A project employing women from poor hill tribes is transforming lives in northern Thailand.
It started in 1988 with the Royal Villa, a residence built by the Princess Mother, who was ready to leave Switzerland, where she had lived off and on, for the northern mountains of her native Thailand. Her condition for spending part of each year in the region was an official commitment to revive forests devastated by the slash-and-burn cultivation of opium poppies and to give its people other sources of income.
Princess Srinagarindra’s wishes were the basis of the Doi Tung Development Project, which has evolved to become a network of public services, businesses and social enterprises that today sell coffee, macadamia nuts, ceramics, fabric, mulberry paper and other products to companies around the world.
The results have benefited the roughly 11,000 people of the 29 villages in Chiang Rai Province, in particular women and members of the region’s three main tribal groups, many of whom were once marginalized migrants from neighboring Myanmar.
“The work of her royal highness was very inclusive, not about gender per se,” said Mom Luang Dispanadda Diskul, chief executive of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, which runs Doi Tung under royal patronage. “It just happened to focus on women because they were the breadwinners.”
Members of the hill tribes have been able to parlay their traditional skills and crafts into jobs that have put them on the path to Thai citizenship, he said.
This region along the Thailand-Myanmar border was once known as the Golden Triangle, a global hub for opium but also for the trafficking of arms and people, the main source of income for local men. To support their families, women worked at home, often raising cash crops. And some turned to prostitution. This left a legacy of devastating dependency, not only on opium but on the lawless and destructive economy that produced it. As stateless migrants, members of ethnic tribes who had historically crisscrossed the border were especially vulnerable to exploitation.
The Doi Tung project, endorsed by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes as a successful approach to fighting drugs, has given local people crucial sources of alternative income and the working papers needed to establish Thai citizenship. Their titles to land, however, are restricted, a limitation that their advocates criticize as infringing their rights.
Still, the Doi Tung project was hailed as a “model to emulate” by a 2017 regional report by the United Nations Development Program. It focused on progress toward reaching development goals by 2030, one aim of which is the creation of inclusive economic opportunities, in this case for members of the migrant tribes and women.
At a time when international corporations look to project images of social responsibility, projects like Doi Tung are picking up clients seeking more than the usual matchup of quality and price. That is one reason major companies — including Ikea, Japan Airlines and the Japanese retailer Muji — are buying Doi Tung products and produce.
Six years ago, Ikea, the Swedish housewares company, entered into a partnership with Doi Tung, which produced ceramics, tableware and mulberry paper sold in the limited-edition Collections Annanstans and Hantverk.
“Doi Tung is unique in their strong development of the Doi Tung area,” said Vaishali Misra, business leader for Ikea’s Next Generation Social Enterprise, in an email. “Reaching out to the tribal groups living there is the reason for Ikea to start the partnership.’’
Ikea had entered into an earlier relationship with the Doi Tung weaving factory, a business that was created in 1993 with seven female weavers, drawing on traditional skills and tribal models. The factory was able to open up markets beyond the women’s villages, and in 2007, Ikea stepped in to provide training and quality control. Today, according to Mr. Dispanadda Diskul, the two factories have 125 workers — and one of the largest collections of hand looms in Southeast Asia — making traditional fabrics for local and global brands and designers.
Many major international companies are broadening their base of suppliers to include women, minorities and other disadvantaged groups, such as people who are disabled or gay, lesbian or transgender. Just as many companies actively seek to diversify the ranks of their personnel, corporate procurement departments are trying to diversify those from whom they buy. Terms like “supplier diversity,” “inclusion,” “solidarity sourcing” and “responsible sourcing” increasingly represent accepted, even expected, goals.
In the United States, supplier diversity had its origins in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when government programs were designed to seek out and encourage black-owned businesses to compete for public and private contracts.
Since then, that drive has expanded internationally. Major corporations as different as Coca-Cola, Exxon, Walmart and Intel have put in place programs designed to encourage diversified supply chains, not just because they think it is the right thing to do, but because it is good business. They cite the advantages of new approaches taken by women, minorities or other disadvantaged groups who feel free to challenge traditional ways of thinking.
“Our customer base is diverse, so our supply base should be too,” said Megan Stowe of Intel, who manages the semiconductor giant’s program for expanding diversity of suppliers. “You get stuck in your ways, and then along comes someone who says, ‘Hey, let’s look at this in a different way.’”
She acknowledged that in some countries with business cultures strongly dominated by men, as in Japan, efforts to promote suppliers’ diversity can be a challenge. “It has been exciting,” Ms. Stowe said. “The reaction is more puzzlement than resistance.”
By its own benchmark, Intel, a California-based company with $70.8 billion in revenues last year, has succeeded in shifting more business to companies run by women. In 2017, it set a goal of $100 million in contracts with women-owned businesses by 2020; recently it doubled that goal. Intel also actively seeks out bids from minority-owned businesses in several countries, Ms. Stowe said.
Initiatives in “solidarity sourcing” vary even within companies. A program begun by L’Oreal, the cosmetics company, in 2010 now includes 234 such initiatives. They include one in Burkina-Faso, where last year 37,000 women benefited from a project collecting shea nuts for shea butter; another in Morocco, where six cooperatives made up of 500 Berber women collect argan nuts for oil; and one in China’s disadvantaged northeastern provinces, where 455 people — two-thirds of them women — earn a living producing gift bags, pouches and boxes, part of a project to halt an exodus from rural areas.
Technically, the Doi Tung commercial ventures are not strictly owned and operated by women — as defined by WeConnect, a nongovernmental group based in Washington that certifies businesses that meet that definition.
But starting with the formidable example of the original Princess Mother, the grandmother of Thailand’s current king, the Doi Tung model has succeeded in empowering women. According to Mr. Dispanadda Diskul, 25 of the project’s 54 managers are women, a high ratio for rural Asia.
One founding member of the Doi Tung weaving team, Kham Takhamjing, 67, is now in charge of one of the two factories, where she also trains younger women.
Ms. Kham, an ethnic Tai Lue who moved to Thailand from Myanmar as a child, came back to the north from Bangkok in the early 1990s with her children. She found it had utterly changed. Before, she said, “people in our community were growing opium, trading weapons, doing illegal jobs.”
The Doi Tung project “gave us livelihoods,” said Ms. Kham Takhamjing, who got her Thai citizenship 16 years ago. “It gave us professions and job opportunities. It’s like the project gave us a new life.”
According to a Mae Fah Luang Foundation report in 2017, most of the project’s commercial ventures have been financially viable since 2000. It said per capita income in the region had increased sixfold from 1988 to 2016, and income inequality had been cut by two-thirds.
Most important, the report said, it has moved the community from survival mode to self-sustainability. “Fast-forward 30 years, we have five businesses that run like normal businesses with a focus on quality and marketing,” not subsidies, Mr. Dispanadda Diskul said.
For Ikea, Doi Tung’s success is part of its marketing. “We want to share the stories from our partners, raising awareness about the great work they do, creating jobs for marginalized people,” Ms. Misra said.
Giving the people of Doi Tung a chance to support themselves was the main goal of Princess Srinagarindra, who died in 1994 at the age of 95. “Don’t let people buy our products out of pity,’’ she once said.