Nanning at the SE Asian e-commerce crossroads

When it comes to e-commerce in Southeast Asia, Lazada, one of the biggest e-commerce sites, now has a livestreaming base in Nanning.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By XU Shiqi


ZHUO Bingyue’s followers in Thailand are curious about her life in China, and she sometimes tries to explain Chinese internet buzzwords to them when going live. A good one is zhongcao, literally planting grass, which in the context of online shopping means preparing to buy.

Born and raised in Thailand, Zhuo went to college in the Southwestern city of Nanning. She is now an e-commerce entrepreneur there. Nanning, with a population of 8 million, is an unlikely commerce hub. The primary industries are agriculture and food processing, but it is at a crossroads of trade between China and Southeast Asia.

Five years ahead

In the streets of Nanning, you can hear a hubbub of Chinese, English and Zhuang. Shop signs are in Vietnamese and Khmer. Everyone has their favorite Thai restaurant. Although the infrastructure is nothing special, there's no shortage of people who speak languages and know the markets.

Zhuo came to Nanning for college because tuition is lower in China. The food tastes familiar. And Zhuang is similar to Thai. She found a job in Thailand after college but returned to Nanning and started a company.

“At first I thought it would be just speaking in front of a camera. How difficult could it be? But you'd be surprised. You have to know your customers —men or women, how old, where they are, etc.,” she said.

She represents Thai companies trying to get a foothold in the Chinese market – in her opinion, China’s e-commerce is “at least five years ahead of Thailand” and it is much easier to sell Thai goods to China than the other way around.

When it comes to e-commerce in Southeast Asia, China is a topic that cannot be avoided. The Chinese diaspora was among the first to shop online here. And Lazada, one of the biggest local e-commerce sites, is partially owned by Alibaba. It now has a livestreaming base in Nanning, which connects local sellers with one another as well as to resources in China and Southeast Asia.

Zhuo plans to hire from local colleges, full of young people who know both markets – either Chinese students trained in Southeast Asian languages or Southeast Asian students studying business in China.

She learned how to manage businesses at a training event at Lazada. Participants were assigned products and competed to sell through livestreaming. In her case, the assignment was instant Luosifen, a stinky noodle soup wildly popular in Guangxi but rarely consumed in Thailand.

“My viewers in Thailand probably think of it as an adventurous food because of the smell. So I told them how popular it is in Nanning. I talked about where to eat the best Luosifen, and what side dishes usually accompany it,” she said. “But funnily enough, my viewers didn't really care about the product itself. They asked me about China, and what's trending here.” In the first few sessions, her sales were not high, but she got more viewers than expected.

Happy to get started

The instant Luosifen is made by Guangxi State Farms, a state-owned food processor. During the pandemic, the company started consumer brands, which allow for higher markups.

LI Yin is in charge of its export business at Guangxi State Farms. “We are on Douyin, Kuaishou and WeChat. Honestly, Luosifen tastes quite similar across different brands, and Chinese customers pretty much just buy from whoever offers the lowest price.

Southeast Asian customers, especially those who shop online, are more discerning, Li said. Local prices are low. And young people have money to spare. Li hosts live sessions for viewers in Malaysia. In her experience, if customers are interested in the products, they buy them even if they are a little pricey.

Although she sells only a few thousand dollars of Luosifen each session, she is happy to "get things started." The online channel, however, is only a springboard to the Southeast Asian market. Eventually, Guangxi State Farm wants to be carried by large local supermarket chains there. This may not be good news for companies like Lazada who have poured money into making an e-commerce hub out of Nanning.

Power over the border

Another hurdle is how to convince talented people to stay. A job that requires fluent Thai pays twice as much in Shanghai as in Nanning, for example. But eventually, Nanning’s future depends on how quickly e-commerce spreads in Southeast Asia.

By some estimates, 80 percent of people in Southeast Asia shop online, and most do it regularly. Sales of live stream e-commerce increased fourfold this year, and the market is on track to reach US$19 billion next year. This means more work for sellers like Zhuo Bingyue.