Shaxian farmers snack their way to success

By Shan Juan (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-01-12 07:22

Farmers who want to find work off the farm usually migrate to the cities to provide unskilled labor to businesses there, working for anything from large industries to small retail shops.

An interesting exception, however, is in Shaxian, a county of about 240,000 people in East China's Fujian Province. Farmers there have built an extensive network to run a group of snack bars in different cities.

According to Huang Fusong, a top county official, there are 240 kinds of Shaxian snacks, 39 of which he said were national delicacies.

Although it's hard to see any trace of them in Beijing or any cities in North China, Shaxian snacks enjoy a high reputation in Fujian Province and have won top prizes in national food and catering shows.

Nearly half of the county's rural labor force, up to 50,000 people, manage and staff about 13,000 outlets, which all share the Shaxian Snack Bar brand.

Neighboring Guangdong Province has about 6,000 of them and Shanghai about 2,000 two of the most preferred destinations for the locals when they travel.

With existing networks and its market reputation, Shaxian will be able to provide jobs to all its surplus farm workers before the end of 2010 by opening up 3,000 additional outlets, according to the county government's plan.

The snack bar operators first began to leave their hometowns when a local pyramid loan scheme collapsed in the early 1990s, said Zhang Yunshou, vice-chairman of the Shaxian Snack Trade Association (SSTA), which was set up in 1997.

Soon afterward, the county government began playing a role in promoting the snack bars as a business pillar for the local economy. Shaxian Snacks became a trademark the next year, granting the snack bars a share of the intellectual property.

The government also allocated funds for promotion and training. Since 1999, the local Snack Industry Development and Service Center has trained 12,000 snack chefs, and 80 percent of them report more than 50,000 yuan ($6,400) in annual income.

The SSTA also was required to compile standards for the local snack industry and its operations in other places.

If Shaxian can continue to grow, Chinese economists say, it may serve as a role model for more rural communities in pursuing their "new countryside" programs. But to do so, it will have to overcome obstacles that it has recently encountered.

Consolidating 13,000 small retail shops into an integrated business, even when they agree to use the same shop name, takes time and effort. So far, fewer than 10 percent of them have been fully licensed by the SSTA.

Some outlets are plagued by poor training, or poor internal financial control. For example, the owners of many small outlets are not showing much competitive edge; they tend to use much of their profit to build new houses for themselves and spend little on reinvestment.

(China Daily 01/12/2007 page4)

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