Bangkok-headquartered Thai Wah is a 73-year-old company that manufactures tapioca, vermicelli and rice noodle products.
The firm, which produces over 300,000 tonnes of tapioca and rice starch and glucose and noodles a year, claims to have the largest market share in Thailand and much of the rest of Southeast Asia.
In addition, it also exports its noodle and starch products to countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan and the US.
While digitalisation has always been on the radar of Thai Wah, it was not until the onset of COVID-19 the company gave serious attention to it. Now, as the pandemic has brought a huge shift in the user behaviour and how a business is run, Thai Wah has started leveraging digitalisation to improve efficiency and productivity.
In this interview with e27, Hataikan Kamolsirisakul, Head of Strategy and Innovation at Thai Wah, speaks about how technology is changing its business.
In a media interview, your CEO Ho Ren Hua has talked about the importance of digitalisation. What motivated the firm to change in its thinking?
We are driven by our core purpose to serve our global customers and consumers better everyday. Our mission is to create innovation and sustainability from farm to shelf.
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We have 13 operations in Asia and our business stretches across 30 countries in Asia, the US and Europe. Digital is the enabler to understanding our diverse customer base better, to innovate the right products and solutions and to deliver at the right time.
B2B business is about relationships and meaningful human interactions. Pre-COVID-19, our commercial and technical service teams would travel to meet customers in person in various countries such as Japan, Indonesia, the US, China.
Trade shows had been a key event which allowed us to meet new partners and customers and build trust. The pandemic halted all travel and the traditional ways of communications were at a standstill.
We moved fast as a company to accelerate our digital roadmap from two years to two months. At the internal level, all associates working from home were connected through digital communications platform, our commercial teams connected well with customers digitally.
We also upgraded our IT systems at all factories to allow our customers to conduct live factory audits. To reach new customers and partners across the globe, we launched our first digital B2B marketplace and participated in global virtual conferences.
What are the various solutions you have incorporated to your product/services? Can you walk us through each and every one of these?
As I said earlier, our mission is to create innovation and sustainability from farm to shelf.
Let’s start from the farm. We work with leading startups in the region to have eyes in the sky that accurately create geo map of our crops, identifies the status of crop health and predict yield with over 90 per cent accuracy. This technology allows us to deploy our agronomist to support farmers where and when needed.
In addition, to serve our farmers better, we also offer payments within 30 seconds to our farmers’ digital wallet.
On the production and logistics side, we aim to deliver value to our customers which translates to quality, transparency and speed. Tech solutions include engineering, processing and foodtech.
To serve our customers better, we look to tech to help us engage and understand our customers better. We collect data points from internal and third-party sources to our digital CRM system to analyse and zero in on which activities will make the most impact to each of our customer and consumer segments.
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Finally, for our associates, we deployed multiple solutions to our digital people platform to simplify the ways of work. The platform includes online classes for the Thai Wah Leadership Academy, Performance Management Systems and administrative functions to decrease the use of documents.
Do you have an in-house IT team to develop digital solutions?
Not a single person or company can do everything themselves if they want to make the right move and fast. We believe open innovation will help us develop the right solutions faster.
Over the past four years, we have collaborated with multiple partners within agtech, foodtech and supply chain space to pull together solutions that best fit our digital vision.
Do you see a definite trend among Thailand’s big companies to adopt technology and why? If yes, did the pandemic contribute to this change of mindset?
Since the launch of the Thailand 4.0 vision in 2016 that aims to drive growth through digital and technological innovation, Thai companies have embraced the policy as part of their strategies.
The areas of focus included moving from traditional farming to smart farming, traditional businesses to smart enterprises, and traditional services to high-value services.
The roadmap has, however, been long because even though solutions are available, its success still depends on people and culture.
COVID-19 accelerated the digital and tech transformation faster in the first month of the outbreak than any leader could have done in the last five years. It was mission imperative for companies to keep colleagues safe, secure operations and continue to serve customers.
Many companies moved fast to adopt technology that is readily available. COVID-19 did contribute to the mindset change although not instantaneous, but definitely much faster.
Do you think adopting digital solutions has become a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have’?
Companies must first start with their vision and then understand how technology and digital solutions can enable them to reach that goal.
Not every thing needs and can be digitalised or solved through technology. Many things still require the ‘human touch’ such as building trust.
As we embarked on our digital transformation journey four years ago, we started with looking at our end-to-end value chain, from farm to shelf and debated about where we see tech fitting in to benefit customers at each touch point.
Let’s take an example from the upstream at the farm. Sustainable source of our raw materials while improving the lives of our farmers is what we strive for.
We could keep doing so through tradition means of deploying our agronomist and sourcing teams to advise farmers everyday.
However, without proper data collection tech, we would be limited to a smaller group of farmers and the impact of what we could do would be smaller and slower.
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Tech however, does not solve everything. Building farmer relationship still needs a ‘human touch’. Tech simply enables us to make sure that each time our farm team meets our farmers, that human interactions is more beneficial because of the quality of information and insights we have collected digitally.
Many conglomerates around the world have launched corporate VC funds to make strategic investment in tech startups. Do you have plans to follow suit?
Over the last one to two years, we have partnered with corporates and startups to co develop solutions rather than directly investing for equity. We currently do not have plans to start a corporate venture capital but there is always a possibility down the road.
We do believe that the best ideas and solutions not only come from within but also from the outside. We will continue to work with global startups to source innovative tech solutions for our industry and use our regional operation to scale innovative and sustainable solutions.
Image Credit: Thai Wah
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