As internet companies in China transition to less heady development in light of stricter regulations, new approaches that are green, low-carbon, and equitable are in the driving seat. Agriculture, a key industry less sprinkled with tech stardust than others, is now accumulating resources from real estate, internet, and venture capital investors.

Online shopping company Pinduoduo is already heavily invested in agritech. In August 2021, it established a “10 Billion Agriculture Initiative” to support groundbreaking research in the industry. Alibaba and also have ambitious plans in agricultural technology and are increasingly involved in the agricultural industry chain. Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sibling, encourages farmers across the country to livestream the sale of agricultural products.

Compared with other advanced economies, agriculture in China is mainly still a small farm business. There is plenty of room to improve agriculture’s grasp of marketization, technology, and economies of scale. But what is really behind the enthusiasm of China’s internet giants to enter the industry?

Policy orientated: rural revitalization

While many industries are approaching competitive saturation in China, farming is still a “blue ocean” open to innovation. Long returns on investment and low levels of centralization in the industry may put investors off, but agriculture is a promising industry that chimes with the country’s theme of “common prosperity,” as well as on national targets on carbon peaking and neutrality. With diverse players ranging from global companies to privately owned small businesses and self-employed workers, agriculture is suitable for broad participation.

In 2022, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs proposed, in light of a campaign to promote rural revitalization, a focus on building a number of key industry chains and model counties that would showcase advanced production of staple foods and specialty goods. These are all part of the long-term plan for China to modernize its vast rural areas.

Professor Li Ganghua, a doctoral supervisor at Nanjing Agricultural University, has presided over and participated in many national-level projects. In his opinion, the country has two priorities in agriculture: food security and a clean ecology. Agriculture may well give long-term and slow returns, but each crop has its own characteristics. Rice, which is controlled by the state, is a universal crop with stable prices and yields. High-tech vegetable growing is a labor-intensive industry in which yields have increased several times over the past decade while prices have fluctuated widely, impacted by numerous factors.

Apart from aligning themselves with the Chinese government’s development goal, Chinese tech giants are also looking into agriculture for potential untapped growth. Gao Kangping, editor-in-chief of the agricultural service and news platform, believes that in addition to fulfilling social responsibilities, internet companies entering farming are motivated by technology spillover and market development. “Technology in major companies is relatively mature and digital technology is ready to help farm products and rural scenarios, both in hardware and services,” Gao says. “First- and second-tier markets are saturated, but rural market penetration remains low, and there is a lot of space for development. Getting into the industry early will likely bring benefits.”

Leveraging e-commerce to assist farmers

E-commerce promotional events are the mode most used by internet giants to support agricultural sales, and they’ve brought billions of consumers to participating farmers, driving prosperity.

E-commerce shopping festivals in June (6.18 festival) and November (Singles Day festival) support farmers and small enterprises in achieving multi-dimensional benefits. Last year’s Singles Day shopping festival saw launch a drive to promote 300,000 high-quality agricultural specialties from 2,000 localities and industrial zones across the country. Alibaba’s Tmall issued a “buying one more agricultural product” initiative, urging sellers to put an agricultural product on the shelf of every livestream. Pinduoduo directed online traffic to high-tech agricultural products, subsidizing some of them as part of its 10 Billion Agriculture Initiative.

Besides national shopping festivals, the platforms have also launched farming-specific events. September’s China Farmers Harvest Festival was the first such event established at the national level specifically for farmers. E-commerce companies now all have their own versions of promotional events to support farmers, such as’s Shopping Festival of Agricultural Specialties, Douyin’s Rich Field Harvest Season, Alibaba’s Hot Land Harvest Season, and Pinduoduo’s Golden Autumn Consumer Season (all our translations). This has enabled each to play to its core strengths, and help sell more farm products and grow the industry.

VCearth’s editor-in-chief Gao Kangping is optimistic that the strategy will work. “Creating festivals is how internet companies gather online traffic and marketing resources and use them efficiently. This is good for brands, platforms, and farmers.”

Medium-term strategies

As listed companies, China’s internet giants need to make money for their shareholders. Participating in agriculture is not only a question of social responsibilities but also one of returns. The capital markets will have serious doubts if long-term financial prospects are bleak.

In a recent conference call, a Credit Suisse analyst asked about the impact of the company’s agricultural development strategy on Pinduoduo’s financial statements and the latest developments of the 10 Billion Agricultural Initiative. Chairman and CEO Chen Lei told the bank that agriculture was part of the company’s long-term strategy, and although it was still in its infancy, “we already see a lot of areas to create value.” The company plans to improve product circulation efficiency through technology and help bring more agricultural research products to the market.

Internet giants have a medium-term strategy for the industry, editor Gao says. He explains that their logic and market plans are relatively certain for the next five to ten years, although the measures firms plan to take differ according to the product, service, and capabilities of each company. “In general, they follow their core industry and engage in a moderate extension of the industrial chain.”

Gao thinks internet companies have “three main advantages,” based on his interactions with Alibaba, Tencent, JD, Pinduoduo and other firms making agriculture moves. First, organizational management. As a talent-intensive industry, organization, goal achievement, and execution are much better than in traditional agricultural companies. Second, most internet companies have user numbers in the billions when combining their various products, as well as the technology to solve complex problems. With more understanding of traditional agriculture, these large companies will make for powerful players in the sector. Third, they have the resources — brands, traffic, channels, and capital — that can be leveraged to agriculture’s advantage when needed.

