Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators

Interview with Akkanut Wantanasombut – founder of community-based social and solidarity economy platform

“Spotlight Interviews with Co-operators” is a series of interviews with co-operators from around the world with whom ILO officials have crossed paths in the course of their work on cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy (SSE). On this occasion, ILO interviewed Akkanut Wantanasombut, researcher at the Institute of Asia Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and founder of “Tamsang-Tamsong”, a community-based social and solidarity economy platform.

Article | 23 February 2023

Could you tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the social and solidarity economy?

My name is Akkanut Wantanasombat. I'm a researcher at the Institute of Asian Studies in Chulalongkorn University and founder of "Tamsang-Tamsong," a community-based delivery platform that aims to create a business model that benefits stakeholders in the ecosystem. This vision is aligned with the social and solidarity economy (SSE) approach that is outlined in the ILC resolution concerning decent work and the SSE.

Could you tell us about your motivation for starting the “Tamsang-Tamsong,” community-based social and solidarity economy platform?

I have been researching platform economy for years, mainly focusing on its impact on workers being affected by a new form of work in general and those working for platform companies in particular. I found that stakeholders in the platform model, consumers included, tend to be exploited by the platform companies. And the platform companies themselves also lose in the process. They invest large amounts of money to create network effects, to reach economies of scale and increase the number of users. In the end, nobody benefits. In the case of Thailand, this was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the government had a lockdown policy. People could not leave their houses, so they ordered food from delivery platforms. Many restaurants had no choice but to join food delivery applications to survive. At the same time, those who became unemployed due to the pandemic affected economy joined food delivery companies as riders.

The food delivery business has grown due to the pandemic. Platform companies increased their commissions from restaurants which in turn caused them to raise their food prices. At the same time, platform companies also reduced riders' wages. All these matters made me realize we need a better and fairer business model. I came up with the idea of creating a co-owned food delivery and ride-hailing platform where stakeholders in the ecosystem can operate according to benefits that members and community will receive, beyond profit. This is aligned with the SSE principles and values as outlined in the ILC resolution.

Creating a platform is not very difficult – but making it fair for all stakeholders, especially with the economic activity involving many stakeholders is. For our first pilot, we tried a multi-stakeholder cooperative. We invited three parties, namely, restaurant owners, riders, and consumers, to participate in the meeting to agree on the process.

Later, we designed the platform according to these agreements. We facilitated discussions so that different parties can learn main lessons from other parties. We then decided on working procedures, delivery fees, operation costs, and co-contribution. Since our model is community-based, we managed to solve problems that the profit-driven platform cannot. For instance, the consumers can order food from three restaurants in one order because the restaurant in the neighbourhood is not far, while big platform only allows the consumer to order food from one restaurant per order. This helps us reduce the transaction cost.

There is no conflict between stakeholders because we have a rotation administrator on standby to help if someone needs it. We have workshops for restaurant owners, mostly elders, and motorcycle taxi drivers, who need to familiarise themselves with the technology. We invite local bank branches to open a bank account and introduce mobile banking with help from volunteer students from Chulalongkorn University.

All these activities create positive unintended outcomes, which we believe will lead to improved well-being for the wider community. Since our first pilot initiative in June 2020, we are now working in different communities in Bangkok and provinces. Our challenge is to find proper procedures that can apply to other communities with different social contexts. With the lessons learned, we can expand, scale up, and even work with other enterprises to revamp into SSE entities.

In your experience what are the benefits and opportunities of platform cooperatives?

I have no doubt that principles of cooperatives benefit the society. SSE principles are aligned with the seven cooperative principles. Adopting cooperative principles to the new form of business in the platform economy is beneficial to the community and would help solve many problems created by the platform business model. However, from my experience, there are many issues we have to deal with. In Thailand, cooperative laws are outdated. There are too many regulations to set up a legal cooperative, especially with the platform economy. We can apply cooperative principles to other business entities, which is what we are doing to promote the social and solidarity economy. So, in my opinion, I have no doubt about the benefits, and there are unexplored opportunities to introduce cooperative principles to platform businesses under the context of the social and solidarity economy.

The world of work is undergoing substantial changes with digitalization, climate change, demographic changes, and crises. What do you see as the role of cooperatives and the wider social and solidarity economy in this changing context?

I think we are facing the biggest challenge in history, with multiple crises. We must consider the underlying cause of all these crises. In my opinion, the main obstacle to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is inequality in all aspects. We have to tackle the inequality issues so that we can achieve the SDGs.

But it is impossible to reduce inequality if we do nothing about our current situation, especially our economic ecosystem. I believe the cooperative principles, social and solidarity economy, or other alternative ideas like stakeholders’ capitalism would play an essential role in enhancing society and our world. It promotes participation and democracy in the workplace, makes us more concerned about other stakeholders including the environment, and makes us focus on a broader perspective of benefits we would get from economic activities rather than a narrow scope of profit.