.5 billion yuan ($10.4 billion) of this, up 13.3 percent year on year. And every one in five Chinese has contributed to the fight against poverty by online shopping.

A buyer browses the live-streaming page on JD.com (ZHANG WEI)

From fish to fishing

Cui said e-commerce presents effective and low-cost tools for sellers of local goods to open online market rapidly, and more importantly, it broadens people's horizons. E-commerce has offered a variety of solutions to remote regions, including new technologies and new business concepts. Instead of being given fish for a day, rural residents have been learning fishing techniques, which is a sustainable way to combat poverty.

With the fight on poverty showing results, the resources and experiences gathered are becoming the cornerstone of further rural vitalization.

According to Tang Yishen, General Manager of the Fresh Produce Department at Seven Fresh, JD.com's supermarket chain, the chicken project in Wuyi is also a training opportunity for local formers to create poverty alleviation brands. It is a feasible way to increase their income sustainably with low-cost learning.

Moreover, digital technologies, advancing by leaps and bounds, provide a strong resource for resisting risks. There could be other unforeseen challenges in future like COVID-19, Cui said. She suggested that e-commerce should be improved to better cope with such challenges. More e-commerce-specific infrastructure such as warehouses and better delivery networks should be built in places of production and sales, Cui added.

(Print Edition Title: Wings for Growth) 

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to zhangshsh@bjreview.com

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