What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.
In this Icon NOW interview, Suthasiny “Moh” Sudprasert, co-founder of Happy Grocers—a Thai sustainable food startup—shares insights into her entrepreneurial journey, establishing a bridge to connect urban consumers to rural farmers amidst the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the numerous hurdles confronting farmers in Thailand.
The year 2020 remains etched in our memories, a year plagued with uncertainty, anxiety, facemasks, and sanitizer bottles. The simple became complex, and ease turned into struggle overnight. Amidst this, however, a few visionary souls seized the sourest of lemons and transformed them into the sweetest lemonade of opportunity.
“One day, while browsing Facebook, Pearl [Pattamaphon Dumnui] and I came across acquaintances struggling to access organic fruits and vegetables, and eco-friendly grocery delivery,” Moh recalls. She acted swiftly by posting a simple message on her Facebook profile, offering grocery delivery within three days.
The first order came through in less than 24 hours, marking a spontaneous response to the crisis. However, this immediate reaction also exposed additional problems within the food system. “Happy Grocers didn’t initially have a business plan; it evolved from our response to these challenges,” she says.
Nonetheless, the business was on a mission to make a difference — to bridge the gap between consumers and their food sources, while fostering better relationships with farmers. While this feat earned Moh a spot in the Forbes 30 Under 30 – Asia – Social Impact list, the journey has been rocky, to say the least.
“I had no idea how I was going to deliver.”
Happy Grocers was inundated with approximately 20 orders within the first night. “It was overwhelming. Without any logistics or team in place, I had no idea how I was going to deliver,” she recalls.
Luckily, Moh knew someone who did. That night, she reached out to Pearl, her close friend from college. For the longest time, they operated out of Pearl’s garage, juggling all deliveries themselves. Then, in the ninth month, they unveiled their headquarters, which doubled as their warehouse.
Their partnership has proven to be a serendipity itself. While Moh continues to build demand (and to a larger extent, a community) around organic, fair-trade produce, Pearl runs a tight order fulfillment operation that makes it all possible and keeps customers coming back.
“We weren’t afraid of imperfection.”
Without the pandemic, Happy Grocers might not have been born in the same way. “During the initial days of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty that no one knew the perfect way to respond,” Moh reflects. This lack of clarity and the absence of expectations meant that the fear of failure was quite low. “People were just trying to figure things out. It actually worked in our favour because we weren’t afraid of imperfection.”
Within three years, Happy Grocers successfully partnered with over 200 farmers from 16 communities across Thailand. Many of these forward-thinking farmers had already implemented sustainable practices, allowing Happy Grocers to further develop the market for sustainable produce. With demand ramping up, Happy Grocers and their partner agriculturalists could then engage other farmers, supporting their transition to regenerative agriculture.
“Sustainability that’s not inclusive, doesn’t count for much.”
Nonetheless, Moh also realized that prioritizing just organic certification opposed her goal of inclusive sustainability.
“There are about 15 million farmers in Thailand. So, if we had solely focused on organic certified farmers, we would’ve excluded a significant portion of people from the system. Sustainability that’s not inclusive, doesn’t count for much,” she declares.
Instead, she and Pearl envision Happy Grocers as a broader platform where people can find better, healthier food options with more transparent labeling and sourcing—one that drives and is driven by the sustainable food movement in Thailand.
To further her goal of nurturing inclusive sustainability, Moh stresses the need to avoid branding her business as luxurious or exclusive. “We aren’t situated among the most affordable nor do we venture into the territory of upscale supermarket pricing. Our aim is to provide a balance that many find just right.”
In a recent study by Bain & Company, nine out of 10 people said they’d pay more for eco-friendly or healthier products. But there’s a predicament at play: words often fail to align with actions. As per the study, “Companies that close this say-do gap set themselves up for success.”
Happy Grocers sources directly from farmers, eliminating unnecessary middlemen and reducing costs, which opens up many possibilities for offering consumers better prices.
At present, new products arrive every two or three days at their Ekkamai warehouse, from the farms. Additionally, a customer-friendly policy is in place, allowing for returns or refunds in case the product doesn’t meet expectations.
“Driving demand is the key to transformative change.”
This approach paved the way for a better customer experience, which in turn, boosts demand. “Ultimately, the major challenge [for farmers] lies in the lack of access to a broader market. Without scaling up demand, building a genuinely sustainable future remains an uphill battle,” says Moh.
In Thailand, even though farmers may have avenues for accessing financial resources, they often struggle to use them effectively to increase their profits. Continuing with traditional practices and barely breaking even isn’t a sustainable solution. “Ultimately, the major challenge lies in the lack of access to a broader market. Without scaling up demand, building a genuinely sustainable future remains an uphill battle,” says Moh.
Acknowledging that the sustainability cause requires collective action, Happy Grocers teams up with other social enterprises, organizations like the Thai Chamber of Commerce, as well as government agencies and embassies.
Moh also recognizes that she and Pearl began this journey as inexperienced fresh graduates, with much to learn. “There are so many things that we don’t know, so we lean on our community of mentors from various backgrounds,” she says.
Society often perceives traditional for-profit businesses as inherently profit-driven and competitive, while social enterprises are seen as more altruistic and less aggressive. These external perceptions can influence an entrepreneur’s approach and decision-making.
“Being sustainable shouldn’t be an excuse for lacking competitiveness.”
“In practice, the coexistence of sustainability and profitability is the catalyst for lasting change. I personally view this as a valuable lesson I’ve learned,” Moh says. “It’s essential to understand that being sustainable shouldn’t be an excuse for lacking competitiveness.”
Staunchly adhering to these principles, Happy Grocers aims to collaborate with 100,000 farmers in Thailand by 2027, skillfully balancing the delicate dance between demand and supply.
Beaming with optimism, she says, “Sustainability can genuinely be within reach for consumers and lucrative for businesses. It’s all about adopting the right mindset, and remaining open to the possibilities.”