Aus4EqualityGREAT storiesLong-term partnership improves lives in Son La

Long-term partnership improves lives in Son La

Australia’s Ambassador to Vietnam, Ms Robyn Mudie, was delighted when she recently met some of the many ethnic minority women benefiting from the Australian Government-funded Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) Program in Son La Province.

Ms Mudie witnessed how local women have been introduced to high-value agricultural markets and community-based tourism and are increasing their incomes, resilience and self-confidence.

“Together we have achieved very positive results, despite the disruption of COVID-19 for agriculture and tourism businesses. Over 6,500 women from Son La have increased incomes as a result of Australia’s support. Australia is committed to our partnership with the Son La Provincial Government and businesses to strengthen agriculture and tourism, creating more opportunities for ethnic minority women,” Ms Mudie remarked.

Clean bamboo shoot production model

In April 2019, GREAT implemented a clean bamboo shoot production project in Xuan Nha, Tan Xuan and Chieng Xuan communes, in Van Ho District, Son La Province

The Program worked with local NGO, the Centre for Rural Economy Development (CRED), to implement the VNĐ 11 billion (USD 480,000) project. To date, 3,000 people have benefited, with most of these people being from ethnic minority groups.

Ms Lo Thi Nguyen and Xuan Nha Fresh Bamboo Cooperative members

Farmers are trained to establish cooperative groups and to sustainably collect and process natural bamboo shoots in line with organic standards. GREAT also supported the provision of processing tools, workshops, solar-drying houses,  product branding and the marketing of products on e-commerce trading platforms.

Lo Thi Nguyen, Director of the Xuan Nha Clean Bamboo Shoot Cooperative in Tun Village, Xuan Nha Commune, is one of 615 women participating in the project.

“When CRED introduced the bamboo project we were very excited. We subsequently had the chance to meet with Yen Thanh Company and visit their bamboo shoot supply chain in Yen Bai. We discussed the possibility  of replicating that model in our communes,” she said.

Previously, people sold the bamboo shoots as raw materials for a low and unstable price and Nguyen’s Cooperative sold bamboo shoots at VND 4,000 per kg. As part of the GREAT project, Yen Thanh Company committed to buying all the bamboo shoots from the farmers for 20 percent more than the market price, equating to VND 5,000 to 5,500 per kg, depending on the quality.

The processing factory of Xuan Nha Cooperative has the capacity to meet the supply from the planned 1,000 ha bamboo plantation area. Yen Thanh Company signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cooperative to purchase all processed bamboo for 20 years. This purchasing agreement offers the Cooperative the confidence to develop the business. Yen Thanh Company has also committed to providing 70 percent of the seed money needed to purchase raw materials and transfer the processing technology to the Cooperative.

Cao Thi Tam, director of Bamboo Shoot Cooperative 269 in Tan Xuan Commune shared a similar story. She founded the Cooperative in 2019 with the encouragement of the local government as having a cooperative to buy agricultural products from people in this remote border area was considered valuable.

Cooperative members were trained in preliminary processing techniques, food hygiene and safety standards, production planning, marketing and online sales. They learned about digital marketing and how to advertise products on e-commerce platforms such as Shopee Voso,  Zalo and Facebook.

The products of Tan Xuan Bamboo 269 Cooperative have now been promoted on e-commerce platforms

With GREAT’s support, the Cooperative’s sales increased and incomes were higher. Ms Tam reported that the Cooperative’s revenue in the first year was around VND 900 million. In 2021, this figure was VND 3 billion, of which profit accounted for 30-35 percent.

“Thanks to the project, we not only receive technical and financial support but we have increased understanding of the need to invest in modern production equipment. The project also helps local ethnic minority women be more confident and have a greater voice in the family and community,” said Tam.

Ramie connects family members

In Vietnam, ramie has long been used as an ingredient in ramie rice cakes, however this plant is also one of the world’s strongest natural fibres and is used in the textiles industry. Ramie is an easy-to-grow, low maintenance crop with higher economic returns than traditional crops like maize and rice.

Supported by the GREAT Program, the Son La Crop Production and Plant Protection Department introduced training courses on ramie seedling production. Hundreds of growers, the majority of which where women, undertook the training. The project helped establish seedling nurseries in a number of communes, including Lien Hoa, Song Khua, Xuan Nha and Quy Huong, with the capacity to supply seedlings for 200 hectares of ramie.

Project partner, Vinafi Company, purchases all of the ramie at a previously agreed price.

Ramie farmer happy with their labor results

From 2019 to now, GREAT has supported the establishment of 13 ramie production groups and a number of training courses for local farmers.

To date the project has involved 932 people, all from ethnic minorities and 50 percent of whom were women.

When the project started in 2019 the Province had 70ha of ramie across Van Ho and Moc Chau districts. As of December 2021, this number had reached 1,038ha and it was expanded to a further four districts.

In the past, due to difficult economic conditions, people were forced to move to other provinces to earn a living, often in industrial zones in the south. Couples had to leave their children at home with their grandparents.

