Pinduoduo’s Purpose-Led Agri-Tech Innovation: A Conversation with Xin Yi Lim
This tech company focuses on farmer productivity while reducing the environmental footprint of farming.
E-commerce continues to surge globally, in part accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in many ways, China leads the charge. While some Chinese companies, such as Alibaba and Meituan, have focused on building ecosystems and “super apps,” Pinduoduo’s approach differs. With origins in agriculture and social commerce, Pinduoduo has risen to the top through an innovative business model that is set on creating value for both the merchant and the consumer. In 2020, Pinduoduo was ranked third by GMV of China’s e-commerce platforms, with a total GMV of $242 billion USD.
Prophet’s Tom Zhang, a senior engagement manager, had the chance to sit down with Xin Yi Lim, Pinduoduo’s executive director of sustainability and agricultural impact, to discuss Pinduoduo’s investment in agri-tech, its view on the consumer-to-manufacturer (C2M) model and the company’s ongoing purpose-led innovation initiatives.
Xin Yi Lim
Executive Director of Sustainability and Agricultural Impact
As Pinduoduo’s executive director of sustainability and agricultural impact, Xin Yi Lim is responsible for Pinduoduo’s international corporate strategy efforts and innovation in sustainability and agri-tech. Before joining Pinduoduo in late 2018, she worked for Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund, GIC, in both its Singapore and New York offices as a technology and media analyst in the Public Equities division. Xin Yi holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oxford and a master’s degree from Harvard University.
Can you tell us a bit more about your background? What brought you to Pinduoduo, and what is your current role there?
I’ve spent most of my working life in investment, covering technology, the internet and media. As a financial analyst and an outsider, I was familiar with Chinese e-commerce but very much interested in learning more.
I joined Pinduoduo in late 2018. I’m part of the broader strategy and investment team, but my title is quite unusual – executive director of sustainability and agricultural impact. It’s very hard to find anybody else who has those two things in one title, which speaks to how Pinduoduo sees agriculture. For us, it’s where we can have a huge impact in the social sphere, via poverty alleviation and job creation, and in the environmental sphere as well.
What is Pinduoduo’s ambition behind its continued focus on agriculture, even as the company has expanded into numerous other categories?
In the beginning, there was Pinduoduo and there was also Pinhaohuo (拼好货), which was focused solely on agricultural goods. We merged the two in 2016, and as a result, agriculture remained deeply rooted in our DNA. Even as we grew into selling other categories of goods, agriculture stayed at the forefront as a sector where we could have a large-scale impact and accelerate change.
As a technology company, we’re constantly thinking about how we can disseminate agricultural technologies to improve farmer productivity while reducing the environmental footprint of farming. By leveraging these technologies, customers can get the same product, or perhaps even one that is more nutritious, while reducing the environmental impact. Broadly, that’s how Pinduoduo thinks about agriculture, technology and sustainability.
As a platform, where can Pinduoduo have the biggest impact in the agricultural value chain?
The way agricultural products make their way to market – the distribution channel – has not yet been transformed as it has for other categories. We estimate only about 7% to 8% of the total dollar value of agricultural products transacted in a year is happening online.
That caught our attention because we know shifting online can unlock a lot of efficiencies in the supply chain. Through the Pinduoduo model, we are able to bring the produce directly from farmers to customers, cutting down on any unnecessary intermediaries in between. And by doing this, the farmer can earn more while the consumer can save more. It becomes a win-win for the producers and the consumers.
“As a technology company, we’re constantly thinking about how we can disseminate agricultural technologies to improve farmer productivity while reducing the environmental footprint of farming.”
The knock-on effect is also more prevalent now that the farmers are more plugged into the economy. This is because they have a direct sense of what their target consumers like. They can understand how consumers respond to certain pricing or packaging if there is stronger demand for large oranges versus small oranges or how demand changes throughout the year. We want to empower farmers so that they’re not just price-takers in the traditional distribution model, but instead, can be more actively involved in producing what consumers actually want. This is where we can add value and how we bring the C2M model to life.
Can you elaborate on how Pinduoduo incorporates the C2M model in its overall strategy?
In China, there is a very strong manufacturing base on the supply side. However, the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) often lack the expertise and insights to create distinctive brand identities and value propositions that connect with their consumers. Thus, we are coming up with new ways to enable domestic producers to leverage their own IP, understand consumer needs and create products and brands that resonate with the market.
Our New Brands Initiative, launched in late 2018, is one way we are bringing this to life. We have dedicated vertical specialists who work with manufacturers from each category, sharing emerging market and consumer trends with the goal of turning manufacturers from OEMs to Original Brand Manufacturers (OBMs). Based on these category trends as well as their own merchant data we provide via the platform, merchants are able to adjust their offerings accordingly and consider how to upgrade their marketing. That’s also where brand building begins. Brands can’t be everything to everyone, so by providing insights and narrowing the focus, C2M can help manufacturers develop their own value propositions and their own brands.
China has the benefit of having one of the highest levels of penetration of e-commerce. This speeds everything up, from product development to pricing to SKU assortment, by allowing manufacturers to get feedback in real-time.
Can you give a few examples of some of the initiatives Pinduoduo is undertaking in terms of innovation?
Pinduoduo is training a new generation of agri-entrepreneurs. In the past five years, we’ve trained one hundred thousand “new farmers,” a younger, more educated generation that is migrating back to their hometowns, and we’re committed to training one hundred thousand more. These are the ones who are managing the storefront, packaging, customer service and distribution and at the same time, they are also mobilizing the rest of their rural communities to join them in the digital economy. We bring business expertise via online and offline classes and then partner with institutions such as China Agricultural University to teach agricultural knowledge. Through these agri-entrepreneurs, we’re hoping to start improving the branding of agricultural goods in China, which is very undeveloped.
Our long-term goal is to bring in more upstream, purpose-led innovation. We’re in year two of hosting the Smart Agriculture Competition. We bring together global technology teams with backgrounds in AI, machine learning and plant science to compete against traditional, premium horticulture teams. We then put these teams in a smart greenhouse that they control remotely using IoT, monitoring the plants and making precise adjustments whenever needed. In last year’s competition, the AI teams produced three times as many strawberries and generated 76% higher ROI compared to the traditional teams. Not only was it very impressive to the farmers, but some of the technology experts also went on to work with the farmers after the competition. The Smart Agriculture Competition creates an opportunity to test the teams’ technologies on a bigger scale. At the same time, the farmers benefit from the efficiencies and see the real-world impact.
Pinduoduo has referred to itself as a “Costco+Disney” concept. Can you elaborate on what this means and how it guides Pinduoduo’s innovation and strategy?
The Costco+Disney concept ties in with Pinduoduo’s slogan: More Savings, More Fun (多实惠，多乐趣). The Costco part, “more savings,” comes from our early insight that we could get more value for money by aggregating demand. The Disney part, “more fun,” speaks to people’s desire for a social shopping experience.
We designed Pinduoduo to be very interactive. The app offers a social connection that helps users discover things more easily compared to the traditional e-commerce model, which is very individualistic. The “team purchase” model is a big part of the social element. Livestreaming serves as another interactive element, which helps build trust between consumers and merchants. It allows them to see how things are made, how it looks, which helps consumers feel closer to the producers, creating trust.
We don’t want shopping to feel like a chore. We want it to be a fun part of your daily routine. Within the e-commerce industry, we’ve achieved one of the highest engagement rates in terms of monthly active users and daily active users. By emphasizing more savings and more fun, we’ve found a way for users to engage willingly and regularly.
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