Pinduoduo is one of the most heavily invested and committed internet companies in the agricultural field. This is demonstrated by chairman and CEO Chen Lei’s focus when answering questions at finance meetings. He constantly reminds observers that agriculture is a major part of the platform’s long-term strategy. Some foreign investors already see Pinduoduo as an agriculture-tech enterprise. As for Alibaba and, their investment in agriculture is in the balance, along with social responsibility issues such as supporting the real economy and carbon neutrality.

Technology companies that get involved in agriculture tend to set up similar initiatives. They help with e-commerce, empower supply chains, engage in technological research and development, and carry out personnel training. As they delve deeper into the agricultural industry chain, they work more extensively with local governments, agricultural universities, and international food and agriculture organizations.

In addition, companies have distinctive projects based on their own business advantages, such as Pinduoduo’s new brand plan, Alibaba’s Red Soil Plan, Douyin’s Rich Domain Plan, and’s March to Rich Plan. launched its March to Rich Plan in October 2020, with the aim of establishing a modernized circulation system with a smart supply chain, to encourage high-quality agricultural products and upgrade consumption habits. The plan vowed to drive RMB 1 trillion output value in rural areas in China in three years. As of August 2022, more than RMB 620 billion worth of goods were sold. Millions of farmers benefited as their income shot up. The plan even developed brands in cooperation with local authorities. For example, JD worked with the local government in Suqian in eastern China’s Jiangsu province to incubate the Suqian king crab brand, which was featured on the annual Spring Festival Gala TV show, becoming an overnight hit.

Known for its low prices, Pinduoduo is now also getting a name in agriculture. It reaches deep into the source of the agricultural supply chain, helping sell more agricultural products, while meeting consumer needs. Moreover, it has gotten investors interested. Pinduoduo launched its new brand plan in 2018 to help small companies meet demand via the platform at low cost. Pinduoduo also helped cultivate new brands in step with producers. The company has said it will carry on with this model, expanding to more regions, and incubating up to 500 brands across the agricultural supply chain.

In May 2021, Alibaba upgraded its poverty relief fund to the Red Soil Plan for revitalizing rural areas in terms of technology, industry, and talent. In its 2021 ESG Report, Chairman and CEO Daniel Zhang explained how Alibaba’s investment and exploration would help rural development. Talent development and capacity building were to be a core focus. Alibaba planned to station senior digital managers across the countryside, relieving “pain points” that restricted local development by linking local needs with company resources in a way that “reflects our in-depth thinking and full preparation for the complexity and long-term nature of rural revitalization.”

One expert from Wageningen University, who declined to use their name on the record, explained how they saw the role of agricultural talent in rural revitalization and how China differed from foreign agricultural economies. “When studying in the Netherlands, the most impressive thing to me was the number and quality of farmers. They came to study techniques to solve industrial problems related to their family’s greenhouse, for example.”

Digitizing farming

China’s internet giants are exploring ways to use the platform mindset to change traditional models and enter the upstream of the agricultural industry chain, participating in agricultural production and operations, quality control, and the supply chain. Professor Li Ganghua believes that companies entering the agricultural domain each have their own advantages. “The more assets a company has, the more willing it is to participate from production onwards, so that product quality can be better controlled.”

Organized by China Agricultural University and Pinduoduo, the Duoduo Smart Agriculture Competition has benefited from the guidance of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The competition gives young researchers a platform to showcase their talents and improve standardization and digitization in the agricultural process. Similarly, Tencent and Wageningen University launched an Autonomous Greenhouses International Challenge, in which teams use AI and Internet of Things (IoT) technology to plant cherry tomatoes remotely.

The unnamed Wageningen University expert focuses on crop growth models and greenhouse automation. They said “the interest of internet companies lies in digital agriculture or unmanned cultivation. Essentially, it is to use machines to farm, make and implement decisions. External companies can empower agricultural practitioners in training machine learning and big data analysis.”

Alibaba’s digital agriculture initiatives have focused on plant cultivation. In 2019, Alibaba integrated the agricultural units of Taobao, Tmall, Hema, Cainiao, and Alibaba Cloud to establish a Digital Agriculture Division. In 2020, it released a Digital Rural Operating System. According to the Alibaba 2022 ESG Report, together with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences Institute of Crop Sciences (ICS), Alibaba launched a 3T Smart Cultivation platform, digitizing the cultivation process.

Gao Kangping points to digital farming as the most advanced field for agricultural innovation, with smart cultivation and management having reached all parts of the process, giving rise to many applications and best practices. Data collection and processing were two pain points. The application of agricultural sensors and IoT applications remains low, so it is hard to collect systematic, high-quality data. The second area needing improvement is data application and business modeling. Digital agriculture has the most value when applied to reducing costs and increasing efficiency, but this is difficult to quantify, resulting in a lack of stable models and sustainable profitability.

Mary Ma is a public relations professional. She worked for well-known listed companies in China's tech and real-estate sector, specializing in corporate communications and branding strategies. Connect...