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Informing the ‘New Normal’: Lessons From Thailand's Deep South Communities

by Stan van der Leemputte, Youth Co:Lab

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown one thing, it is that we are all vulnerable, yet not equally at risk. For the approximately 2.4 million residents of Thailand’s Deep South - a culturally dynamic, but largely impoverished region - the pandemic is creating new hardships and exacerbating existing ones. At the same time, COVID-19 has also proven to be an opportunity for the region to create a better, stronger, resilient, inclusive and more sustainable future.


What is clear for young entrepreneurs, is that business as usual won’t cut it.


In March 2020, Youth Co:Lab, a project co-led by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Citi Foundation, surveyed 410 young entrepreneurs across the Asia-Pacific. The results showed that 90 percent of youth-led businesses were negatively impacted by the current crisis. Among these, 1 in 3 reported a major slowdown, and 1 in 4 have stopped entirely.


Before the pandemic hit, UNDP in collaboration with ALC, a Basque Social Innovation Laboratory, started the Thailand Social Innovation Platform to support Deep South communities and young entrepreneurs by promoting the local food industry and unique culinary heritage. As part of this approach, an active listening process to gather narratives through ethnographic interviews with a diverse set of key stakeholders in the local food system was set up. This utilizes a co-creation process that involves restaurant owners, food suppliers, young entrepreneurs and artists to design a wide range of locally applicable solutions.

Examples of digital sources being used in Thailand’s Deep South

COVID OUTBREAK: Using Digital Listening tools for a new normal


When COVID-19 hit the region, the listening didn’t stop - instead, it went online. A wide range of digital listening tools and AI-powered language processing techniques captured and analyzed newly emerging narratives. From the digital listening it became clear that each region, community and group is experiencing COVID-19 differently and face specific challenges. A group of Thai workers provide an example of the scope of challenges faced. Approximately 200,000, mostly young migrants, many of them small-business owners, chefs and line-cooks faced unique challenges during the crisis when returning from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

What did our listening tools reveal? Attitudes towards migrant workers were generally not positive even before the pandemic and worsened afterwards. In Thailand’s Deep South, many held strong views on this returning group as they were seen as potential disease-carriers. Also, there was a religious link component to the findings. Most of the returning migrants are a part of the local Malay-Muslim population and their religious practices were viewed by some as a potential source of infection. Dangers of stigmatization and discrimination emerged: “I feel stigmatized back home. I live in a village, and perceive that people from the cities tend to think that because of religious gatherings, or vaccination we are more likely to spread the virus. Besides, I’ve come from Malaysia, where the virus started spreading earlier. Prior to the border lock between Malaysia and Thailand, about 50,000 were already home”.


Digital listening in Thailand’s Deep South in combination with traditional ethnographic work helped assess the impact of the crisis and found changing power dynamics - the pandemic further weakened already vulnerable communities and local businesses - yet also provided unexpected business opportunities to some.


Tirmizi is the owner of a meat-product producing business specializing in burger patties. When he opened his business, he was the only producer of this popular snack in the region. “Three years ago there weren’t any local meat manufacturers here. That’s why I started this business. I arranged all the certifications very quickly, I wanted this process done fast so I focused on achieving that”, he explained.


Tirmizi has constantly struggled with challenges related to the local supply chain and the region’s lack of diversification.


“80 percent of the people’s income in here depends on the agricultural economy, agricultural prices, agricultural product from the rubber price. But we lack a proper upstream supply chain for livestock, machinery and standardized slaughtering houses”.

When COVID-19 hit the region, just like many other business-owners, Tirmizi suffered. His sales dropped, forcing him to survive on less. However, when the government issued containment measures and the nearby borders to Malaysia closed, things started to change for Tirmizi. His competitors, mostly from Malaysia, suddenly couldn’t export their products to Thailand, which created a vacuum and a huge opportunity for him. Using his entrepreneurial skills, he took bold and decisive action to introduce several new products to the market and consequentially increased his sales dramatically. Tirmizi: “It seems that my business is among the very few that are actually growing in the time of the pandemic”.


Tirmizi’s story is an example of an entrepreneur who saw a challenge and imagined an opportunity, taking the initiative rather than waiting for others. Many young people, similar to Tirmizi, possess the key traits to become a successful entrepreneur but still fail because of the region’s underdeveloped entrepreneurial ecosystem, facing barriers such as a lack of mentors in business and management skills, as well as financial constraints, funding, and access to markets.


These stories' collected using ethnographic fieldwork and digital listening have illustrated how people, groups and communities are experiencing the impacts of COVID-19 differently. Gaining real-time insight into these differences and their social, economic and cultural implications is crucial to co-create new and better solutions tailored to each segment of the population.


Currently, on the basis of the conducted listening work in Thailand’s Deep South, a series of such solution proposals are being co-designed to fit the local needs and opportunities, including many initiatives to help young entrepreneurs in the food-industry rebuild their businesses after COVID-19 and adjust to the ‘new normal’.


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Co-led by UNDP and Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab establishes a common agenda for countries in Asia-Pacific to empower and invest in youth so that they can accelerate the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through leadership, social innovation and entrepreneurship. Read more about Youth Co:Lab here.

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