Hataikan Kamolsirisakul

With the world becoming a global village, thanks to digital computing and communication technologies, agri-food enterprises are transforming rapidly to keep pace with the rest of the digital world. Businesses, old and new, are adopting modern technologies to optimise business models, streamline processes, discover new opportunities, mitigate risks better, and increase profitability in more ways than one. Continue reading to discover the journey of a 74-year-old company and the largest manufacturer of starch and starch-related food products in Thailand, Thai Wah, as it continues to seek innovation and build a sustainable business in this rapidly changing digital world.
In Conversation With

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul began her journey in the agriculture sector two and a half years ago when she joined Thai Wah as its Head of Strategy and Innovation. Since then, her role and involvement in the organisation have expanded to include Group Farm Development, a role she is most grateful for every day. It allows her the opportunity to be part of driving change in not only Thailand but the global agriculture industry.  Since she could remember, her parents have always instilled in her gratitude for the farmers and for every grain of rice they put on the table and for never letting it go to waste. The closest she came to being exposed to farming before her current stint was during her food retail days. When the opportunity arose to join a growing agri-food company, she welcomed it as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make an impact from ground zero: the farmers and their farms.

Hataikan’s first visit to the farm and Thai Wah’s factory was in March 2019, in the upper North East of Thailand. She recollects speaking to three farmers, who were very hospitable and extremely willing to share their stories of daily struggles and achievements, for nearly four continuous hours. For example, Uncle Boon shared that his family has been farming for generations. Every day since he was a child, he has helped his parents in the field. His daily struggles are like most in the farming community: adverse impact through weather, crop diseases, the rising cost of land rent and farming, and the pressure from brokers and manufacturers. He desires a better life for his children and grandchildren. He believes that change as we know it will not happen overnight, but it will happen over decades of consistent effort. Conversations with hard-working people like Uncle Boon inspire Hataikan to accomplish more in the agri sector.

Notably, Hataikan also has an extensive professional background in consulting, trading, and software development in the industrial and retail sectors.

The pandemic had disrupted the global agri-food supply chain but was also a driver of digital adoption at all levels. What transformation have you witnessed, and what impact has it had on the supply chain?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: Thai Wah has been around for almost 75 years and currently operates out of 15 countries around APAC, including Thailand, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Our core business is starch and starch-related plant-based food ingredients and products. Our vermicelli noodle operation in Thailand and Vietnam produces prominent brands such as Double Dragon, Double Kirin, and Phoenix, serving close to 1 million consumers globally. We are also one of the largest manufacturers of tapioca starch and food ingredients in the region. Customers use our starch as an ingredient for bubble tea, bakery mix, instant noodle, and processed food. Our bioplastics business is enabling our customers to produce disposable and bio compostable plastics. To serve customers in over 35 countries, digital technology has been a key enabler in understanding our diverse customer and consumer base. It has also helped us rapidly innovate products and solutions on time. The pandemic has digitally transformed the way we live and do business faster than we have ever seen. For example, within our B2B business, relationships and trust are critical for building long term and sustainable partnerships. Earlier, we attended 4 to 5 trade shows annually to meet customers and partners. The pandemic halted such activities.  Within Thai Wah, on the farming side of the business, it is vital to visit the field, look at the crops, and talk to our farmers regularly. Pandemic has accelerated digital adoption, wherein we have observed a 7-9% increase in new farmers joining the platform to get access to root market pricing, weather updates, and online agronomy advisory. Training sessions for our farmers, which were previously conducted in person every month at multiple locations, have been moved to only digital and with more frequency. 

