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Business with a Heart

PhatRice founders  
The PhatRice founders (left to 
right): Anthony Lance, Business Development; Neil Chan, Web Development; Matthew 
Davies, Marketing

For Matthew Davis and Anthony Lance, launching China businesses for a Fortune 100 company was a career highlight. But after five years in Asia, the American sales and marketing executives yearned to do something more meaningful.

The path led them to founding PhatRice, a Hong Kong-based e-retail start-up providing environmentally and socially responsible products and services.

“Having travelled extensively throughout Asia, we became aware of the extreme social and environmental challenges faced by local communities,” Mr Lance said. “Through research, we discovered that there were, in fact, many initiatives that had been started to help address these issues. But despite their great intentions, they lacked the sales and marketing skills to take their development projects to the next level.”

The two saw their professional backgrounds as the missing piece in the puzzle. 

Social Mission

 Market bags from Bez and Oho are made from discarded rice bags
 Market bags from Bez and Oho are made from discarded rice bags
After raising about US$100,000 seed funding from individual Chinese investors to cover website development costs, they launched PhatRice last month. In partnership with philanthropic initiatives that share the same mission, the website promotes social good and environmental protection and innovation through sourcing and selling products made by social enterprises, green groups and creative designers.

Mr Lance cited a 2013 Nielsen global survey, which found that more than 50 per cent of global consumers surveyed are willing to pay more for socially responsible products. “People are increasingly aware that what they spend on should carry a value they believe in.”

Socially conscious consumerism has deep roots in the United States, he said, and “we strongly believe that Hong Kong, as an international city with excellent logistics infrastructure, is the right place to be PhatRice’s launching pad to reach Asia and, eventually, the world.”

He added that Hong Kong is also close to the Chinese mainland, “an important source of goods as well as potential funding for PhatRice.”

The online shop now offers about 50 products developed by six product partners. It plans to have 50 partners in its first year of operation and expand the list from there.

Innovative Partners

The Emi & Eve peace bracelet is made from recycled bullet casings 
The Emi & Eve peace bracelet is made from recycled bullet casings 
Current partners include Emi & Eve - Bullets to Beauty, a Cambodian company that makes fashion jewellery and handbags out of recycled bullet casings left over from the war; Bez and Oho, a Hong Kong company that collects discarded rice bags and recycles them into bags, purses, backpacks, iPad holders, and wallets; and Portovelo, a Hong Kong-based shoe company, whose proceeds go towards providing meals for impoverished school children in Mongolia.

The stories behind the products are important, according to Mr Lance, who remains moved by a summer internship spent in China’s Yunnan Province. There, he sourced for a small company looking to buy and export local minority group hand-made products. After spending months talking to and working with mountain communities, he realised that without a way to help tell their story and find a market for their products, such minorities faced the possibility of seeing their history and culture disappear.

 Portovelo women’s shoe: buying one pair feeds 15 children
 Portovelo women’s shoe: buying one pair feeds 15 children
Mr Lance says his heart “never left those mountains. I could not get away from the deep feeling that, if people around the world only knew their story, they would want to buy these products and support the local communities. But the world is a big place, so the task seemed almost too impossible at the time.”

Overwhelming Response

Anthony Lance with Annalisa Ryle 
Anthony Lance with Annalisa Ryle, founder and owner of Bez & Oho 
Early this year, the founders and their eight-person team visited local markets and pop-up shops and attended special events in Hong Kong, Taiwan and the mainland looking for product partners. “In almost every case, the product designers or developers have had to resort to crowdfunding platforms, including Kickstarter or Indiegogo, to raise awareness. But few have their own website and very few have any idea how to do effective online and social media marketing,” said Mr Lance.

PhatRice provides that. Even in its early stages, the site has received an “overwhelming” number of requests from product developers from all over Asia hoping to be featured.

For its part, PhatRice “must become an engaging community of inspired consumers, so that these developers who are truly working to have real impact in local communities can make their programmes successful and sustainable,” said Mr Lance

The site features the stories behind the products, inviting established retailers and local celebrities to partner as ambassadors for socially and environmentally responsible product ranges.

Thinking Big

“Our aim is to raise a further US$1 million, with the goal of becoming a global business very quickly,” said Mr Lance, who noted that plans include developing a B2B side of the business and, possibly, a retail arm.

“PhatRice is not a social enterprise, not a not-for-profit. We are in this to be a profitable, sustainable and scalable business. We are looking for a dynamic investor who believes in not only making a great return on a business, but at the same time having a real social and environmental impact.”

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