The number of farmers broadcasting in China is huge and growing fast.
In 2018, village-born Jin Guowei was knee-deep in debt and peddling fruit to tourists in the streets of Lijiang, Yunnan. Now he's Brother Pomegranate, an Internet sensation with 7.3 million followers and 300 million yuan ($46 million) of sales in 2020. He once sold 6 million yuan worth of pomegranates in 20 minutes.
Such is the growing trend of rural entrepreneurship in China. Farmers and agricultural vendors in remote provinces sell goods directly to urban consumers via interactive livestreams and bite-sized videos. Revenues generated by rural content creators on ByteDance Ltd.'s Douyin -- TikTok's Chinese twin -- have grown 15-fold year-on-year, the company reported.
Another farmer, Guo Chengcheng, interacts with her 2.5 million Douyin fans from her family fields, harvesting crops while viewers tap a link on the screen to buy the produce. Her video clips spotlight everything from mini pumpkins to wild peaches, many planted by fellow villagers. In the past she sold through Tencent Holdings Ltd.'s merchant program on WeChat, making about a hundred orders a day. Now she takes as many as 50,000 orders per livestream -- earning at least 9 million yuan a month in sales.
Guo and Brother Pomegranate are part of a counterflow of migrants heading back to the countryside after decades of exodus to the cities. Douyin says 54% of its rural influencers are 'fanxiang qingnian,' or returning youth.
That shift was augmented by the pandemic, which forced more than 23 million migrant workers to stay in their hometowns. As the nation's transportation system ground to a halt, agricultural produce languished in storage. At the same time, consumers, stuck at home, were cooking more than ever. Demand for online fresh groceries soared and social commerce offered small-scale farmers a low-cost way to become entrepreneurs.
"In the villages, even the most routine moments are fodder for interesting visual content," fruit vendor Jin said in an interview. "That's what city people don't have and what they want to see."
The number of farmers broadcasting in China is huge and growing fast. More than 100,000 farmers streamed 2.52 million sessions on Alibaba Group's Taobao Live in the year ended in March. Douyin's agricultural content creators with more than 10,000 followers rose sixfold in 2019-20 from the year before.
To transport their produce, farmers still have to rely on the logistics arms of big e-commerce companies like JD Logistics or Alibaba's Cainiao, or use specialists such as SF Express. Selling direct exposes them to more risk, especially from customers who demand a refund for damaged goods. Growing competition and higher costs for refrigerated delivery have also eroded margins, but the gains from increased orders and a loyal customer base more than compensate for the trouble.
E-commerce experts and livestreamers say the secret to success is a mix of city dwellers' nostalgia for nature, distrust in traditional markets because of food safety scandals, and the entertainment of watching unique rustic personalities.
"Weedkillers? No weedkillers are used," Jin tells his viewers in early March as he weaves through a grove of orange trees. He crouches down and zooms his iPhone camera in on a bunch of weeds under the tree. "This is proof right here, living proof."
As short-video platforms like Douyin and Kuaishou Technology expand into e-commerce, established titans like Taobao, JD.com and Pinduoduo Inc. are fighting back, offering training workshops, subsidies and platform support.
China's livestreaming farmers lead the world. While Alibaba's Lazada uses the medium to promote shopping in Southeast Asia, the focus is mostly on consumer products. Globally, rural livestreaming on platforms like Bigo Live in South Asia and TikTok tends to show farmers' antics and lifestyles.
Growers in China have the added support of the state. As the Communist Party marks its centenary this month, it's championing the revitalization of san nong -- the three issues of agriculture, rural areas and farmers. In guidelines issued on May 11, the government called for the expansion of e-commerce coverage of villages to boost farmers' incomes.
Agriculture is still one of the most important sectors in China, employing a quarter of the labor force, said Hao Liang, an associate professor of finance at Singapore Management University, who studies China's e-commerce. "Such a market is in line with China's national strategy of inclusive growth."
The rural e-commerce talent shortage is expected to increase by 61.3% to 3.5 million people in 2025, researchers at China Agricultural University predicted. Douyin and rivals are intent on filling the gap.
We "will further support the creation of 'san nong' content," said a Douyin spokesperson. "Farmers are able to have a higher margin as well when they sell directly to customers."
The challenge for livestreaming farmers is to retain fans in a fickle market by finding the right blend of attractive, healthy produce, bucolic scenery and entertainment.
As he holds up a plump purple bulb of garlic in March, Jin's followers urge him to taste it. He bites into peeled cloves, his face scrunched up and utters, "As spicy as it gets!"
--With assistance from Kevin Dharmawan and Stella Ko.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)