Business / Industries

New Yorker sends honey from 'heaven' to Shanghai

By XU JUNQIAN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-04-20 10:12

Among sweeping vistas of snow-capped mountains, virgin Himalayan forest and terraced meadows sits the office of Shangrila Farm, launched by New Yorker Sahra Malik and her sister Alia in 2008.

Set in the eponymous Tibetan hinterland of Southwest China's Yunnan province, it supplies organic food to cities, including Kunming, the provincial capital, and Shanghai.

Strictly speaking, it is not a farm. It has no land and buys produce from local farmers. But it is among the first such venture in China to form a domestic silk road of honey and other agricultural produce between the county-level city of Shangri-La, where the average annual income is under 2,000 yuan ($320), and Shanghai, where organic foods are in short supply.

"We were surprised to find honey of such good quality in Yunnan. It should and could be as popular as Manuka honey from New Zealand," said Malik.

Adhering to fair trade practices, the social enterprise purchases honey at 50 percent above the market price from over 2,000 farmers, stamps it under its brand, and donates 20 percent of its revenue to local NGOs.

Coffee has become another money-spinner for the sisters. Yunnan has served as one of the most important production bases for coffee since it was introduced into China in the 19th century.

Starbucks now sources some of its green tea and other products from the region as the Chinese embrace hazelnut lattes and caramel frappuccinos with gusto. The American franchise launched blends using beans from the province in 2009 and opened its first Asia-based Farmer Support Center in Yunnan's Pu'er three years later. But Shangrila Farm still devotes most of its time to honey and related social projects.

With the help of their younger brother, the sisters offer free hives and beekeeping training to farmers in the area. Many locals practiced beekeeping before the family came to town, but plenty have switched over to doing it fulltime due to their new knowledge. Others make money from selling Chinese herbs, mushrooms and truffles from the region.

The farm sold 15 tons of honey last year, some of it through its store on, China's largest online shopping platform. The honey sells for up to 68 yuan ($11) per 500 grams.

It is hard for tourists not to feel inspired upon arriving at Shangri-La, a city that was officially renamed by the central government in 2001 after the mythical utopia depicted in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon.

But instead of writing a travelogue or seeking spiritual enlightenment, the 34-year-old New Yorker saw a business opportunity during her multiple visits to the city. This happened after her father took over as the head of the United Nations Development Program in China in 2003. Yunnan was scheduled as one of his go-to destinations, prompting a family vacation.

"Its breathtaking beauty takes away a part of your soul, and this lost part of your soul keeps reminding you to go back there and do something," said Malik, who at the time was working for an advertising agency in Beijing.

After her mother founded an NGO in Shangri-La to protect the local cultural heritage and preserve the craftsmanship of ethnic groups there, the family began making regular visits.

Now they are so deeply connected to Chinese culture that Safi, Sahra's younger brother, even got to appear on If You Are Not The One, China's most-watched dating show.

The coffee bean farmers who work with Shangrila Farm share a cooperative of plantations in a nature preserve at an altitude of 800 meters to 1,500 meters.

Although the small farms are not certified as being organic, no detail is spared to ensure the quality of the coffee beans they produce, Malik said.

They also prioritize sustainability so as not to harm the environment, so pesticides and other chemicals are out. A water-irrigation project was introduced to save water and stabilize production, she said.

"Shangrila Farm is aimed at helping the farmers and making the place even more heavenly, if possible, not the other way around."

Hot Topics

Editor's Picks