When Typhoon Morakot hit in 2009, Kaohsiung City’s Siaolin Village in Jiasian District was on the verge of being totally destroyed. After that, a despondent atmosphere overshadowed the area where the 20th and 21st Provincial Highways meet. Four years later, Neways2021 started its journey of revitalising the local economy, which was severely damaged by the typhoon, hoping to boost the development of old plum tree-related businesses in the greater Kaohsiung area and to create an environment in which every villager can prosper. The story of the transition from a community self- help association to a social enterprise begins with the CEO of Neways2021, Tsai Sung-yu, encountering old pickled plums.
Returning to reconstruct his home village after the typhoon
Tsai Sung-yu originally owned a business in Taipei but decided to move back home after seeing the villagers’ persistent struggle to rebuild their home village. Tsai Sung-yu assumed the role of the head of the post-disaster self-help association, working with villagers to rebuild their livelihoods. “My family used to own the only grocery store in the village and many local residents liked to shop there, which means that I was fed by the whole village. Therefore, I didn’t have much to worry about in the first 25 years of my life,” said Tsai Sung-yu. Because he was raised by the whole of Siaolin Village, he felt he simply could not leave his hometown in debris.
With this grass-roots self-help association, which was later registered as a non-government organisation called the Siaolin Village Reconstruction and Development Association, Tsai Sung-yu and local residents worked together to rebuild the disaster-stricken village, turning it into a place that everyone could take pride in. The organisation not only negotiated with the government to restore the infrastructure and environment, but also trained a performance group to consolidate a sense of community. In addition, it started a handmade plum biscuit business in an attempt to create another source of revenue. The creation of the brand “Sunshine Siaolin” was blessed with so much goodwill and care from the community that it became very powerful in helping villagers restore their livelihood. The warmth accompanying this brand has also spread to people in need in Japan and Orchid Island.
A new opportunity: the rediscovered significance of old pickled plums
Tsai Sung-yu did not expect that on October 8th, 2012 he would be given a jar of umeboshi paste, which had been fermented for ten years using plums from Siaolin Village by Chien Tien-hsu, the chairman of the board of the world’s second largest IT product testing company, Allion Test Labs. Since Chien Tien-hsu had exclusively procured the umeboshi making technique from Japan ten years ago, he had been purchasing, fermenting and storing plums in southern Taiwan. “A Japanese person told Chairman Chien that the best plums in Taiwan are grown on the southern mountains of the greater Kaohsiung area. Because many indigenous people live there, almost all the plum trees are free from pesticides and grown in a natural way. Plums from this area are the best ones for making umeboshi paste,” explained Tsai Sung- yu. Siaolin Village happens to be one of the places where Chairman Chien sources his plums.
For Tsai Sung-yu, this fortunate encounter with umeboshi made him feel like a wandering child finally returning home from a long journey, just like the old plum that was finally coming home again. In umeboshi, bitter, unripe plums are fermented into something full of tenderness and wisdom, which somewhat echoes the post-typhoon trend of people moving back to where they grew up and using their skills acquired in the city to help revitalise their home villages. This meaning behind umeboshi paste encouraged the residents of Siaolin Village so much that they went on developing more plum-related food which later became the “superstar products” of Siaolin Village, creating new demand for a new taste on the market.
Two significant turning points in his life
The first significant moment in Tsai Sung-yu’s life was when he decided to return to Siaolin after a typhoon wreaked havoc in southern Taiwan. The second was when he encountered umeboshi and gained the support of Chien Tien-hsu. Later, Tsai Sung-yu fully dedicated himself to drafting a blueprint of mutual prosperity for the plum- related industry in the area where the 20th and 21st Provincial Highways pass.
In August 2013, Neways2021 was officially established. Chien Tien-hsu serves as the chairman of the board and Tsai Sung-yu works as the chief executive officer. Their business is focused on two aspects: supplying raw ingredients to other companies; and developing different pickled plum flavours, as well as promoting their products to the mainstream market. At present, Neways2021 is already buying green plums grown on the mountain at a higher price, giving plum farmers a fair and reasonable reward. In this way, Neways2021 hopes to mitigate the problem of supply-demand disequilibrium, which results in a long-term low price for green plums. In addition, Neways2021 has adopted Japanese technology for making umeboshi and continued to produce a variety of pickled plum products, creating new economic benefits. Neways2021 is planning to directly build plum pickling factories in the local community in the future, solving the problem of transport inconvenience by processing plums directly at the places where they are grown. It is also planning to build cooperative farms on the plain that will buy semi-processed pickled plums from the communities on the mountain before processing them further. This business plan is aimed at creating more employment opportunities in the plum pickling industry.
Building an “industrial corridor” in which suppliers and manufacturers closely work with each other, and nurturing a value chain that connects the plum farmers and processing companies located in four different villages, are the intermediate goals of Neways2021. Compared to concentrating all the processes of pickled plum production in one single village, Neways2021 wants to demonstrate that, in addition to rebuilding Siaolin Village, it can facilitate shared economic prosperity in all the neighbouring areas as well.
One answer: act on your vision
Tsai Sung-yu also said that it is very natural for non-profit organisations to gradually transform to adopt a commercial structure designed to decrease the instability caused by the change of management in community groups. Social enterprise as a form of commercial structure allows its members to strike a balance between business operation and the promotion of causes, which means that the development of social enterprises can be considered as a solution to the predicament faced by many community groups. In the future, Neways2021 will invest part of its revenue in the construction of infrastructure for the development of an “industrial corridor”. As the government withdraws its financial assistance from the disaster-inflicted area, Neways2021 wants to show the general public that the local community is standing on its own feet in revitalising and energising the pickled plum economy.