Young entrepreneurs help revitalize rural areas in China
By Li Xiaoyang  ·  2024-02-26  ·   Source: NO.9 FEBRUARY 29, 2024
Employees pack oranges at the e-commerce company founded by Wang Jing in San'erwu Village, Xunwu County in Jiangxi Province, in November 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Passion and effort are what led to Wang Jing becoming a CEO in her 20s. She took on the role in June 2022. Though the e-commerce company she runs has only 10 employees, it's playing a big role in boosting the economy of the village where she was born.

Wang, 26, is one of the many village CEOs taking up roles across China in recent years.

Village CEOs, also known as agricultural managers, were among the 13 new professions added in 2019 to the official list of professions jointly administered by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security (MHRSS), the State Administration for Market Regulation, and the National Bureau of Statistics.

According to the MHRSS, village CEOs are those who manage rural economic cooperation organizations such as agricultural cooperatives, as well as those who oversee agricultural production, offer technical support, or help market local products. 

There were more than 2 million such CEOs working in towns and villages across China in 2023, the MHRSS said.

Empowering the countryside

After she graduated from Gannan Normal University in Jiangxi Province, Wang started her own e-commerce business in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. But in 2022, despite her family's opposition, she made a resolute decision to return to her home village, San'erwu in Xunwu County, Jiangxi, and work as a village CEO. She did so out of a sense of responsibility to help the still less developed area to prosper.

Most of the village's 4,000 residents are seniors, as young people have left to find job opportunities in cities. Through a field survey, Wang learned that many villagers make a living by growing fruit including orange and passion fruit, but sales remained an obstacle.

She then established an e-commerce company to sell the fruit under the villagers' committee. In China, villagers' committees are organizations for the self-management of villages, which usually consist of five local villagers managing affairs. As per their agreement, Wang's company hands over 90 percent of its annual profits to the village and its employees can receive payment from the village for their work.

"As a village CEO, I mainly work on monitoring quality of the products and conducting overall planning. It is a small team but the members, all born after 2000, are able to cover multiple e-commerce marketing tasks," Wang told Beijing Review.

Starting e-commerce in a village is not easy. "Many elderly villagers had no idea about e-commerce or its benefits. It was also hard to attract consumers in the early days," she said.

The company has opened stores on Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba's online marketplace Taobao and popular lifestyle apps like Xiaohongshu. In 2022 alone, their fruit sales exceeded 100 tons, bringing over 100,000 yuan ($13,904) of revenue to the village. Compared to selling their fruit in traditional wholesale markets, local farmers earn 20 percent more every year from these online channels.

Through introducing villagers to e-commerce and sharing profits from fruit selling with them, Wang's company has gained increasing credit.

The company has trained 30 villagers as live-streaming hosts to promote local products. In her 30s, Xie Wendi became one of the company's live-steaming hosts in 2022. She is now able to work and take care of her family of five at the same time.

To further empower the local fruit industry, the company has partnered with Chinese tech firm Tencent in introducing a cloud platform that allows consumers to grow their own passion fruit in the village remotely. "Consumers can watch the growth of their fruit on the platform and then have them delivered from the village when they're ripe. The innovative platform has attracted many consumers and other visitors to the village," Wang said.

According to Wang, a village CEO should be a keen observer in identifying industries with potential and develop sustainable programs. Some nearby villages are reaching out to her company to learn about its business models.

Wang has seen great improvement in local tourism infrastructure over recent years. She said this year, her company plans to open homestays and organize study tours, which will provide more job opportunities for the villagers. 

"We want to attract more young people to return to the village for work or start their own business," she said.

Bai Long (second right) and some members of his team pose at a site where they hosted a marriage proposal event for tourists in Xueao Village, Ningbo City in Zhejiang Province, on November 20, 2023 (COURTESY PHOTO)

Power of youth

In February 2023, a group of young people settled in Xueao Village in Ningbo City, Zhejiang Province, and took over the management of a large farm on a local mountain. Since many of Xueao's young people have left to work in cities, the arrival of the young team—none of whom are from Zhejiang—made the villagers quite curious.

The team has 14 members who were all born in or after 2000. Bai Long, then 23, is its leader. His startup, founded in August 2022, is partnering with local governments in Zhejiang to launch rural tourism programs.

The team has planned and launched programs, including camping activities, study tours and outdoor parties, in rural areas across the province. The members transformed a warehouse in Xueao into a coffee bar, attracting increasing numbers of customers since March 2023. They have also invited local villagers to work as guides for study tours, and encouraged them to open restaurants and homestay businesses. 

For Bai, the team members are more partners than employees. "Many Chinese Gen Zs have grown up in moderately prosperous families. Rather than pursuing stable high salaries, they seek to realize their dreams and enjoy themselves at work," he told Beijing Review, adding that the team members have no guaranteed income but work on a commission basis. Some of the members are studying overseas and have decided to return to the team after finishing their studies.

For the young team members, working in the countryside is full of challenges. "Many villagers are seniors, and only speak local dialects. They are always conservative when introduced to new things," Bai said.

Poor infrastructure has also hindered their business. In February 2023, the electricity and water supplies in the farm they operate were both suspended for 12 days due to equipment failure, Bai recalled.

The passionate team members want to do what they can to make positive change. They are, for example, training a group of young villagers and will hand over the tourism programs they have incubated to the locals for long-term and sustainable operation.

In September 2023, Bai attended a village CEO training program organized by the Zhejiang Provincial Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Similar programs have boomed in recent years to expand the pool of agricultural managers. A joint initiative for this purpose, launched in late 2021 by Tencent and China Agricultural University, has been promoted to over 120 counties in provinces including Zhejiang, Guangdong and Yunnan, as of this year.

Bai said he believes a village CEO should have a good understanding of both rural conditions and business operation. He suggested village companies focus on supporting villagers to develop distinctive industries and creating jobs for them for common prosperity, he said.

"Young people play a key role in rural revitalization. Better infrastructure and preferential policies will attract more entrepreneurs to delve into villages," Bai said.

(Print Edition Title: Countryside CEOs)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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