Chili Plantation
Name of village:
Location: Food Industry - Chili Plantation

Partner: Chitralada School

Introduction

They say you don’t treat the heat of chillies with water, or ice, or ice cream for that matter – you treat it with MORE chillies. Singaporeans just looooove their chillies, just as the Thais are proud of cultivating theirs. Buuut before you indulge in a huge dollop of sambal belacan on your nasi lemak, or a generous pouring of the neon orange chilli sauce on your chicken rice, or even attempt to choke down a fiery bowl of Mala Tang (spicy soup), do you have any idea where does all that magnificent spice come from? How much of it is required? How is it obtained? Before it even reaches the markets of Singapore, how is it cultivated? How LONG does the cultivation process last before we may even enjoy them in our dishes? How much WORK goes into cultivating them? Not a faintest idea, haven’t you? 4 days at a Chilli farm in the Phak Hai district of Thailand gave us but a tiiiiiiny glimpse at all the backbreaking work not one, not two, but a team of farmers must go through to make your delicious chilli sauces and condiments possible.

Pre-Trip
At first, I was praying in all directions to at least clinch a friend or 2 I knew in my team, knowing there were some who signed up for OSIP as well. I’m glad my prayers weren’t answered. I can’t and won’t ask for a better team to have worked with. The LeX journey got off to a little shaky start with dominance problems in the team, but that died down like an abrupt drizzle, and everyone was back on track more bonded than ever. Kudos to our team facilitator, Pat, though, for being more like a goofy big sister to us as opposed to a stringent lecturer.

A Taste of Royalty
Greeted with sweet-smelling garlands of jasmine at the airport, we were immediately chartered off to Chitralada Vocational School, our accommodation area for the next 2 weeks. In fact, all 27 of us, Singaporean students and lecturers, were more than blessed to have stayed in the Royal District, where the royal palaces, Dusit Zoo (which used to be the king’s private collection), monuments and temples resided in as well. Furthermore, we happened to alight in the heart of a fair called the Red Cross Fair, held in celebration of the Princess’ 60th birthday and Chitralada’s 60th anniversary. Unlike a regular “pasar malam”, the Red Cross Fair was 100 times the intensity – Artillery and Armoury showcases by the Royal Thai Armed Forces, dog shows, beauty pageants, shooting ranges, lucky draws, sports competitions, clothing & accessories sales, and food, food, GLORIOUS FOOD. Day One was already a blast for all of us – quite an adventure too.

Getting back to Chitralada Vocational school, all I can say is that I can’t ask for better hospitality. Amazing shower facilities, luxurious sleeping area adorned with brand new mattresses, sheets and pillows and the thing that almost everyone went crazy for – WIFI. The meals, oh, the meals, were heavenly. The rainbow of fusion food served three times a day during our stay at Chitralada could have easily surpassed any buffet you may get back here in Singapore.
Oh, did you know, Chitralada is the ONLY academy in the whole of Thailand to have overseen the education of the Royal Family? Chitralada Academy has been offering education from kindergarten level to University for 60 years solid; the Vocational school however, has only been newly opened in October 2014, under the princess’ request to offer more tertiary-level education to her people! I could write an entire essay on the quirks and perks of Chitralada Academy, but I think you are itching to read more about our FARM experience, yes?

Farmer Boy
FARM TIME! It was during then which I felt I made the fullest out of my entire LeX journey. I will never see chillies in the same light again after unearthing their saplings, pawing at the ground to prop them in, watering them one by one, harvesting them and sorting them out according to their different characteristics. The whole process took 4 days, when actually, we were only doing a fraction of the real work. 4 seasons. 15 rai at 1600m2 per rai. 10 rows of land. 68,000 saplings per season. And all that was only for the chillies – our farmer, Uncle Kom, also managed a fishery, rice paddies and orange trees, which grew alongside the chilli shrubs.

At first, I thought Uncle Kom would work with machines to water or harvest the chillies conveniently, so it came as a surprise to me to realise most of the work was still tedious and manual, with the need for human labour! Even when it came down to transporting ourselves across the water to the strips of land where the chillies were grown, we had to row a metal boat ourselves with long bamboo poles – no motor included!

This was where we began scouting out for possible problems to tackle. We depended on our own experience in the farm as well as interviews to scout for a potential problem that would lead us to crafting our persona.

There, we had the privilege of interviewing not only Uncle Kom, but the manager, Koon Pui, finance manager, Saranporn, the accountant and other committee members of the district’s (Phak Hai) Co-op.
From all the interview data, we managed to cluster key issues such as “Farming Difficulties” – tackling mostly physical issues regarding the chilli plants, “Marketing Prices” & “Profits” – focusing on how to increase profit-making, and “Workers” & – addressing the problem of workers not doing their job properly and having inadequate marketing skills, and more.