Ms Dinh Thi Thuan and her husband worked in the Tan Uyen industrial zone in Binh Duong Province from 2015 to 2019. The salary was stable but the living costs were high as they had to pay for electricity, water, food and accommodation. Since participating in the GREAT Program, Ms Thuan has earned a higher income and her living costs are much lower as she works close to home. She now cares for her children rather than leaving them with her 60-year-old mother-in-law.

High-value vegetable gardens

Moc Chau and Van Ho districts in Son La Province have a mild climate, fertile soil and plenty of land for agricultural development. However, there are still many challenges faced by farmers such as steep hills and heavy rain.

The GREAT Program has partnered with the Fruit and Vegetable Research Institute (FAVRI) to apply Internet of Things (IoT) technology to develop smart agriculture.

As a result, 10 cooperativeshave been selected to join the program (in which there are seven cooperatives for vegetable production and three cooperatives for flowers).

The total land area used for IoT technology models has reached 20.4 ha. With a smartphone application, farmers can easily control their gardens from anywhere at any time. For example, an auto-watering system has helped save water by 20-40 percent, reducing the labour needed for watering and fertilising one ha of plants by 25-35 percent. As a result,  household income has increased by10 to 30 percent.

Thanks to the GREAT Program, Director of Dung Tien Cooperative, Mr Kim Van Dung, was able to build a greenhouse for his vegetable and strawberry gardens to protect them from frost and pests.

“Once I grew tomatoes. Looking at the fruit-laden branches, I thought this crop was bountiful, but on the day of harvest there was frost and heavy rain. Before we could harvest them the tomatoes were damaged and fell off the vine. Since building the greenhouse, I’ve felt much more secure and am no longer afraid of my crop being affected by the weather,” said Mr Dung.

Dung Tien Cooperative grow vegetables in greenhouse supported by GREAT

His wife Nguyen Thi Tươi said that an automatic watering and fertilising system controlled by a mobile phone app eased their workload across their 4,000m2 vegetable garden. The mobile app helps control humidity and air temperature. Previously, Mrs Tuoi needed two additional people each day to assist with caring for the garden.

Established in 2016 with seven members, the Cooperative now has 18 household members cultivating a combined 10ha of land.

Each year, the Cooperative produces 400 tonnes of cabbage, 150 tonnes of tomato, 100 tonnes of asparagus and 80 tonnes of winter melon and pumpkin to supply Hà Nội and neighbouring provinces, such as Ninh Bình, Hà Nam and Nam Định. 

Planting vegetables brings an average annual income of VNĐ 400 million per hectare to the cooperative members.

Leveraging tourism potential

In recent years, the GREAT Program has supported people in Moc Chau District to develop community-based tourism, improve women’s capacity and increase family income.

Sung Y Hoa, a Mong woman from Ta So Village, is the owner of Hoa Phong homestay. Ms Hoa explained that GREAT’s had provided support with access to finance, which gave them the confidence to invest VND 200 million in building a homestay.

In addition, Hoa has also been trained in tourism skills, including cooking and decorating the homestay area. She has also had the opportunity to learn from other community-based tourism models in Lao Cai and Lai Chau.

At first, Hoa was worried because she had no experience in tourism, but after receiving the first group of guests she began to feel more confident. Thanks to the Program, she gained the knowledge and skills needed to confidently talk to guests and explain the local culture and scenery.

Located on the top of a hill at 1,100m above sea level, the Hoa Phong homestay is one of the most popular places to stay in the villiage thanks to its majestic scenery and romantic plum garden.

“On average, I receive VND 10 million per month to welcome two groups of guests. Annual revenue reaches VND 120 million, and farming now accounts for only 20 percent of the total income. When tourism recovers, we may receive visitors every week, so the income will be even higher,” said Mua A Hang, Hoa’s husband.

Mr Mua A Hang and Ms Sung Y Hoa with their homestay

According to Đinh Thị Hường, head of the Mộc Châu District’s Culture and Information Department, women in the village have changed a lot as a result of GREAT’s training courses. They are more aware of gender equality, are more confident and are actively managing the family finances. Before when there were guests at home, the wives would stay in the kitchen. Today the women receive the guests, perform traditional dances, cook, clean the homestay rooms and talk with guests about the local lifestyle.

Lê Anh Tuấn, GREAT’s Inclusive Business Advisor said GREAT is improving the lives of Son La farmers as it learns more about the context and continually adapts its interventions based on evidence and experience.   

“Women have become more confident in converting from low-value rice and maize crops to growing higher-value crops. Effective production has resulted in a better linkage between businesses and farmers. This linkage has been underpinned by purchasing contracts which commit companies to purchase the outputs,” Tuan said.

GREAT has helped Son La Province develop key products via value chain development. Cooperatives are being transformed from small-scale to more market-oriented. This will help the Province to develop the agriculture sector and to reduce poverty as many households will be better off./.