The Role of E-Commerce in Enabling Mekong Region Subsistence Farmers to Enter Regional and International Markets Equitably

This weekend I was at the Grande Westin Sukhumvit Hotel for the Second ERIA ( Workshop on Cross-Border E-Commerce in ASEAN and East Asia.



My paper was “The Role of E-Commerce in Enabling Mekong Region Subsistence Farmers to Enter Regional and International Markets Equitably.”


There are still large numbers of subsistence farmers in the Greater Mekong Subregion who live in or close to poverty. A recent four-country survey found that nearly half of all people interviewed has some form of food insecurity experience over the past year and these results were higher for people in rural areas (Hapfel & Walsh, forthcoming). Problems from which such households suffer include lack of capital and education, poor access to specific inputs and technical knowledge and no awareness of how to obtain market access. When farmers do enter into contracts for cash-crop production, they face problems such as lack of effective contract law, contracts in verbal not written forms and the propensity of either side to the contract to change conditions in response to short-term price changes. In any case, farmers suffer from the need to trade commodities in volatile markets, the lack of local market development that would make product diversification less risky and inability to convert commodities into value-added products in the context of a region vulnerable to environmental shock and the emerging effects of global climate change. While farmers’ fortunes have been transformed in Thailand, this was at least partly the result of an active, interventionist private sector and extensive transportation and distribution infrastructure that do not exist to anything like the same extent in other Mekong region countries. However, what people in rural areas do now have in great numbers is access to the internet through relatively cheap mobile telecommunications. The penetration of mobile telephones in every country has now become very high and, while freedom of speech with respect to political issues is still restricted, this rarely has an impact on commercial relationships and networks. At the very least, this technology permits people to exchange knowledge about market prices and demand conditions for various products. However, the technology does not permit communications with people speaking a different language nor suggest how to find new market contacts, especially when they are cross-border in nature. There is a need, therefore, to try to understand what mechanisms need to come into existence in order to promote the kinds of remote linkages required to help bring farmers into market relationships on a more or less equitable basis. Is it necessary to introduce either new laws or regulations to ensure e-commerce takes place in a desirable manner or else to change the way that existing laws or regulations are policed? This paper identifies the current conditions under which farmers in the Mekong region currently exist and analyses their ability to access both mobile telecommunications in itself and the network benefits that may flow from it. It also outlines what legal and regulatory frameworks exist and how they may need to be modified to promote equitable market development. The analysis leads to a discussion of what might be achieved through e-commerce in this context and provides recommendations for stakeholders at a variety of levels.

Keywords: agriculture, e-commerce, equitable development, Greater Mekong Subregion, markets

The event went well and we researchers are now asked to submit the final version of the papers on August 20th, 2017.

Call for Papers: Food Insecurity

In the wake of the SIU Research Centre’s successful cooperation with Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE), the SIU Journal of Management is planning a special issue of the journal on the theme of food insecurity.

Food security was defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) as a situation in which all of the people of a country, all of the time, have access to sufficient safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and which meets their food preferences for a healthy and active life (FAO, 1996). It does not matter whether the food is produced in the same country or not but it does mean that the country involved has sufficiently efficient distribution networks and market mechanisms to ensure that food reaches everybody when it is required (Pinstrup-Anderson, 2009).

Food insecurity, therefore, may be found in a country or area of land in which sufficient good quality food is not available for all people on a permanent or temporary basis. This may be for a number of reasons, including natural disaster, political or military disorder, famine or market failure.

Our project called for 200 questionnaires in each of four countries: Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Food insecurity was found at a higher level than might be expected, with more than 50% of the overall sample reporting insecurity at the least severe end of the scale. However, the prevalence of food insecurity tended to decline as the severity of items increased. These changes are quite strongly associated with (among respondents) low levels of education, low levels of income and lack of access to land. There are some country-level relationships which do not comply with the expected relationships.

Evidence from Thailand in particular shows that food insecurity remains an important urban phenomenon, despite it having been considered to have become overwhelmingly a rural phenomenon in recent years. However, various factors, including rural-urban migration and the policies adopted by the current Thai regime vis-à-vis working people have made precarity an increasingly obvious manifestation of economic change.

Now we would like to share our research findings and extend knowledge and understanidng of food insecurity in the Mekong Region and beyond. As part of this attempt, we would welcome submissions that cover relevant themes. Papers could consider any of the following, non-exclusive list of topics:

  • empirical studies of food insecurity, perhaps using the FIES questionnaire;
  • food insecurity and nation-building
  • food insecurity and precarious living
  • poverty eradication
  • the role of the private sector in economic development and poverty eradication
  • government and NGO-provided extension services
  • bringing subbsistence farmers into regional and international markets
  • the use of ICT in tackling food insecurity

Abstracts of approximately 2-300 words may be submitted at any time up to June 30th, 2017, while full papers of 4-7,000 words should be submitted by July 31st, 2017.

For any questions or additional information, please contact the editor,


Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Rome Declaration on World Food Security (1996), available at:

Pinstrup-Anderson, Per, “Food Security: Definition and Management,” Food Security, Vol.1, No.1 (2009), pp.5-7.

Promoting Cluster and Value Chain Development in Three Agricultural Sectors in Lao PDR


I attended the 5th International Conference on Lao Studies held at the Tha Prachan campus of Thammasat University here in Bangkok. The conference went quite well – I was only able to attend the second day, although of course everybody was being careful about what they were saying. More information on the conference is available here.

