By Wang Zhe
The Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in northwestern China is thousands of miles away from Malaysia. However, the long distance between the two places feels shortened by a bowl of Muslim instant rice that has grown extremely popular in Malaysia. This packaged meal was made possible by Hu Xuewen, a local entrepreneur in Ningxia.
Xingning 1: High-quality Rice Equal to Thai Jasmine Rice
Hu, now in his 50s, has physical features typical of men in northwestern China: a burly physique, a deep voice and suntanned skin, as well as a trustworthy and forthright personality. He serves as Party chief, chairman and general manager of the Ningxia Zhonghang Zhengfei Saiwaixiang Halal Food Company.
After he got laid off in 2001, Hu decided to start his own business. Together with three other laid-off workers, he founded Saiwaixiang in Ningxia’s Qingtongxia City. They raised 1.3 million yuan (US$195,000), made up of bank loans and a 400,000 yuan (US$60,000) loan from Hu.
Ningxia rice is noted for its high yield and excellent quality. It features a roundish, plump shape, stainless color, glossy skin and a sweet smell. In addition, it is known for its nutritional benefits, with high protein content. At the source of the nine key canals of the Yellow River, Qingtongxia has long been reputed as the “Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River) on the Frontier” and the “Home of Tribute Rice”. Additionally, the city is a national production base for commodity grains and has a 6,667-hectare base for high-quality rice and wheat approved by the China Green Food Development Center (CGFDC). The white polished rice produced in Qingtongxia appears to be glossily semitransparent and plump, hence its nickname “pearl rice.” It has won fame nationwide.
Formerly an employee at a grain processing enterprise, Hu is well aware of the brand advantages of Ningxia rice. He has collaborated with educational and research institutions such as the Crop Research Institute under the Ningxia Academy of Agriculture and Forestry Sciences, Northwest Agriculture & Forestry University, the Agricultural Technology Promotion Department and Agricultural Machinery Bureau of Qingtongxia and the High-quality Rice Industrialization Cooperative to establish several high-quality rice and wheat breeding bases, as well as new-variety demonstration zones. They have introduced new varieties from ASEAN countries, including Thailand, for experimental planting. Some of these initially experimental crops are now widely popular, creating new varieties with unique scents, including “Xingning 1”. The Saiwaixiang rice and wheat flour they developed have been recognized as “Green Food” by CGFDC and have enjoyed honorable titles such as a “Famous Product of Ningxia”, a “Famous Trademark of Ningxia” and one of “Ten Most Famous Muslim Brands of Ningxia”.
After 12 years, Hu has led his company in development from an unremarkable factory to a leading grain enterprise in Ningxia, with assets, outputs, and sales all surpassing 100 million yuan (US$15 million). Even so, Hu was not satisfied with domestic sales alone, but set his sights on the international market, especially the markets of ASEAN countries with large Muslim populations.
As China’s only autonomous region for the Hui people, Ningxia shares many similarities in culture and customs with ASEAN’s Muslim countries, Hu said. Malaysia’s Halal food standards are widely recognized by Muslim countries around the world. After Chinese leaders proposed the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Initiative, Hu began to target the ASEAN Muslim food market. After a thorough market survey, the Saiwaixiang Muslim instant rice and nutritious rice juice were launched in the Malaysian market, filling a market gap. With Malaysia as a foothold, Saiwaixiang products have attracted eyes of dealers from other Muslim countries.
Friendship with Former Malaysian Prime Minister
Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Malaysia’s former prime minister, is an old friend of the Chinese people, and is a frequent visitor to China. During his trips to Ningxia, he was impressed by the autonomous region’s magnificent natural landscapes, beautiful cityscapes, thriving countryside and unique Hui culture.
Hu met Badawi when he served as a member of the Advisory Commission of the China-Arab States Expo. The two soon became friends. Years later, Hu reached out to Badawi during a visit to Malaysia and invited him to visit Saiwaixiang. In the spring of 2015, after attending that year’s Boao Forum for Asia, Badawi headed a Malaysian delegation visiting Ningxia. During the trip, Badawi visited the Saiwaixiang Headquarters in Qingtongxia, where he and Hu discussed the internationalization of Halal food.
Badawi showed particular interest in Saiwaixiang’s Muslim instant rice project, and spoke highly of the taste and convenience of instant rice. He told Hu that as a unique product, Halal instant rice has a bright future in Muslim countries, and is set to become a good docking point for China-Malaysia cooperation. This will also help quicken Ningxia’s Halal food’s integration into the international market. Badawi gave advice on the internationalization of taste and packaging of Saiwaixiang products.
Thanks to the support and help of Badawi and others from ASEAN countries, Hu, representing Saiwaixiang, and Akram Youseff, executive chairman of the International Malaysia Arab Frontier Group (IMAF), signed a Halal instant rice sale agreement valued at US$53 million on June 26, 2015. The agreement authorized IMAF to sell Saiwaixiang Halal food in Middle Eastern countries, marking Saiwaixiang’s first step toward the Middle Eastern market. It is expected that exports—valued at more than 300 million yuan (US$45 million)—will benefit grain processing, vegetable planting, animal husbandry, transportation and employment across Ningxia.
Hu’s plans, meanwhile, are even more ambitious. He hopes to build China’s largest halal food export base, targeting ASEAN and other Muslim countries by taking advantage of the Ningxia Integrated Bonded Zone and the Ningxia Inland Open-up Pilot Economic Zone. He also wants to better utilize the China-Arab States Expo, and actively integrate his products into the Belt and Road Initiative, thus bringing Saiwaixiang to more dinner tables across the Muslim world.