Meet the Chinese woman who went from farmer to accidental online star

Gan Youqin has accumulated 400 million clicks selling local farm produce in her online videos – persuading the county government to follow her lead

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 9:33pm

A woman in a remote village in southern China is breaking the mould not only in the agricultural sphere but in the realm of online fame.

Her videos about rural life have made her the most famous person in Lingshan county, in Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. The 37-year-old fruit and vegetable farmer promotes and sells the produce of her home village of Suwutang in videos that she posts online two or three times a day, featuring her cooking and doing farming work.

“In the past, farmers had to bring their produce to the county market dozens of kilometres away in the evenings,” Gan Youqin told the South China Morning Post. “They would wait for hours for the market to open in the morning, then had to accept whatever price was offered by the vendors or bring their fruit home.

“Now, through my platform, farmers in our village can sell their fruit easily and at a higher price.”

Boasting more than 2 million fans via popular video sharing websites Toutiao and Ixigua, Gan’s 700 or so five-minute videos have accumulated more than 400 million clicks, while her online shop turned over about 10 million yuan (US$1.46 million) last year, of which about 10 per cent was her team’s profit.

It all began just over a year ago when Gan began uploading her short video clips about rural life. While it is common for online personalities to direct audiences to their own online shops, she has used her profile online to benefit the local economy.

Lingshan has developed relatively slowly because of poor transport links, and despite a reputation for good-quality fruit including lychees, longans, oranges and mangoes, local farmers have traditionally not made much money from their agricultural output.

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But last autumn’s harvest earned Suwutang villagers a small fortune, with 1.5 million kg of their fruit being sold through Gan’s online shop to consumers across the country, using a widget inserted at the end of her videos.

It was Gan’s nephew, Zhang Yangcheng, who came up with the idea of making videos. They added the fruit sales last autumn when they noticed viewers were leaving comments asking where to buy the fruit shown by Gan.

Her success caught the attention of the county authorities, who had been struggling to find ways to improve the lacklustre local economy. Last year, according to Qinzhou Daily, the county and state governments each allocated 15 million yuan to build infrastructure to support e-commerce across the county.

Officials visited Gan at her home to learn about e-commerce practices. They posted her achievements on government websites, and even joked that they would rely on Gan to sell the region’s produce.

Gan has since been honoured with a local government award and won approval to lease land for fruit storage as well as subsidies for buildings and transport to keep the produce at low temperatures.

On receiving online orders, she tells local farmers the quantities of fruit customers want, and farmers can send it to Gan’s storage, where it is packed and sent by courier.

Gan hires between 50 and 150 villagers daily to pack fruit, which has in turn boosted farmers’ incomes dramatically.

“There are a lot of changes in our village,” said Gan. “Farmers previously were lazy. Now they are highly motivated to plant their fruit trees well. They get up early in the morning and are more diligent in managing their trees.”

Before becoming an internet hit, Gan had lived a simpler pastoral life of farming work, cooking and taking care of her son and elderly relatives.

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Returning to Suwutang in 2008 with husband Lu Qisong, also a migrant worker from Guangxi, she did not want their then four-year-old son to be a left-behind child while they, like many other young people in the village, worked outside the province.

Zhang, too, had returned to the village last year to look after his parents, having worked in Beijing at an entertainment company.

He wanted make a living in the short video industry, with its huge Chinese audiences and with mainland internet giants pouring billions of yuan into developing the platforms.

Zhang hoped to find a “young and pretty woman who is good at singing and dancing” to feature in his videos, but most of the village were unfamiliar with the internet and did not trust him, he said.

Lu suggested that his wife try. Initially, they made videos showing Gan cooking, but later they expanded to cover various aspects of rural life.

Gan was nervous at first. When she forgot the script, she looked at the camera and smiled. But her down-to-earth style, with her plain clothes, muddy shoes, rural accent and most of all her smile, proved to be a hit. Within six months, she had a million followers.

Most of her fans are either homesick migrant workers or urban residents who are curious about country life.

Xia Yunting, a middle school teacher in Shanghai, said she likes watching Gan’s videos to relax from the pressures of her job.

“I’ve seen plenty of her videos and I think she is kindhearted, diligent and honest,” said Xia.

“Her hometown is so beautiful and so genuine. There are orchards, vegetable gardens, fish ponds and places to raise chickens and ducks. It’s really where I dream to go.”

Gan said she feels unaccustomed to the attention she receives, but the prospect of helping her fellow villagers create better lives drives her on.

“I don’t feel good being recognised by strangers,” she said. “They say ‘hi’ to me, but I am a bit embarrassed.

“It makes me happy that local farmers are getting higher incomes so that fewer people have to leave the villages to work in cities. They can stay with their kids and watch them grow up.”