I could not present my paper on special economic zones but I was able to present (with co-author Nittana Southiseng, who was not able to attend):

Promoting Cluster and Value Chain Development in Three Agricultural Sectors in Lao PDR


Research was conducted into three agricultural sectors in Lao PDR to determine the extent to which clusters of complementary activities had been forming and how value chains were performing. The sectors were organic rice, organic vegetables and white charcoal (bintochan). Organic agriculture is a potentially important area for Lao PDR, a low income country, since many farmers operate on a de facto organic basis anyway, although certification is not available domestically. In common with white charcoal, organic produce will mainly be intended for export, primarily to or through partners in Thailand since Lao PDR is a landlocked country and one at a disadvantage, therefore, concerning export prices. The three sectors studied are at a comparatively early stage of development and each has some significant production issues yet to overcome. Respondents within production groups continue to focus on personal relationships and group management issues, while also acknowledging lack of access to markets, skills and capital that are common to small businesses around the world. Government agencies lack resources and technical capacity necessary to help link production groups to markets on an advantageous basis and the limited nature of the domestic market means that few well-equipped entrepreneurs have been attracted to take a role. However, some small private networks have been created in the white charcoal sector to move the products to Japan and Korea, where they are greatly valued as fuel for barbecues in the restaurant industry. For vegetables and rice, it will be necessary to establish cross-border relationships with operators in neighbouring Thailand, Vietnam and China, where there are large domestic markets, preferably on an equitable basis. It is not clear how this should best be approached from the perspective of public sector agencies, which tend to feature people who are suspicious of private sector organizations and of the potential for market relations to exert a form of neo-colonialism over what are considered to be national interests. Recommendations are made at various levels as to how networks can be established and existing ones strengthened. Adding new and more profitable stages to value chains, through issues such as packaging and branding, is also discussed.

Keywords: agriculture, clusters, Lao PDR, organic agriculture, value chains

Nittana Southiseng, SME Development Advisor, GIZ-RELATED project, Vientiane Lao PDR

John Walsh, Director, SIU Research Centre, Shinawatra University, Thailand

This research project was supported by a grant from the Economic Research Institute of Trade of the government of the Lao PDR.

Gendered Decision-Making and Division of Labour in Cambodia and Thailand


My paper “Gendered Decision-Making and Division of Labour in Cambodia and Thailand” is now listed as a forthcoming article at the International Journal of Agricultural Resources, Governance and Ecology (here, scroll down a bit).

Abstract: Although agricultural households operate on the basis of the gendered division of labour, it is not clear whether a similar division of labour occurs with respect to decision-making when it comes to agricultural activities. This paper reports on three empirical studies conducted in Cambodia and Thailand with a total sample size of 520 respondents. The sample consists entirely of women, many of whom were heads of households The surveys discovered information about gender and decision-making in terms of new inputs into production (e.g. insecticides and fertilizers) and in livestock management. It was observed that different decision-making processes were followed when a woman was head of the household rather than a man and factors contributing to this result are explained. Implications and recommendations are discussed, along with the necessary limitations to the research in terms of time and space.
Keywords: agriculture, Cambodia, decision-making, rice-growing, Thailand


Advances in Agricultural Production in East and Southeast Asia


I will be presenting this paper at Stamford University’s 2nd National Conference on Management and Higher Education: Advances in Agricultural Production in East and Southeast Asia.

Abstract: At the end of the Second World War and prior to the period of rapid economic development, just about every East Asian economy remained dominated by agriculture and the majority of people relied on subsistence agriculture for survival. Agricultural societies are very closely related to the land on which they live. This close relationship is often accorded a powerfully emotional or at least sentimental value in the minds of East Asian people: in Japan, for example, the word furasato is used to describe a rural heartland from which the whole nation arises and, associated with that, a set of moral values that are related to small community living that has changed with the increasing importance of globalization and modernization. Since farmers are subsidized in different ways in nearly every East Asian society, this represents a mixture of different emotions, particularly among the urban populations, in which farmers are at the same time possessors of inherited virtue and, also, reminders of backwardness and lack of sophistication. These contradictions are evident throughout the treatment of agriculture and farmers in the region. The earliest use of settled agriculture probably took place in China and, owing to the below-average availability of water in the northern part of the China region, featured often extensive use of irrigation to ensure that food crops – millet, wheat and rice, for example – grew properly. When agricultural practices spread to Southeast Asia and other parts of the region, therefore, farmers tended to adopt the Chinese patterns familiar elsewhere. The preference for rice-growing and, specifically, wet paddy-rice farming, made water management a particularly important issue and one which became central to the legitimization of the state and its rulers. Rice farming supplemented existing forms of food production, including fishing, hunting and foraging, which remain important for many people today. Fishing in both fresh and sea water in particular remains an important industry and a means of feeding people. The export of seafood products, prawns and shellfish for example, represents significant streams of income for a number of countries and recent emphasis on cash crops such as coffee and macadamia nuts offers new and often lucrative opportunities for some groups of people, including ethnic minority groups, who might otherwise have been marginalized. This paper examines the importance of agriculture in helping develop East Asian economic growth and, also, its continuing relevance as an industry in its own right that provides employment and numerous opportunities to add value to local resources. It continues with an evaluation of the continued importance of agriculture to East Asia and then continues with analysis of various aspects of agriculture and business.

Fighting Climate Change: Improving Agricultural Practice

The role of agriculture in causing the carbon emissions that are driving global  climate change is often overlooked. However, in many of the less developed countries, agriculture can in fact be one of the  more prominent causes of emissions. The problems are caused by the use of  machinery in production, the emission of gas from livestock and the erosion of  the land that means extra energy must be used to help return it to a fertile  condition.

Read the full article here.

What Is the Industrial Ladder?

The industrial ladder is a concept that helps to explain how and why societies move from basic, primitive economic activities up to advanced and wealthy ones. History shows that all societies begin as agricultural societies with all able-bodied people involved in collecting and preparing food, whether this is by hunting and gathering or by growing crops and vegetables.

Read the full article here.