FAMILY hardship triggered by the plunge in rubber prices that began four years ago prompted Apisit Rordchawarng to come up with an alternative business idea to rescue their finances.
That solution was to make prayer mats made from natural rubber and Apisit, now 24, takes pride that sales of the mats have reached up to Bt7 million a year. And he is now taking orders for spin-off ideas, such as yoga mats and knee supports – also made from rubber.
“My family faced a debt burden amounting to Bt500,000 four years ago, when the price of natural rubber dropped to as low as Bt100 for 3 kilograms. This had a big impact on my family’s business, which buys natural rubber from the farmers for sale to other parties,” Apisit said in an interview with The Nation recently.
Apisit said that the household finances became so desperate that this mother had to sell half of roof of their house in order to send money to him for buying textbooks for his university studies. “I eventually had to see my teacher and tell him that I had to drop out of my classes and go back home to help my family bring in income.
“The dean in the faculty of science at my university told me that I did not have to resort to that, as the faculty would help out by rescheduling my tuition fees and looking for ways to find a scholarship for me.
“With this support, I was able to continue my studies. However, I still needed to find a way to help my family, so I discussed the problem with my room mate, who is a Muslim. He went on to tell me that he has to pray five times a day and that the kneeling made his knees sore. This inspired me to research and develop the prayer mats made from natural rubber.”
He started out in his research at the chemicals department of the science faculty where he studied at Prince of Songkla University in Hat Yai. He made use of the department’s resource to get to the point where he had the first small prayer mat.
“I tested my product with my friend and he said it worked well for him,” Apisit said.
With that endorsement, he began offering the mats for sale to Muslims at the university and to friends of the family. Before long, he had gained orders for 50 mats. He overcame the problem of his not having sufficient funds to make the mats by asking the customers to pay upfront half of the Bt500 price for them. That arrangement provided him with the funds to develop a machine for production of the mats at a standard size.“Our customers were willing to pay, so I was able to start work on developing the machine by myself,” Apisit said. “I asked the owner of the dorm to be able to use some space at the premises for this and, with that approval, I was able to set up the machine and get to work on fulfilling the orders.”
From that first order batch of 50 mats, Apisit succeeded in expanding the market to the point where was averaging sales of 600 items a month.
Outgrowing the space at his dorm, he spent a budget of Bt1 million to set up a plant on a 500 square metre site. He also gained a Bt3 million loan from the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Bank, which has a programme known as SME-D Scale Up to support owners of rubber businesses to expand their operations.
The owners learn how to create value-added products made from natural rubber and the programme provides more loans for entrepreneurs to realise these ambitions.
With the new manufacturing plant, Apisit was able to increase the production capacity from 50 mats a day to 1,500.
SME-D Scale Up programme is open to small and medium-sized enterprises that want to benefit from the training in this value-added approach involving natural rubber. The training will take place at the Price of Songkla University and the owners of rubber-related business can express their interest in the course until Monday.
Apisit said that he was able to increase the production capacity when he secured more orders, both from the home market and overseas, as word spread about the product.
More exposure for the mats was gained from his participation in an exhibition conducted by the SME Development Bank.
“Some of our customers have requested that we produce other types of products, such as the yoga mats and knee supports, as well as baby sleeping bags,” Apisit said.
“This presents an opportunity for us to expand the business, as we also plan to export our products to overseas markets such as Indonesia, and Middle East. We have been engaged in negotiations for beginning the exports and they will start after our new plant begins operations in August.”
Buoyed by this success, Apisit said his venture has been supporting rubber farmers by buying natural rubber from them at between Bt80 and Bt100 per kilogram – far higher than the market price of around Bt48. Apisit’s mats are now selling for Bt999 each.
The growth in the business has enabled him to hire two family members to produce the colourful covers of the mats that are made in Koh Yor district of Songkla province. This creates a unique look to the products.
“This has helped us to differentiate our products from other in the market, and I have registered the copyright for the products. With this approach, our products are unique and create more value for our customers.”