One of Thai Wah’s fundamental principles is to relentlessly seek to create innovation and sustainability from Farm to Shelf better every day. As a 74-year old company, what has this journey been like? What innovations have the company embraced to improve the sustainability of the business?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: Our transformation to building a sustainable business is a continual journey. We need to keep doing better every day. We are committed to using our knowledge, capabilities, and expertise to mobilise sustainable development in all 4F core pillars: Farmer, Factory, Family, Food. Over the years, we have built farmer networks across our SEA sourcing operations to support farmers with agronomy advisory, scaling better crop varieties, and yield improvement technologies. All are being enabled through our analytics and digital farming platform. We have consistently upgraded our facilities to ensure the highest food quality and safety standards to serve our consumers in North America, Europe, and Asia. We have rolled out over 15 new products in the past year and shortened our time to market by 50%. We continue to initiate new projects to serve our customers and consumers better every day.

Thai Wah has been quick to adopt modern technologies, which is evident from the fact that the company works with supplier farmers to pilot technologies like drones and satellite imaging and developing biopower plants to generate that can convert energy from byproducts. What tech trends do you foresee will phenomenally impact agriculture?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: The last three years have been about connectivity and building analytics to support yield improvement and secure the supply chain. However, the increasing ability of artificial intelligence and machine learning to process big data, and the scalability of IoT (Internet of Things), NLP (natural language processing) and the chatbot will transform agriculture as we know it. Efforts to reduce carbon emissions along the supply chain and initiatives to adopt regenerative agriculture practices at Ground Zero will depend on these technologies.   We imagine individual farmers checking their phone apps in the morning, monitoring the state of their crops, automating ag-inputs daily and weekly, getting alerts on yield risks, and being advised on the optimal planting period based on market movements and crop yield performance. 

Agriculture is both a victim and a significant contributor to climate change. The recent IPCC report states that only strong and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions can limit climate change. What major steps should the agricultural sector take to achieve carbon neutrality in the long term?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: First and foremost, believe in and embrace sustainability. Be open about the internal and external challenges to move towards carbon neutrality and net-zero. Then review the whole value chain with a long-term view towards how each company within the sector can contribute within their areas. Also, we need to build ecosystem partners with the expertise to support a plug-and-play solution within their fields, which answer the business needs. Thai Wah will transition all factory production systems towards carbon neutrality over the next ten years by adopting solar and other renewable energy, reducing coal and diesel, and promoting regenerative agriculture. Existing farming practices are also being reassessed; we are rethinking how to scale sustainable farming practices. It includes farming methods, fertiliser application at the farm level, and the usage of diesel fuel trucks and truckers at the locations closer to farmer proximity.

Is it possible for food processing companies to influence the farming practices of millions of farmers across countries by collaborating with them and driving more sustainable agriculture for the future?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: This is a movement that cannot be done alone. It must be built together with multi-stakeholder partnerships from both private and public sectors. For instance, Thai Wah has partnered with NSTDA, TTDI, Ministry of Agriculture, local provincial governments, universities, and leading global start-ups to collect data and build analytics models, mobilise training across the region, deploy agronomist advisors to follow up on progress, and facilitate access to ag-inputs such as biofertilisers, better stems, and seeds. In addition, with the recent launch of our venture capital arm Thai Wah Ventures, focusing on Greentech in B2B food and Agritech start-ups, we seek to invest in 8 to 10 starch ups over the next 2 to 3 years. Our commitment to being part of transforming SEA’s green economy by building Innovation at Ground Zero has never been stronger.

What is your vision for agriculture in Thailand? How critical is technology’s role in achieving this vision?

Hataikan Kamolsirisakul: Over the years, the spotlight has been on the Thai agricultural section, given Thailand’s rich natural resources and size. The government has played a prominent role and pooled resources to uplift the sector with innovation and farm productivity and boost income for farmers and communities. The next ten years will be very exciting, given the speed of technology development, the cost economics, and the adoption rate. Three years ago, we could only imagine yield and price predictions and being connected to our 30,000 farmers. Now, we source over 1 million tons of cassava roots per year. Reaching our vision of success in the next three to five years will take many small steps continuously and with relentless consistency. Technology will continue to play a role to help add value to resources and agriculture products and improve the competitiveness of the Thai agriculture industry.

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