Further late-night chit-chat with Uncle Kom added further clarity into chiselling a well-crafted persona with a clear needs statement. He mentioned that he was getting old, and watering the saplings manually one by one was backbreaking work that was a huge factor of his back pains.
Plus, from our own experience watering what seemed like a fraction of the chilli plantation, we could already understand how intense it would be for Uncle Kom, who had to water the sapling 2-3 times a day depending on how hot the weather was, with little or no help at all. Hence, we decided to focus on “Farming Difficulties” and tackled the problem of inefficient, effort & time-consuming watering of the chilli saplings.
Aside from all the DT work, we also had our share of eye-twinkling fun and tummy-aching laughter! I was particularly close to the 5 old aunties at the homestay, who were the chefs and matriarchs of the house! Trying to converse with them in Thai got all of us chuckling and I think the plain sight of me just tickles their funny bone – reminds me of how I interact with my grandma. 
There also came a day where I had to wake up at 4am to scrub a great basket of approximately 150 fresh, dirt-crusted duck eggs, which I originally thought was going to be our breakfast – God help us all. And yes, you heard me right. SCRUB. They were so fresh that they practically still had everything and anything stubbornly crusted on them. So, I squatted with my Thai buddy Navy, scrubbing and rubbing for about an hour and a half while being eaten alive by merciless mosquitoes. Turns out they were actually for a Portuguese dessert-making session later in the day! The process goes like this: first, separate the yolks from the whites, which was surprisingly difficult as the eggs were so fresh and compact, almost gelatinous! Next, break the membranes of the yolks by squashing them up with your hands – it was icky, yes, but fun! Lastly, pass them through a fine cheesecloth twice to remove any lumps, mix in a little bit of flour or leave it as it is, and drizzle or drop them into a huge cauldron of boiling water and sugar. The results – a sticky, sweet egg-vermicelli or egg-drop dessert that tastes like boiled pound cake.

I was the first to step up and have a hand at swirling them into the cauldron, so I pretty much screwed up everything! It was comedy gold to the 5 old ladies, who kept howling in laughter at my uneven chendol-like drips of egg and clumsy attempt! However, it was through this raw, intimate learning session with them that forged a precious relationship between us that resembled a grandmother and her curious yet clumsy granddaughter.  A jar containing my rich “masterpieces” is still sitting in the freezer, preserving that sweet memory, if not its edibility, till now.
Back to Design Training!

On the last night of the homestay, our persona was “born”, by the name of Farmer Komtumrai, who needed help lightening his workload and a more efficient way to water the saplings to ease his back pain and spend less time watering them. As a bonus, we had already began ideating on a prototype on the same night and thought of a pipe cum pump system to transport the water straight from the river without farmer Komtumrai needing to carry anything.

\

Back at Chitralada, the Ideation process went rather smoothly with the help from a Thai Science Teacher, known as “Earth-2”, as we already had a buddy named Earth. The only challenging part was when we had to draw or write out 30 designs of prototypes that popped up in our minds on post-its in 10 minutes – a real brain-burner. However, from that, we could see that the majority was heading towards 2 main ideas of irrigation, using pipes to drip or spray water on each plant, or a pump system to pump water through pipes to the saplings. Ideation allowed us to not only anchor our focus on a certain structure of prototype, but to accept and admire other ingenious, brilliant ideas from our team mates!

In all, we came up with 3 prototypes, with each version featuring improvements from the previous one. When we finally landed with the 3rd prototype, which is a foot pump system with a harness to support it, we began sourcing for materials to build it.

Building the prototype went quite smoothly as well, owing most of our salutation and thanks to Yen, a sweet lecturer from Chitralada who helped us get our materials to build it. Muhammed, Mirrah and I focused on building the harness with rope and cable ties while the rest focused on linking the plastic hoses and constructing the pump model, which was made out of a large sponge. At the beginning, I was worried if we could source for the real materials to make it work. However, this phase only required us to build a model, and this was where I learnt that I had to be flexible in choosing my materials – a pump need not be a legitimate pump, but rather built out of corrugated board and a large sponge to resemble one.

Even so, miraculously, our model worked! The actual pump connected to the prototype may be small and leaking, but with a few squeezes, the model could actually suck water up into the hose and spray it out! Most importantly, our prototype met the needs of the Needs Statement; almost no effort is needed to run it – you would only need to step on the pump and angle the mouth of the hose.

Bringing it back to the homestay to present it to Uncle Kom and Koon Pui was the proudest moment in my entire OSIP journey, as they genuinely appreciated and admired it! Uncle Kom said, “It will work, and I will use it!” – Which was the main goal we were hoping to achieve from the very start of LEX. An additional, “I’d give it 9/10!” from Uncle Kom landed us in smiles till the end of the journey. I’m also proud of my team’s effort as the prototype we developed covered all the “4-Ables” Hui Shan taught us before we embarked on the trip – Desirable, Viable, Sustainable, and Feasible. From the beginning, my team agreed on making a prototype that was cheap and able to be simply built mostly out of recycled objects that may easily be found on the farm. We wanted to see it actually put to use. Our efforts paid off when we saw the smile on Uncle Kom’s (our farmer) face.
As a plus point, I can safely say that our prototype can be used for other species of plant saplings as well, as long as there’s a water source nearby. As our prototype was designed for the more convenient transport of water, it need not only be restricted to watering chilli saplings alone. It was also cheap to build, with the only purchasable item being the pump – the other parts such as the hose and harness may be made out of recycled items one may easily obtain on a farm! A farmer may need to spend an average of 250 baht for the pump – making our prototype one that’s affordable and DIY-able! 2 weeks have passed and I dearly yearn to return to the farm, to the simplicity of living, to see the humble, weather-worn faces again. Uncle Kom, the old aunties living at the homestay, Koon Pui, Saranporn and so many more of the people I have met there have taught me strategic farming methods and even values I will never learn back in Singapore. That was where I learnt the most out of the entire LeX journey, and that was where I left a great piece of my heart.