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MIT Technology Review

Live-streaming helped China’s farmers survive the pandemic. It’s here to stay.

When coronavirus ground the country to a halt, the agricultural industry could no longer sell its produce. E-commerce giants used the chance to bring the sector online.

China's rural live-streamersChina's rural live-streamersTaobao / JD.com

A few years after Li Jinxing graduated from college, he returned to his rural hometown to become a flower farmer. The days were long but the routine familiar: rise early and tend to the blossoms in the morning; trim and package those in bloom during the afternoon; deliver the parcels, delicately stacked in trucks, to customers by late evening.

Where the flowers ended up, Li was never quite sure. From his fields in Yunnan province, China, he sold them to national distributors who sold them to flower shops who sold them to end consumers. He imagined the beautiful fruits of his labor brightening up homes around the country. This had been the life work of his family for generations. It all threatened to come to an end with covid-19.

Li, 27, remembers the exact moment he heard about the viral outbreak: it was past midnight on January 20, 2020. The Chinese New Year was only five days away, and he had spent the day harvesting flowers in preparation for the expected holiday bump in sales. As he swiped through Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, he saw a fleeting mention of the disease. Li wasn’t sure what to think. Wuhan was nearly 1,200 miles away—the problem felt distant and intangible. Days later, it snowed on New Year’s Eve, he remembers. He took it as an auspicious sign.

Li Jinxing in his flower farm.
Li Jinxing in his flower farm.
JD.COM

But as lockdown protocols swept through the country, panic began to set in. The logistics company that Li relied on had shut down for the holidays, and now the drivers were stuck at home. Without any way to carry out deliveries, Li watched as his flowers plummeted in price and still couldn’t be sold. In the end, tens of thousands of blossoms waiting in storage spoiled. “All of them had turned into trash; all of them had to be thrown out,” he says.

A week passed, and then another. Li counted the days he could still afford to pay his farmhands, the days he could still afford to keep his business. Then, on February 11, he received a message from an old friend, Ao Fenzhen, the COO of a flower distribution company. JD.com, one of China’s largest online retailers, was offering to help farmers use live-streaming to reach consumers, she said. It would involve broadcasting a few hours of content each day on its app, JD Live, to show off different products and answer questions from potential buyers. The company would provide access to its delivery networks—one of the few that had survived the lockdown—and take a small percentage of sales. Did Li want to join in?

Across rural China, Li’s reality had become the new norm as the country ground to a halt. In the years before, the internet’s disruptive influence had barely touched the agriculture sector. Farmers, though used to going online in daily life via smartphones, still relied heavily on offline markets to sell their goods. As a result, in the early weeks of the outbreak, they had to throw out mounds of rotting produce even as the demand for agricultural products like groceries soared.

An arrangement of pon pon flowers.
The flowers Li grows, known as pon pon.
JD.COM

But amid the devastation, e-commerce giants also saw an opportunity. Farmers were desperate to try new sales channels, and consumers were being forced to shop online. An entirely new industry was there for the taking if the companies could help the farmers out.

Both JD.com and Alibaba-owned Taobao quickly launched rural live-streaming initiatives, building on the engagement-centric format that had skyrocketed in popularity in China over the previous few years. The companies helped farmers and merchants set up online stores with expedited approvals and showed them how to design the content of their broadcasts. They made their apps more intuitive and used their logistics networks to ship the products directly from farm to home.

The push was largely a bet: rural live-streaming had existed before but hadn’t truly taken off. In 2019, Taobao’s goal was to attract a mere 1,000 farmers to its platform. “Most farmers didn’t know how to live-stream; even fewer understood e-commerce,” says Zhang Guowei, the head of JD Live.

But the pressure of the crisis—and the unique scale of China’s consumer base—provided the necessary catalyst. Taobao now has over 50,000 rural live-streamers and aims for at least 200,000 more within the year. Growers who had once sold 90% of their products offline have now flipped to selling 90% online. Live-streaming has not only helped the industry weather the crisis—it’s forged an entirely new way of business that is likely to continue long after the pandemic is over.

“It felt like an exponential level of growth”

Li’s friend Ao had been with her family for the holiday when news of covid arrived. Like Li, she didn’t register its significance. Her mind was elsewhere: preparing for Valentine’s Day, one of the biggest holidays for flower sales every year. But one by one her employees began telling her they were stuck in their hometowns. Then on the drive back to Kunming, the city where she worked in Yunnan, she saw the virus’s impact with her own eyes. “I remember it so clearly,” she says. “There were barely any cars on the highway. It was just me.”

One of JD Live's top influencers Xu Fei who helped Ao and Li promote their flowers. Broadcasts typically last one to two hours. At its peak, this one surpassed 1 million viewers.

It was through an ad that she learned of JD.com’s live-streaming initiative. She didn’t have any experience with the medium, but she also didn’t know what else to do. She contacted the company and messaged Li. He was onboard.

