It was a chance encounter with a mutual acquaintance that led to Stephen Findlay, the uber-affable founder of Findlay Foods, meeting up with Peetachai ‘Neil’ Dejkraisak, the uber-affable CEO and co-founder of Jasberry, an all-new, all-powerful variety of rice. And now Findlay Foods is New Zealand’s sole importer of the crop.
If ever a food was worthy of the ‘super’ moniker, it’s Jasberry. A decade in the making, developed through natural cross-breeding, the “world’s healthiest rice” is organic and gluten-free, with 40 times more antioxidants than brown rice, 133 more than white rice, and six times that of black, or ‘forbidden’, rice. It also beats kale, quinoa and blueberries in the antioxidant stakes while being grown by a co-operative of farmers in northeastern Thailand who earn 11 times the national average, working under better conditions and bestowed with greater freedom.
Recent accolades for Jasberry rice include winner of the Food and Beverage Award (FABI) in the US, a gong that’s dished out to the year’s tastiest and most original products that promises to shape the future of food; and a feature on the front cover of reputable US food magazine, Gourmet News.
“It just ticks so may boxes both in terms of healthiness, and ethics,” says Stephen, recalling his serendipitous—and momentous—meeting with the Jasberry CEO. “And Neil is just so passionate about it all. He’s on a crusade!”
So, Verve called up Neil in Bangkok to find out more…
The Thai-born eco-entrepreneur has had an interest in both conservationism and social justice since his early teens, citing Martin Luther King Jr as a hero. Aged 14, Neil moved to Australia for 11 years where he studied economics and environmental engineering at the University of Melbourne.
“I came back with this thought that I really wanted to do something, but I hadn’t really had a lot of experience, so ended up going into investment banking because I really wanted to learn about business,” he says. “I believe in the power of business.”
Driven in part by frustration at government corruption and the powerlessness of local NGOs, Neil co-founded Jasberry in 2011 to help give Thai farmers a leg up.
“Thailand was then the world’s number one rice exporter, but when I started to look deeper into the issue I learnt that our farmers were among the poorest,” he laments. “It just didn’t make sense. They were earning as little as 40 [US] cents a day, and they account for 17 million people—25 percent of the total population.”
Combining his passion for justice and the environment with his economic and engineering know-how, Neil decided to “create a whole new system” whereby the farmers would own their own land along with a share of the local mill, through a cooperative.
“It was about giving the farmers ownership, empowering them to make their own choices,” Neil says. “People thought I was crazy! They questioned the ability of poor and uneducated farmers to run their own affairs, but if you never give them that opportunity, then you will never find out.”
And so everyone lived happily ever after.
Well, not quite.
The fairytale idea didn’t quite yield immediate fairytale results.
“The first year, the crop failed!” admits Neil.
The farmers, so used to being undervalued in the past, and mostly all old enough to be Neil’s grandparent, already harboured suspicions about the project. But, with Jasberry covering their losses, and Neil always being available to them, over time, he earned their trust. Still, it took nearly three years to “stabilise the new rice breed”.
“I really have to be grateful that the farmers stuck with the programme, that they believed in it,” beams Neil. “And now, it gives them hope, because previously the future had been quite bleak for them, doing the same thing year in, year out.”
The farmers, too, were keen to embrace Jasberry’s organic philosophies, keen to protect their families from chemicals. “They understand that if they’re pumping chemicals into the rice, then they may eventually get horrible diseases. They’re filled with a sense of responsibility.”
Neil’s hope was to also inspire a shift in consumer behaviour, and he’s already making some serious inroads. As well as US success, Jasberry rice has recently been approved by one of Europe’s leading specialised retailers of organic food, The Dennree Group, who boast hundreds of stores and markets throughout Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Italy.
“This is a massive breakthrough as Germany is one of the most difficult markets to enter,” says Neil. “It took them almost a year to evaluate Jasberry rice before they decided to list.”
Neil has observed a change in attitude for the better.
“Consumers are starting to want to know where their food has come from,” he adds. “That’s so powerful because it forces companies to be more accountable both socially and environmentally.”
He also wants the public to be more aware of health implications concerning what they consume.
“The more you study health, the more you realise that nature has a design for us, that consuming natural food is the best way of not getting sick,” he says. “I want people to make better purchasing decisions for themselves and their families.”
As for the farmers in Thailand, Neil talks of them as if almost family.
“They are what get me up in the morning, they give my life purpose,” he says. “It’s inspiring to spend time with them. We’ve been through so much together, and still have a long way to go. It’s still not perfect, but we have come a long way in the last seven or eight years. What’s important is to just keep making progress. We’re not going to be able to suddenly reverse a system that has kept the farmers in poverty for centuries, but we can show them that it is possible to do business in a different way. That they do have a future.”
Jasberry at a Glance
Jasberry rice, rich in colour and flavour, is noted for being soft, aromatic and versatile—capable of complementing numerous dishes.
It is organic, gluten-free, vegan-friendly and non-GMO.
Jasberry is the only certified B-Corp food company in Thailand, which means it meets the highest international standard of social and environmental performance.
Wondering about the name? ‘Jas’ refers to its delicious taste, while ‘berry’ is a nod towards its impressive antioxidant count.
One serving meets the US Department of Agriculture’s recommended daily intake of antioxidants.
It’s antioxidant count comprises the likes of anthocyanin (which gives it its lovely purple colour, also found in blueberries), vitamin E and beta-carotene.
The rice production supports more than 2,500 farmers.