How to import from Thailand - Neat's

Sarinya Renton is the founder of Neat's,  a company creating wholesome and delicious Thai rice snacks. One of the most vital parts is the rice that crafts the product - there's no compromising on it, so it needs to come from Thailand itself. Here she talks about the process of sourcing ingredients from outside the UK, and using them to create a fantastic product.

The UK is one of the main markets for exporters from many countries across the world. Immigration has also shaped the UK food industry within the last decade, making it a diverse and vibrant place where world food can be seen on every street corner of the country. I was born and grew up in Thailand, and the longer I live in the UK, the more I realise that Thailand has great potential to be a world kitchen. Our tropical soil and very fertile soil generates a broad and exciting range of fruits and vegetables, making it a fantastic option for anyone seeking to import.

Why import?

Spending time walking along supermarket and grocery store aisles is a regular activity for me. It's not only to perform casual market research and to find out if there are any interesting products available on the shelves, but I also like reading labels on the back of packaging to learn more about the products that intrigue me. When I glance at the “country of origin” area on the back of packaging, often it says “Produce of Thailand”. There are now many processed food products that were originally manufactured in Thailand, some of which are operating under well-known British brands on mainstream supermarket shelves such as coconut water, coconut oil, juice, dried fruits, etc.

Thailand has been one of the top five rice exporters globally for many decades; surprisingly however, although we produce a lot of grain rice, we export very few of the processed rice-based products - even though processing food is a way to add more value into products, and there are a broad range of rice-based products consumed traditionally by Thai people. The realisation that the delicious rice-based snacks we take for granted in Thailand don't exist here gave us the inspiration to bring them to the UK. In the future, international trade will bring even more of these products to the UK and beyond, the same way we have chips and crisps in Thailand. However, as the rice cakes are different to other products in the UK, they require unique ingredients too.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a town where the rice-based product manufacturers are intensively located, including the leading international version of the rice crackers which I make in my business today. Even though rice is the most common crop grown in South East Asia, including Thailand, our version of rice crackers requires a little bit of skilled work in the initial stages - that’s the reason why we call our product a form of art, and a 'grain-crafted' product. As a result the raw material is available only in this region, and so we need to source it and bring it to the UK.

How we import

As I myself am both an exporter and importer, it's important that I know thoroughly the ins and outs of the whole process. To export the raw materials from Thailand is not particularly complicated, but it requires a raft of exporting documents. To import to the UK I have chosen a shipping company to conduct the procedure on my behalf, in order to simplify the process - a good option if you will be importing regularly. As this type of material has been withdrawn from the GSP list of UK import duty no particular paperwork is required on this end of the process, but instead that means I have to pay the import duty at a higher rate. And although the shipping company now do this documentation for me, initially I had to find out all the information about the import regulations including the commodity code, duty rate, tread tariff etc. by myself. It can take quite some time to get to grips with all the things you need, but you will come across many useful things along the way and it's essential to learn this sort of stuff if you wish to run an international business - understanding the process means that if you run up against problems, you're in a good position to solve them. There's plenty advice from bodies such as UKTI.

Some ingredients we get directly from the importer in the UK, and some of them are already available on the market. From the beginning when I was making the rice crackers in my kitchen, I had to create flavours according to the availability of natural ingredients as I could only afford to buy in small quantities. Some types of ingredients require a minimum order, which was impossible at that stage - this is an important point to bear in mind if your product depends upon importing ingredients.

In general, many importing businesses will try to pay as little as possible in return for a good quality of raw materials in order to maximize profit. But one of our core business objectives is to create a sustainable and fair business. We are concerned about the welfare of workers who are mainly villagers, some of whom are members of rice farmer families. One the benefits of importing our raw materials is that we can give back to the community by making it a priority to ensure that the workers will receive a very fair wage, and to keep the community producing rice-based products for as long as we can.

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