LABUTTA, Myanmar: At the age of seven, David Chen had a “life-changing experience” that developed his sense of empathy for the underprivileged. And it started with his father’s 12 German shepherd dogs.
His family were living in Vietnam, and his father was working in the agricultural sector to improve farmers’ yields.
“One day, I overheard a conversation from some of my dad’s co-workers; they were complaining that my dad was spending too much money to feed the dogs, sometimes even more than a common villager could afford,” recounted the 35-year-old.
“Obviously, some of the co-workers weren’t too happy about this.”
That incident set him thinking, about how there were people who “didn’t have the same access to resources (and) opportunities” as his family had.
“That set things in perspective for me — that not everyone lives the same lifestyle, has the same level of comfort and that everyone has their own struggles,” he added.
Later on, he decided to continue his father’s work in developing nations. He is now changing the way rice is planted in Myanmar with hybrid seed technology – and improving farmers’ livelihoods – as the programme On The Red Dot discovers. (Watch the episode here.)
A COUNTRY WITH POTENTIAL
Myanmar was once the world’s top rice exporter, but its numbers plummeted under military rule as strict controls on prices and production effectively shut its farmers out of world markets.
While its rice exports are now on the rise, these are mostly broken rice — fragmented versus whole grains — used for food manufacturing, Chen explained.
Its population still depends on its most important crop as a staple food. And he feels that Myanmar, with its 7.2 million hectares of rice fields (100 times the size of Singapore) has the potential to produce “a lot more” than its current production level.
The graduate in molecular biology had initially wanted to go into the scientific aspect of improving farming yields.
But he got to where he is today in helping Myanmar’s rice farmers when he saw that more was needed — when his father returned from Africa to take a break from work, looking “defeated”.
“(The family) had believed that what he was doing would definitely have an impact. But at that point … that impact wasn’t there yet,” said Chen. “The problem wasn’t with the technology; it was with the implementation, with the business model.”
Smallholder farmers in developing nations lacked the resources to buy hybrid rice seeds every season. And during a research trip to Myanmar in 2013, he saw for himself how rice production there was heading towards an unsustainable future.
Its farmers were also not updated on the latest farming practices, which resulted in low yields.
It took some time, but finally in 2016, he co-founded Golden Sunland, Singapore’s first rice-growing company, and partnered with Myanmar’s farmers to produce high-quality rice.
The company also promotes what it calls “responsible farming” by, for example, paying farmers a price above the market average.
“Growing rice is the actual work that we do, but growing the lives of the people is equally important because they walk hand in hand with us,” said Chen.
WATCH: Sowing the seeds of change (Dur 3:53)
CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGES
When he first started, however, the farmers had doubts about this young city man trying to introduce them to hybrid rice technology to increase their productivity.
“Coming from Singapore and you want to tell this agricultural nation how to grow rice — it sounds ridiculous, right?” he said.
The only way to gain their trust was to be on the ground, communicating with them. It was frustrating at first, he admitted, as he was “not in a position to tell the farmers that ‘we know better than you’”.
His solution was to find a farmer willing to give the programme a shot, and for that individual to be successful to inspire the rest. With that, he managed to build a trusted relationship with them.
He supplies the seeds first and recovers the cost only at harvest. And since 2016, his company has created a higher-yielding seed for the farmers.
But climate change remains a concern. Rising sea levels are one of the biggest threats to food security. And water can get pushed inland by powerful storms to deadly effect.
In 2008, Cyclone Nargis drenched Myanmar’s southern Ayeyarwady region with sea water, rendering more than half of its paddy land infertile — land that was producing about 30 per cent of the country’s rice needs.
One of the farmers whose fields were destroyed was Khin Htay Win. But a year after working with Chen’s hybrid seed technology, her crops started to thrive, better than before.
“We can tell he’s empathetic, especially towards us agricultural people,” she said. “We also respect him. Everything worked out well … Both our yield and income have significantly increased. Crops were planted and exported, and we have surplus income for investments.”
One of the contributors to climate change, however, is fertiliser production — a source of carbon emission, noted Chen.
The solution here is to educate farmers to use less fertilisers and use them more efficiently to reduce emissions while increasing their rice yield.
Chen moved to Myanmar in 2017, the same year he got married. His wife had planned to move with him, until she learnt that she was expecting their daughter.
So shuttling between Singapore and far into Myanmar’s rice bowl has been tiring for him.
“Every month, I spend about 50 hours travelling. I go back home, I whine to my wife, and I complain about my backache. But weirdly, I keep doing it,” he said.
He told himself to be around for his child’s milestones, but that was easier said than done.
“At the end of last year, she was just learning to stand up. And I missed that. So for two whole weeks when I was in Myanmar, I was in a grumpy mood,” he shared.
Despite the sacrifices, he tries to focus on the bigger picture.
“Ultimately, what I’m thinking about is who’s going to produce the food for my kid when she’s a lot older. And will my kid have that sense of appreciation for the producers of her food?” he cited.
Today, 39 farmers spread across 200 acres of land are using his hybrid seeds. He estimates that their revenue has increased by 30 per cent — “at least a 30 per cent betterment of their livelihood”.
“Maybe it seems as if we’re helping them. But honestly, I think they’re helping us as well,” he said. “By helping them to improve their livelihood, they give us quality products in return. So this is a win-win.”
Watch this episode here. On The Red Dot airs on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.