Iso­lated com­mu­nity surfs the web to net new cus­tomers and prof­its

The in­tro­duc­tion of e-com­merce is help­ing to raise the liv­ing stan­dards of poor fam­i­lies liv­ing on the edge of the Tak­li­makan Desert. and report from Ak­supa, the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA - Editor’s note:

This is the third in a se­ries of spe­cial re­ports China Daily will pub­lish in the com­ing weeks fo­cus­ing on ef­forts to erad­i­cate poverty and raise liv­ing stan­dards in the coun­try’s ru­ral ar­eas, es­pe­cially among mem­bers of the na­tion’s eth­nic groups.

The jour­ney be­gins at Ak­supa vil­lage, an an­cient Silk Road out­post in the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and ends four days later in Bei­jing and other ma­jor cities, where long-last­ing flat­breads baked in the vil­lage are sent to cus­tomers by air.

Awa­han Os­man, a 49-yearold Ak­supa res­i­dent and skilled baker, sells more than 3,000 flat­breads across the coun­try ev­ery month, 10 times the num­ber two years ago.

When asked about the se­cret of her suc­cess, the Uygur woman, who doesn’t speak Chi­nese, ut­tered one word in English: “In­ter­net.” The Uygur lan­guage has ab­sorbed many loan­words from English, and most of them re­late to tech­nol­ogy, such as “in­ter­net”, “com­puter” and “tele­phone”.

As the lat­est weapon in the fight against poverty, “in­ter­net” has be­come a pop­u­lar word in Ak­supa, the town­ship from which the vil­lage de­rives its name, in the Beyin­guoleng Mon­go­lian au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture, which bor­ders the 323,750-square-kilo­me­ter Tak­li­makan Desert.

Since 2014, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment has been col­lect­ing the vil­lagers’ prod­ucts, in­clud­ing bread, eggs and honey, to sell via an on­line store it founded and op­er­ates. Al­though rev­enue was small ini­tially, it has grown and is now a ma­jor provider for poor lo­cal fam­i­lies.

When Os­man’s car­pen­ter hus­band fell sick five years ago, the fam­ily lost its sole means of support. Now, she can make 2,000 ($290) to 3,000 yuan a month by sup­ply­ing flat­bread, or nang, a fa­mous Xin­jiang cui­sine, to cities na­tion­wide.

“I used to sell my bread in our vil­lage to make a liv­ing,” she said. “But now it’s sold in big cities like Bei­jing and Shang­hai.”

En­vi­ron­ment and poverty

Ac­cord­ing to Zhu Ren, di­rec­tor of the gov­ern­ment of Ak­supa town­ship, the area’s arid en­vi­ron­ment and re­mote lo­ca­tion force peo­ple into poverty.

In 2013, many har­vests were ru­ined by a hur­ri­cane, leav­ing about one-third of the pop­u­la­tion of 3,000 liv­ing be­low the national poverty line of 2,800 yuan a year.

“Peo­ple’s lives slid to the bot­tom of a hole, so we started think­ing of a way out,” Zhu said.

He rec­og­nized the busi­ness po­ten­tial of lo­cal prod­ucts — in­clud­ing home-pro­duced bread, eggs and honey — and re­al­ized that the in­ter­net could con­nect vil­lagers with cus­tomers thou­sands of kilo­me­ters away.

“Ak­supa vil­lage has low lev­els of in­dus­trial pollution, so our or­ganic prod­ucts are ex­actly what peo­ple liv­ing in cities want,” he said.

This year, the vil­lage’s on­line store, sup­plied by nearly 100 lo­cal fam­i­lies, has earned 15,000 yuan through the sale of more than 10,000 eggs, and three fam­i­lies have opened their own on­line out­lets.

Liu Jian­guo, a 51-year-old res­i­dent, said he can make more than 10,000 yuan a year sell­ing eggs on­line. “We used to give away dozens of eggs to friends be­cause there was no place to sell them,” he said. “Who knew we could sell eggs on­line? It’s a mir­a­cle!”

Pa­tigul Ha­lik, an of­fi­cial with the lo­cal town­ship ad­min­is­tra­tion, said al­most ev­ery fam­ily in Ak­supa vil­lage keeps chick­ens to pro­vide eggs and meat, and the on­line store pro­vides a channel for the sale of sur­plus eggs.

When an or­der is re­ceived, Ha­lik vis­its lo­cal fam­i­lies to col­lect fresh pro­duces. Each egg is stamped with the sup­plier’s name, so it can be traced back to the fam­ily.

“We don’t have chicken farms in Ak­supa. All the eggs and bread we sell are the same as those eaten by peo­ple here,” Ha­lik said. “That’s why our prod­ucts are so pop­u­lar on­line.”

