How an apple farmer is cashing in on China’s e-commerce appetite
Updated 11:35, 05-Sep-2019
By Li Zhao

I have never seen the landscape of wheat harvesting.

This quilt of golden stalks gently sways in the breeze, awaiting to be harvested.

Nor have I seen houses standing on the side of a mountain cliff.

And her – this strong and tough woman.

Jing Caicai sells apples online. It may sound like another vendor riding the wave of e-commerce that has swept the country in recent years, but the 53-year-old woman is like no other.

She is from the remote Songchuan Village in Tianshui, northwest China's Gansu Province – a place famous for its endless mountains. It takes an hour's drive from Jing's house to the foot of the mountain, where one can see paved roads.

No one knows what wifi is in her village, and mobile data is all she got.

Joining the digital world was no easy task for Jing.

She started off from something simple, learning to use WeChat, an instant messaging app that almost everyone in China uses on a daily basis. The app is the main tool for Jing to communicate with her customers.

“At first, when I would use the app, something would be deleted and I still wouldn't know,” Jing said.

That's why she started going to training classes offered by county officials.

The Qingshui county government offers training classes for villagers to help them navigate the complex digital landscape.

“Our local e-commerce department dispatched professional teams to train our villagers,” Director of Qingshui County Bureau of Commerce Zhang Wei said. “We visited them and helped with the problems they had.”

“(We offered help with) anything from theoretical to practical teachings, helping them to understand (e-commerce), to master digital skills, and to actually use (online platforms).”

One of the lessons Jing learned was to ease customers' concerns about the quality of their purchases. That's why she decided to give prospective buyers a taste of her farm produce by filming the orchard where she grows apples.

“I would film my apples for my customers through video chatting,” Jing told me, adding that a lot of the times she climbs up the trees and picks apples from the top herself.

“They say 'I just want that one. That one looks good',” Jing humored. “Sometimes after picking it, the apple looks bad. Sometimes it's rotten. Still, they agree to take it. But I feel bad giving them a bad apple. If it's not good, it should be thrown away.”

Honesty is another key, or as Jing put it, “without honesty, one can never be successful.”

Through hard work and patience, Jing paid off the debt from her husband's death and began saving money. In 2016, she managed to drag her family above the 2,300 yuan (330 US dollars) poverty line set by the government.

Last year alone, Jing's revenue reached more than 40,000 yuan (over 5,700 US dollars). She told me proudly that she ranked first among businesspeople in her county and was given the "top 10 pioneers" award.

Jing feels grateful for the help the local government has provided, not only because of the training classes, but also the encouraging methods in joining the online market.

“We offer help to those poor families who want to try out e-commerce. In delivering services, we offer subsidies,” said Zhang, who is one of the local officials largely promoting online services.

“Packaging apples is on us. We also try to reduce the delivering fee to half for them.”

Qingshui County's total online trade volume was over 60 million yuan in 2017 – 20 million of which was from apple sales. And farmers' direct earnings accounted for five million yuan. 

However, they've also noticed problems that may hinder the development of the county's online business.

Agricultural products like fruits and vegetables are highly perishable, and can easily go bad during the delivery process.

To solve this problem, Zhang told me they've decided to expand online services to durable products like meat and a number of other crops. Urbanites are encouraged to rent a parcel of land in the countryside. 

For a fee, they can ask villagers to raise cattle or grow certain crops on their behalf for later consumption. When the time is right, their commodities will be shipped to them in urban centers.

Zhang expects that 20 percent of her agricultural products will be sold online by year's end, and 40 percent by 2020.

Local officials like Zhang are happy with the achievements pioneers like Jing have made, and hope to see these entrepreneurs lead and encourage more to join the e-commerce trend.

Outgoing as Jing is, she holds constant talks with her friends and neighbors – many of whom maintain traditional ideas such as women are destined to stay at home and raise children.

Jing shares with them her real life experience and urges them to change the way they think and step out of their comfort zone. She asks her friends to join her for square dancing, like what a lot of middle-aged and senior ladies do in modern cities.

“It's good to liberate themselves. Step by step, they will be more willing to try out new things,” Jing told me.

Director: Li Zhao, Li Tianfu

Video Edited by: Li Zhao, Zhang Wanbao, Zhong Jianli, Wang Baozhu, Chen Shuxun

Filmed by: Zhang Wanbao

Designer: Li Xiaojie

Copy Editor: Nadim Diab

Producer: Wen Yaru

Chief Editor: Pei Jian

Supervisor: Mei Yan