The first week of live-streaming was largely a blur. Ao set up an online store for consumers to make their purchases, and prepared scripts for one to two hours of content per day. Li then used JD Live to broadcast from his fields. He gave a tour of where the flowers grew, showcased their characteristics, and explained how to care for them. Li worked even longer hours than before, leaving no time to spend with his wife or one-year-old son. But when he sold 100 orders on the first day, he knew they were on to something.

Through JD’s initiative, Ao and Li also connected with live-stream influencers who offered to help them promote the flowers for free. The pair provided the expertise, teaching the influencers the properties of the flowers and how to arrange them. Once, an influencer’s broadcast surpassed 1 million viewers.

More orders came flooding in, and Li began to gain his own following. At one point, he remembers, he barely had enough farmhands to fulfill the sales. “It felt like an exponential level of growth—the numbers were growing so fast,” he says. By the end of the harvesting season, he had sold several hundred thousand flowers. His and Ao’s businesses had survived.

“It can actually open up entirely new industries”

Nearly 1,000 miles away in Hainan province, Wu Zhifang, an influencer on Taobao Live who goes by the broadcast name Wei Wei, also joined the platform’s rural live-streaming initiative out of desperation. But the desperation wasn’t her own. It was what she was hearing during her brief visits to the farmers’ market every few days. The pineapple growers who were used to selling off 30% of their produce by February had now sold less than 10%. The mango growers were desperately dropping their prices in an attempt to entice more consumers. Hainan, an island with a balmy climate, had one of the country’s earliest harvest seasons of the year. Now the fruits that had already been packed into shipping containers were rotting as the flow of ships had stalled.

Wei Wei gives her viewers a tour of a pineapple farm. The Taobao Live app makes it easy for anyone watching to switch been broadcasts and add items to their cart.

So Wei Wei, 30, did what she knew best. Every day, she donned a mask and headed to a new farm to show off its products in her live streams. In the new format her broadcasts, once dedicated to selling snacks, quickly gained popularity, sometimes reaching upwards of 80,000 viewers at a time. Taobao Live made it easy for anyone watching to click on the featured items and have them delivered directly to their homes. Behind the scenes, Alibaba worked with dozens of partners to expand its existing logistics network to support the new volume of perishable goods. For the pineapple farmers, the live streams helped them sell tens of thousands of fruit, Wei Wei says. It turned their situation around.

With every visit, Wei Wei also taught the farmers to use Taobao Live themselves. In parallel, to encourage other farmers to do the same, Taobao began spotlighting their live streams once a month. On February 15, more than 10,000 farmers signed on to conduct their broadcasts. On April 15, after Wuhan reopened, rural live streams collectively sold more than RMB60 million ($8.5 million) worth of agricultural products from Hubei, the city’s province.

For Wei Wei, who is two years into her live-streaming career, the experience changed her approach to her work. She now travels around the country conducting two or three rural live streams a week, all the while continuing to teach farmers how to set up their own broadcasts. “My understanding of live-streaming in the past was rather simple: I was just advertising the things I liked to eat,” she says. “I’ve realized that live-streaming has greater meaning. It can actually open up entirely new industries and drive local development.”

“Once you start live-streaming, you really can’t stop”

Wei Wei isn’t the only one whose life has changed since the emergence of this new trend. Even as China has slowly returned to normal, consumers and farmers alike have continued to rely on live-streaming. “Both have realized from personal experience the value of this e-commerce channel,” says JD’s Zhang. For many growers, it has even become the primary source of income. According to Zhu Xi, the head of Taobao Rural Livestreaming, nearly 2,000 rural participants now generate a monthly income of over RMB10,000 (roughly $1,400)—eight times the rural average.

Both JD.com and Taobao have also taken measures to further develop this new form of commerce. JD plans to simplify the process for rural producers to start live-streaming and selling their goods on its platform. It has also begun to actively recruit farmers who grow local specialties, like strawberry producers in Liaoning province. Taobao has expanded its free training workshops and aims to generate RMB15 billion ($2.1 billion) in agricultural sales via live-streaming within the year, says Zhu.

Li with his son.
Li with his son.
JD.COM

For Li, the trend represents an overdue update to his way of life. This is the silver lining of the pandemic, he says. “If it hadn’t modernized soon,” he adds, “I truly believe the industry would have just been waiting around to be eliminated.”

Li also likes the direct line he now has to his customers. They’re no longer faceless to him, nor he to them. Of course, it’s not all perfect. He admits there’s extra stress involved in meeting their demands. During the pandemic, the flowers he sold were a rare breed that few people recognized. He subsequently received an endless barrage of messages about how to handle and care for them—an aspect of customer service he had never dealt with before.

At the same time, he’s sheepishly proud of his following. “I just checked this morning,” he says. “It’s something like over 3,000.” He downplays the figure and admires the influencers who have orders of magnitude more. All the same, he’s hooked. “Once you start live-streaming, you really can’t stop,” he says. “Because now you have fans.”

Correction: The article previously misstated that the 2,000 high-earning rural live-streamers on Taobao Live had joined during the pandemic. It is the number of high-earners across the platform.