Designer sows creativity in Mainland agriculture
The 10,000-year-old science of agriculture may do little to get the creative juices flowing in your average Chinese entrepreneur.
Not so for Jia Wei, 35, who, as chairman and founder of the design consultancy firm, LKK (Beijing), has attempted to change the face of traditional farms over the past two years with a concept he calls 'creative agriculture'. Jia sat down with the Sunday Morning Post to explain his ideas for a farming future that he hopes will excite the masses and inject new growth in the business of growing.
How did you start this business?
I gave a speech about creative design at Peking University, and I talked about how creativity should be like water and flow to all areas, from high-end fashion to low-end agriculture. There happened to be the head of an agriculture-products investment group in the audience. He came up to me and asked how he could make 'creative agriculture' a reality.
My initial response was, 'What is creative agriculture?' He said he was hoping I could tell him. He read about such a concept and wanted to see it in China. So we met once a week for three months and came up with many new ideas.
Agriculture in China has been result-oriented. The value lies in the harvest. Now we want agriculture to be both result-oriented and process-oriented. We want people to appreciate not only the harvest but also the experience of planting it.
Could you give a specific example?
We integrated three levels of value into a tomato farm called the 'United Nations of Tomato', in Tongzhou district, Beijing. We first emphasised its value as food: We have products made of tomato, such as sauces.
Then, we created industrial products derived from tomatoes, such as tomato ice cream, tomato-themed clothes, tomato-shaped pans and tomato-themed notepads. Finally, we made tomato-related cultural products, such as a tomato-themed restaurant and a tomato music festival.
The key is to integrate the three levels of value together and it becomes a vertical industry chain. It is not a simple horizontal industry. Creative agriculture is diverse and rich agriculture with creativity added. From material value to spiritual value, and from basic value to high-end value. From value in productivity to value in life.
The added value brought by creativity outweighs the value of the agricultural product by itself.
Was the project successful?
The farm itself is a very interesting place. It is one of the biggest national-level, example-setting farms. Originally it was only a farm that planted tomatoes. Now we have made it something to experience. President Hu Jintao even paid a visit to the farm. The products derived from tomatoes are very popular and can hardly meet demand. The tomato restaurant is full every day. It has become a more diverse farm.
I also heard you have a project with potatoes. Can you tell me more about it?
That tomato farm is a project for our client, and we also have a potato-themed farm of our own in Wuchuan county, Inner Mongolia. We chose a very pure piece of plot that has never been treated with fertilizer and nobody is living within kilometres of the plot. The potatoes planted there are of high quality and were selected to be used at the World Expo in Shanghai last year.
Wuchuan county is a poor county, and if their potatoes were not sold to dealers, the farmers would not plant them the next year.
We started a potato-adoption programme for Beijing residents to adopt a plot and their own products. It is like charity, but it also gives them access to safe food. We also tried to be creative by making potatoes in the shape of a gold medal and selling them in the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium.
What other projects are in the works?
We have three kinds of creative agriculture: in the countryside, in the suburbs and in urban areas, such as on balconies and roofs. We are working in Chengdu to make do-it-yourself creative products available to urban families, such as bean-sprout machines. People can grow their own sprouts at home. We know there have been concerns of food safety, and we hope creative agriculture is also safe agriculture.
Why do you think this has market value? You are primarily an industrial-design company.
It starts with our idea that creativity should be like water, irrigating and nourishing different areas and flowing downwards to areas where it is needed most, like agriculture. Little has been done in agriculture in terms of branding or product planning.
Secondly, China is a big agricultural producer, but it is still in the primitive stage in terms of presentation. And there are also food-safety problems. We think a proportion of the population wishes agriculture could be more rich and colorful.
We trying to serve the whole population. We do not strive to make sure everyone has enough to eat. That's the job of the COFCO [the China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation].
Thirdly, many farms that need our help, such as the tomato farm, invite us out to give their farm a facelift. There is a big market.
Why do you think this caters to only a small proportion of the population?
It will eventually serve most everyone through 'vertical farms' - entire buildings dedicated to agriculture. It will be like going to the supermarket. On ground floor you will have agricultural products, on the first floor agriculture-themed products, and on the second floor you experience some cultural events. We are planning vertical farms in Beijing and Hainan province.
Have you had any failures?
So far, no. Because there are few such businesses besides us, and we have nothing to compare ourselves to.
Your team of mostly young, urban men has little in common with the farmers you are working with. Do you think they need other qualifications besides a creative mind?
Agriculture needs new blood and new understanding. If they are farmers, their vision will be limited to agriculture products. Designers can think of other derivative products and cultural aspects . We also have some agricultural experts on hand to give us advice.
What is your background?
I worked for a design house at Digital China Holdings and have spent seven years at LKK. When I started LKK, I rented a desk for 500 yuan (HK$606) in another office. One desk became two, two became three and four. When I had to rent 15 desks, I thought it was time to get our own space.
We have expanded every year, from an industry-design company to one that does comprehensive designs and finally to where it is today.