Mrs Zhang, a lily bulb farmer in Lintao County in China’s northwestern Gansu province, used to be afraid to harvest her crops if there were no firm orders because they were very delicate and would go bad in a matter of days without proper storage.
The bulbs would start to turn dark in color after just two days out of the ground. The delicate nature of fresh lily bulbs, which are used in stir-fries and soups, also meant that farmers could not sell them to faraway places. This severely limited the size of the market for the crop, and by extension the price that farmers like Mrs. Zhang could get for them.
Last year, during the Covid-19 lockdowns, the county’s lily bulb farmers were left with a stockpile of highly perishable crops as their traditional distribution channels were blocked with transportation restrictions and market closures. Being located in a remote area at 2,000 meters above sea level added to the challenge.
Pinduoduo, China’s largest agricultural marketplace, liaised with local authorities to help the farming communities market their agricultural produce to consumers nationwide, connecting the so-called “first mile” and “last mile” of the supply chain.
Little known outside its mountainous confines, three tons of lily bulbs from Lintao County sold out quickly on a Pinduoduo livestream, with 1.2 million team purchase orders. As a result of the pandemic, the region’s farmers saw the benefits of e-commerce and hopped onto the proverbial digital bandwagon.
Fast forward a year and Mrs. Zhang and her fellow farmers were hard at work processing lily bulbs for shipment to major cities across China. The orders had come pouring in during the 6.18 shopping festival, from cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Nanjing.
The farmer-workers at the processing plant strip the outermost layers of the lily bulbs quickly and skillfully, after which they are vacuum-packed in styrofoam boxes with cold packs, to be dispatched to their destinations. The lily bulb leaves can be used in soups while the bulbs are used in stir-fries.
Lintao County is one of the many success stories of farming communities finding a wider market for their agricultural products on Pinduoduo. With 824 million annual active customers, Pinduoduo is the most widely used online marketplace in China and has connected 16 million farmers to its customer base. More than 2,600 different agricultural products have each garnered more than 100,000 orders on the platform.
Last year, Lintao County’s e-commerce sales of lily bulbs surpassed 20 million yuan, accounting for more than 60 percent of the region’s online agricultural sales. There are more than 40 online stores from merchants in the county on Pinduoduo, selling mostly lily bulls and potatoes.