“Eat it fresh and you feel like 20 again!,” jokes 64-year-old Lormakwan as she explains the process of Keropok Ikan making. A snack derived from sardines, Keropok Ikan is a local delicacy commonly found in Thailand’s southern provinces.
After mincing the fish into a paste, it is fried into crispy crackers which can be eaten or used as an ingredient to complement other dishes such as spicy fish soup. Keropok Ikan is particularly popular amongst the Malay community, a sizeable minority ethnic group in southern Thailand that practices Islam.
Lormakwan is part of this community and participates actively as the Deputy Chairperson of the Ranong Province Cultural Committee. A woman keen on improving the lives of others, she set up a community based organization called the Kampuan Group together with co-founder, Jariya. Both women are affectionately referred to as “Mah” (meaning mother) and “Jah” (meaning sister) respectively by its members.
Focused on women’s empowerment, the Kampuan Group brings together women from all walks of life and equips them with skills to improve their livelihoods. This is done through the organization of vocational trainings such as halal soap-making and the production of sweet snacks which can be sold for income.
While most members are regular housewives seeking to acquire new skills and become breadwinners for their families, a small number are also disadvantaged women who are part of the “Thai Diaspora”, a term used by the Royal Thai Government to refer to “displaced persons with Myanmar nationality and Thai race” along the Thai-Myanmar border. While several individuals possess identity documents that provide them access to healthcare, education and job opportunities in the province, others are stateless and have very limited opportunities.
Both groups are currently undergoing the naturalization process as part of the Royal Thai Government’s efforts to end statelessness by 2024. Since 2012, over 30,000 stateless individuals and persons with semi-legal status have gained Thai citizenship.
To help improve the livelihoods of the Thai Diaspora and promote women’s empowerment, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, provided financial support to the Kampuan Group as part of a community stabilization project funded by the European Union. Funds were used to purchase cooking equipment and carry out a training for 20 women in Suksamran district to make Keropok Ikan.
One of those who have benefitted from the initiative is 28-year-old Rainah, a mother of three and home-based seamstress. Born to a Myanmar mother and a Thai father, her nationality was not verified until a few years ago. “Before I received Thai citizenship, life was stressful as I could not go out to work for fear of being caught. I could not even register the birth of my first child”, she explains. “Though my situation is much better now, my family still needs to be frugal. Kerepok Ikan making provides me the opportunity to have a proper job which is something I always wanted.”
Rainah regularly joins a group of women from the Kampuan Group after sending her children to school. At the organization, the process of making Kerepok Ikan is communal in nature with each woman taking on leading roles in the running of the business. Rainah oversees production and operates the machinery while other women focus on maintenance, marketing and sales.
In November 2017, the group started selling the fish crackers at the monthly provincial Muslim food fair. The activity earns them an average of 4,200 baht (USD 130) per day, an substantial figure given that the daily minimum wage in Thailand is 310 baht (USD 9.50).
While earning additional income is a prime motivator, the women also enjoy the social interaction they have with each other while working together. “Everybody is enthusiastic throughout the process from production to sales. We enjoy the fruit of our labour” says Jariya. “I love cooking but I also enjoy the company of the women in the Kampuan Group. I’ve made many friends.”, Rainah happily adds.
Though none of the women have had prior business experience, they have taken on an entrepreneurial mindset and are constantly looking for ways to improve sales as well as their recipes. “At first we set the price to be at 35 baht per piece and 100 baht for three but later found that lowering the price to 25 baht per piece and 100 baht for four is better as customers prefer smaller portions”, explains Lormakwan.
The group hopes to increase production of the fish crackers and sell them at wholesale prices to increase sales. Plans are also underway to sell the products in neighbouring Phang Nga province as well as in Kawthaung in Myanmar where many Muslim communities reside.
This story was posted by Dechadhorn Seehabutr and Reuben Lim, IOM Bangkok, Thailand.