Rural Taobao brings e-commerce to the countryside

By He Wei in Shanghai | China Daily | Updated: 2017-12-03 07:48

Almost half of China's 1.3 billion population still live in rural areas. While incomes are growing, some rural residents still lack the employment opportunities and everyday products and services that city dwellers take for granted.

Alibaba sees this as a huge unmet demand.

Through its Rural Taobao initiative, the tech titan is helping to raise living standards in the Chinese countryside by providing e-commerce access for millions of poorer residents. Taobao is Alibaba's customer-to-customer online marketplace.

 Rural Taobao brings e-commerce to the countryside

From top: A college graduate (center) from Anhui province shares her startup business experience with visitors. The farm owner joined the Rural Taobao initiative in 2016. Ge Yinian / For China Daily; A rural resident (right) is given a New Year gift at a Rural Taobao service center in Zhejiang province. Provided to China Daily

With an estimated investment of $1.6 billion since 2014, the company has established nearly 30,000 Rural Taobao service centers across 700 counties in 29 provincial-level regions, enabling villagers with little or no access to the internet to order and receive goods that have previously been unavailable to them.

The project helped the number of online transactions in rural regions to reach 29.2 billion yuan ($4.41 billion) last year, according to the company, which added that 33 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty by becoming self-employed.

Gong Jianfei, who runs the service center in Lin'an county, Zhejiang province, helps villagers to source items online that are of better quality and at lower prices. She places 40 to 50 orders a day on behalf of buyers, with the goods delivered to the center.

"E-commerce is helping rural people to join the digital economy, and some of them even have started their own businesses online," she said.

The program has partnered with local governments to provide easier access to computers, while Alibaba offers training to villagers on internet searches and online payments.

The e-commerce giant is also working to get hundreds of thousands of mom-and-pop convenient stores in counties and townships online and equip them with the software that uses data analytics to predict sales and manage inventory.

From stocking shelves to running the register, the company has given these stores a digital makeover, updating operating systems and bringing modern analytics to a business that often is run on intuition.

"We've had a lot of challenges, as we couldn't keep up with the pace and often ran out of stock," said Huang Donghai, the owner of Weijun Grocery in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province. "Now, the technology offers a glimpse of the most sought-after items through data analytics, allowing us to order directly from manufacturers and circumvent middlemen, which trims costs."

Wang Xiaoer, who sells local produce in Gansu province, said Alibaba's big data analysis also helped him to identify customer preferences and decide which fruits sell better and at what times of the year.

"Without big data, we were clueless in selling. Now we don't have to worry about the potential waste," he said.

More than 10,000 farms have partnered with Wang in the hope that e-commerce and precise data analysis can boost sales and help their local specialties to go global.

Also turning to high-tech solutions are villagers in Youxi county, Fujian province, who have harnessed livestreaming and Taobao to market kumquats.

Taobao promoted the area's local produce by inviting a Michelin-starred Italian chef and a Chinese internet celebrity to put on a cooking demonstration, which was streamed live online.

"People are normally concerned about food safety when they purchase food online. We want to show them the source of the produce," said Wang Xiuli, who oversaw the project for the county's Rural Taobao service center.

(China Daily 12/03/2017 page9)

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