Sarapee Yuadyong is an impressive woman: after almost 30 years in the workforce, she searched for her calling and found a way to help struggling locals in Thailand. Today, she’s the founder of Chiwadi and manages a network of farmers who use the technology developed from her own research to harvest the nectar that flows from coconut tree flowers.
This nectar—Chiwadi’s coconut flower syrup from the Thailand Box—is so much more than a healthful sweetener. It’s a symbol of the hope and opportunity that Chiwadi gives struggling Thai locals.
How were you first inspired to start Chiwadi?
I’ve been a working lady for almost 30 years, and I started thinking, “I’m getting a little bit old now. What should I gain out of my life?” I didn’t have any ideas, so I went for a break in life by going to a place to relax. I asked people there, “What do you think I can do that is valuable for you?” The lady who managed the homestay asked me to help get rid of the flies that disturb the tourists. I started to see that the main reason is because of food, so I started fermentation for food waste. It was quite successful, and I realized I can do anything I haven’t done before in my life. I could see that people in this area talked about coconut sugar, so I looked into the details and found that people want sugar in the market. I ran a study with my coconut syrup and coconut powder and won the award for doing the research.
So how did you finally launch the product in the market?
I made the packaging and product design, but nobody was joining me because I owned nothing. I went to many farms to see if anyone would merge their land. No one was interested. Then I found a lady who was actually quite old, and she believed in me. Then we made the first batch together and I won this national award and became known in the country as an innovator. That took off my project very quickly. I was lucky to get this award.
What an incredible start! How has Chiwadi developed since then?
We started with this family and now we have over 100 people joining us. Each year I have interviews and more people join. Professors and the government tell me, “Oh, Sarapee, you should for for the global competition.” And so then we won the global award!
Tell me about the farms you work with, and how the nectar is harvested?
When you enter the farms at night, you can see the people still working because they are harvesting the nectar. They have to climb twice a day: first, very early in the morning at 4 a.m., and the second time at maybe 6 p.m. up to 10 p.m, depending on the planning.
Chiwadi is the master for training, and we supply everything needed for making the syrup, including the equipment to control the quality. So they know how to use everything. Everyday they have to control the time, because the weather depends on the sun and we cannot control that. So they have to speed up when the weather is hot to get the quality right the first time. It’s a lot of communication.
What kind of relationship do you have with the farmers?
The community sees me as a healer or teacher. They call me professor sometimes. In their life they never see anyone who comes and gives. Everyone in their life comes and takes. I also link them to my network. For example, if they want to expand, I look for someone who can donate their construction equipment free of charge. It is important to nurture the community because they feel trusted.
What is it like to work in Thailand as a woman?
In Thailand most of the business owners are ladies actually. Usually when you look at the portfolios of these small businesses it’s actually led by ladies. Being a lady is good because my work is about networking and making belief in the community.
What are the most important qualities of Chiwadi?
I think the Chiwadi program is about two things. The first thing is about coconut tree development, and the second thing is about product development and innovation that comes out of the nectar. We are not stopping at the nectar; we have to go beyond the nectar. We are looking for other products because the work still needs more development and we are searching for that.
Chiwa in Thailand means life, and di means good. So it means good life. But I wanted Chiwadi to have more meaning than that, so I intended the name to be the same as chi in Chinese, which means internal energy: the internal energy that is very powerful inside yourself. Wadi means river or water. Internal power and water is a kind of power inside your life driven by water. So I think it has good meaning for the word Chiwadi.
What’s your most memorable success story?
Two parents were about 50 years old, and five years ago they decided to come back to their hometown. When they came back they had nothing left. They went into debt after decades of working, but they said, “There is something else in life.” I went to see them, and the wife said she worked in the food industry before, so I said, “Why don’t you join Chiwadi and make this nectar product?” Now Chiwadi secures this whole family including their neighbors.