Chinese Character

King of the sands

Meet the man growing tomatoes in the desert

King of the sands

Chai Zaijun in his black tomato plantation

Yu Gong, a character from the Chinese classic work Liezi, is well known for his strong will and constancy. He mustered the support of family and friends to remove two mountains that were blocking access to their village, despite being mocked for his name – which means ‘foolish old man.’

Chai Zaijun – who was born in 1961 in the Northwestern province of Gansu, which covers parts of Gobi, Badain Jaran and Tengger desert – shares a few things in common with the classical character. Chai is dubbed China’s Sand Yu Gong, because of his determination to change the perception that wealth and prosperity cannot be found in the desert. Like Yu Gong, he is fighting against the forces of nature – in his case, the advancing desert in the remote northwestern region of China which threatens the livelihood of the local people.

Chai founded his company Gansu Sanxi Agriculture Forest Technology based on the so-called ‘Sand Industry’ theory introduced in 1984 by Chinese scientist Qian Xuesen (better known as the Father of Chinese Rocketry, see WiC38). Qian believed by using ‘Abundant Light, Little Water, New Technology and High Efficiency’, agriculture could take root in arid land through the appropriate application of modern science. By making full use of solar energy to bring about photosynthesis, coupled with minimal amounts of water, he believed that the sand-based agriculture had the potential to provide the country with new and rich sources of food.

Unlike many other success stories, Chai’s entrepreneurial spirit wasn’t inspired by fame and wealth. He left military service in 1985 after serving for less than two years and landed in civil positions that promised security and stable income.

After saving some money, Chai reviewed his options and was trying to decide whether to go into the property or mining business. An uncle who worked as a manager of an oilfield said to him: “Money – we have none when born into this world and shall take none with us when we die. Have you thought about how otherwise to make your life more meaningful?”

Chai was reminded of the harshness people at home had to endure. While economic development had improved conditions in the hinterland, the standard of living remained poor. On his company website, Chai provided the background on what inspired him – “The vivid childhood memory that has stayed with me, is that of the destitution of the people, in spite of all their hard work. All year round, they are at the mercy of wind and aridness.”

It didn’t take much to convince Chai that he should pursue his business in the ‘sand industry’. He started in the middle of the Hexi Corridor, near the southern ridge of Badain Jilin Desert, where the Gaotai County government willingly carved out 30,000 mu (2,000 hectares) of land for free in 1994. “All it takes is twenty to thirty thousand yuan in investment and a couple of years to improve the quality of the soil,” Sanlian Life Weekly quotes Chai as saying.

But it wasn’t that simple. A couple years on, the seedlings of various plants grew only by a few centimetres, if at all. Meanwhile, Chai was running out of cash. He had to sell his house and two cars, and became the subject of ridicule among friends and family (something that Yu Gong had once endured too.) But he pressed on, and visited nine provinces in six weeks, learning about ways agriculture survived in different places in extreme conditions, according to Guangming Daily. He continued to study methods to make cultivation work in soil rich in alkali salts, as well as looking at agricultural techniques for water conservation. He also tried growing hundreds of different species of trees, including the cypress variety and the willow.

Encouraging results started to show after 2000. Of over 600 types of trees Chai experimented with, a third were successfully cultivated. Meanwhile, he also tried growing crops including fruit, flowers and vegetables. In particular he hybridised a South American tomato, adapting it to the local soil. This black tomato has great nutritional value – being seven times as rich in the antioxidant lycopene as a standard tomato. Crucially it also requires 30% less water than wheat to grow.

Gradually, both Chai and his work began to receive recognition. In 2003, he became a member of the Political Consultative Conference of Gaotai County. In 2004, his company was invited by the government to participate in a greenery project for highways in semi-arid regions. Grapes and black tomatoes grown by the company won awards in major exhibitions around the country in 2007, paving the way for a bigger break the following year. The company was appointed as the supplier for black tomatoes for events around the Beijing Olympics, including major state banquets. Chai himself was elected as an NPC delegate for Gansu province.

The black tomatoes have proven popular in major coastal cities, where a kilogram can sell for as much as Rmb70, the Gansu Agriculture Daily reported. If he sells out his crop this year, he reckons he could make Rmb50 million. In recent years, the company has built four other sites for cultivation and research. With a total asset base estimated at around Rmb500 million, it works with major academic and government institutions in China and overseas. Meanwhile, Chai has won numerous medals, including ‘The Star of Chinese Patriotism.’

‘The desert is a friend of humankind, not an enemy,’ Chai concludes. But he accepts that it will be some time before the market he has helped develop will become a sizeable industry.

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