In Novem­ber, a two-story e-com­merce ser­vice cen­ter was estab­lished to col­lect, store and process pro­duce be­fore it is packed and sent to cities na­tion­wide.

Ac­cord­ing to Zhu, the town­ship di­rec­tor, ev­ery res­i­dent will be above the poverty line by the end of next year.

Ef­fec­tive poli­cies

In 2014, the State Coun­cil Lead­ing Group Of­fice of Poverty Al­le­vi­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, listed e-com­merce as one of a num­ber of ef­fec­tive poli­cies. A year later, the use of e-com­merce to al­le­vi­ate poverty be­came one of “10 Tar­geted Poverty Al­le­vi­a­tion Pro­jects”, along with im­proved vo­ca­tional train­ing and mi­cro­fi­nance.

Last year, the Min­istry of Com­merce and Min­istry of Fi­nance listed 200 coun­ties na­tion­wide that had made praise­wor­thy ef­forts in the de­vel­op­ment of e-com­merce. This year, Lop­nuv, the county in which Ak­supa vil­lage is lo­cated, ap­plied to join the list, but has yet to hear if its ap­pli­ca­tion has been suc­cess­ful, ac­cord­ing to Wang Yuan­ming, vice-di­rec­tor of Beyin­guoleng Mon­go­lian au­ton­o­mous pre­fec­ture.

Smart Daxi, the on­line busi­ness plat­form of Daxi vil­lage, is big­ger than the op­er­a­tion in nearby Ak­supa. Last year, it had sales worth more than 10 mil­lion yuan, the most pop­u­lar be­ing fa­mous lo­cal prod­ucts such as cot­ton quilts and dried fruits. Mean­while, al­most half of the 350 fam­i­lies in Daxi run their own on­line stores.

The cen­tral gov­ern­ment has vowed to erad­i­cate poverty by the end of 2020 and build what Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has called “a mod­er­ately well-off so­ci­ety”, but the chal­lenges fac­ing Xin­jiang are huge, Wang said, not- ing a report by Xin­hua News Agency last month, which stated that 2.6 mil­lion peo­ple in the re­gion live be­low the national poverty line.

“E-com­merce is cer­tainly a pow­er­ful tool, but it still has lim­its,” he said, adding that most poor fam­i­lies can’t af­ford dig­i­tal equip­ment to start on­line busi­nesses, and for those liv­ing in re­mote moun­tain­ous ar­eas, where there is no elec­tric­ity sup­ply, the in­ter­net does not ex­ist.

Lan­guage bar­rier

Lan­guage also presents a bar­rier, ac­cord­ing to Wang. Many of the re­gion’s eth­nic groups, pre­dom­i­nantly Uygur peo­ple, use their own lan­guages. As a re­sult, they find it dif­fi­cult to surf the in­ter­net be­cause Man­darin is used al­most uni­ver­sally.

“That’s why we are build­ing on­line stores for vil­lagers and teach­ing them how to use the in­ter­net,” said Li Xinyun, di­rec­tor of the Ak­supa vil­lage e-com­merce ser­vice cen­ter, who added that the au­thor­i­ties have in­vited own­ers of suc­cess­ful on­line stores to lec­ture in the town.

Peo­ple in big cities re­gard on­line busi­ness as a part of life, but it’s a brand new world for peo­ple in Ak­supa vil­lage, he said. Now, when Li and his col­leagues visit lo­cal fam­i­lies, they al­ways take a lap­top with them.

“We let the farm­ers touch it and use it. Then we open the on­line store on our smart­phones to ex­plain how we sell their bread and eggs to other places,” he said. “The in­ter­net is a strange con­cept for them, and it’s eas­ier to be­lieve in some­thing you can ac­tu­ally see.”

With the money she has made by sell­ing her bread on­line, Os­man, the baker, has bought a re­frig­er­a­tor and elec­tric bike — things she never thought her fam­ily could af­ford.

“I don’t have a com­puter and I don’t know how the in­ter­net works,” she said. “But I can see the changes brought by the in­ter­net very clearly.”

num­ber of coun­ties that made ef­forts to de­velop e-com­merce last year, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Com­merce and Min­istry of Fi­nance

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PHO­TOS BY PENG YIN­ING / CHINA DAILY

Cot­ton farm­ers check a smart­phone in Ak­supa vil­lage, the Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion. Eighty per­cent of the vil­lagers now own high-tech de­vices, such as com­put­ers and smart­phones.

Ak­supa vil­lager Awa­han Os­man pre­pares flat­breads that will be sold on­line to cus­tomers na­tion­wide.

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