New agriculture practices empowering women in Van Ban
Posted on 06/08/2021
The Australian Government-funded Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) Program has been operating in Van Ban District, Lao Cai, for two years and the Program’s contribution to the economic development of the province is becoming clearer, including a positive contribution at the community-level.
Delivered in partnership with the Government of Vietnam, GREAT is a four-year program (2017-2021) that works with the private sector, government agencies and NGOs to create opportunities for women within the agriculture and tourism sectors. These sectors have demonstrated strong economic growth and the potential to increase the economic participation of ethnic minority women. The program has a strong focus on gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.
GREAT seeks to influence change through the economic empowerment of women and the fostering of inclusive market systems. The Program’s approach is grounded in an understanding of the context, being flexible and adapting activities as needed and fostering innovation to unlock business opportunities and influence social change. Agriculture is a diverse sector, and GREAT’s portfolio of projects within the sector reflects this, allowing the GREAT team to work with a wide-range of partners and communities.
Agriculture plays a vital economic and subsistence role for the predominantly rural population of Van Ban District. Across Lao Cai Province, the sector has recorded rapid growth in recent years, with the potential to increase on its 16% contribution to regional GDP. It is a sector in which women play a substantial role – from planting to harvesting.
One focus of GREAT is to support businesses and households to diversify or move away from staple crops such as maize and cassava to higher value products with a strong business case. Staple crops typically attract low prices while the higher value produce that grow well in the area, such as certain vegetables, cinnamon, benzoin (a substance used to make perfume) or ramie, allow farming households to diversify and increase their income streams, providing more financial security.
Here we provide an overview of the diversity of GREAT’s work in the agriculture sector and the impact these projects are having on local communities, specifically women.
An example of GREAT’s work in Van Ban is a bamboo shoots project. With its partners, GREAT introduced more up-to-date growing and harvesting techniques to households who were collecting bamboo shoots, with a focus on sustainable practices to ensure reliable yields in future years.
Local woman, Ban Thi May, explained that she now knows how to grow bamboo shoots and take care of the trees for subsequent seasons, rather than merely harvesting the bamboo shoots each year with no thought to the sustainability of the practice.
The Management Unit of Hoang Lien Van Ban Nature Reservation Area is working with GREAT on the bamboo shoots project and has connected with Thuy Son Cooperative to purchase 70 tonnes of peeled bamboo shoots from local growers at the price of VND 27,000 per kg. The Cooperative has projected it will buy 170 tonnes of peeled bamboo shoots because of the project in 2021, generating VND 4.8 billion for the growers.
Bui Van Hung, head of the Thuy Son Cooperative, explained that the Cooperative buys the bamboo shoots locally, hires between 30 and 40 women to clean the bamboo shoots and then sells the shoots to processing factories.
With the support of the GREAT Program, the Cooperative invested in a solar greenhouse to dry bamboo shoots, herbs and other agricultural products.
“The lives of the local people are still hard. Thanks to the GREAT Program, we earn more money through growing and selling bamboo shoots,” Hung said.
Local woman, Hoang Thi Tien, works at the Thuy Son Co-operative and earns VND 250,000 per day.
“When the bamboo shoots season ends, we return to the rice fields. The GREAT-supported project has allowed us to increase our income and we have more security around what we can earn during the bamboo season,” she said.
Benzoin is a key ingredient in perfumes and essential oils. It is a resin taken from the bodhi (Styrax tonkinensis) tree, a tree traditionally grown and harvested in Van Ban and other local districts for its wood.
GREAT is partnering with Duc Phu Agriculture and Forestry Company (Duc Phu) to establish a local benzoin industry in Van Ban. GREAT and Duc Phu are training the villagers to care for the bodhi trees, tap the resin and ensure its quality. The benzoin is then sold on the domestic and international markets.
Trieu Thi Lieu is a Dao woman participating in the project and she explained that for many years her family, along with many local families, cut the bodhi trees down to sell the wood, but they now recognize that benzoin production is more sustainable as the resin can be tapped over many seasons. It is also more financially lucrative, with the resin attracting higher prices than wood.
Duc Phu is investing in the expansion of bodhi tree production areas and is engaging local people in the production and harvesting, including training them in sustainable techniques.
Tran Van Dinh, Vice-Director of Duc Phu Company, explained that GREAT and Duc Phu are also supporting families to inter-crop ginger with the bodhi trees. This allows them to diversify their income and ensure income can be earned in the short-term.
“As it takes five to seven years for the bodhi trees to mature enough to produce resin, we encourage people to grow ginger together between the bodhi trees, so they can earn money while waiting for the trees to mature,” said Dinh.
The benzoin project has helped change the life of the local women like Lieu. She said that the life is easier for her family. They have a new house and Lieu can now afford a smartphone, which was impossible for her before.
Vietnam is the third largest cinnamon producer globally, after Indonesia and China, and currently exports to India, the Middle East, Japan, Korea, the United States and the European Union. The international market for organic cinnamon has grown by 30-40% in recent years and Vina Samex, a company that exports spices around the world, secures annual orders for around 2,000 tonnes.
Four GREAT cinnamon partners including Lao Cai Department of Agriculture and Rural Department, SNV, Son Ha Company and Vina Samex are creating opportunities for local women in cinnamon cultivation and harvesting by improving production practices and market connections.
Vina Samex recently introduced a mobile app, QGS Electronic Diary, to over 700 families in Van Ban as part of an organic cinnamon planting project implemented by Vina Samex with support from GREAT.
Through the app, each farming household can record their activities and the Vina Samex experts can obtain the information remotely and provide timely advice.
“It’s easy to use with many images to choose rather than words,” said Dang Thi Dien, a Dao cinnamon grower.
“Through the app, I provide an update on my cinnamon trees, what I have done in the day and so on. If the trees get a disease, we can take a photo, upload them in the app and ask for technical support on what we should do to treat the problem. We the get advice very quickly from experts,” Dien said.
Trần Văn Liên, chairman of the local Gia Lan Agriculture, Forestry and Environmental Services Cooperative, was among the first in Van Ban district to try and grow ramie. He encouraged local farming households to grow the ramie and they would then sell the stems back to the Cooperative. The Cooperative then sold the ramie to An Phuoc Company for further processing into textiles.
“It was difficult at first as people had been disappointed many times before after being persuaded to switch crops. Projects introducing crops such as tomato and turmeric had all failed, as there were no links between farmers and wholesalers,” Lien said.
With the GREAT Program, people are earning money from growing ramie and the total growing area in the district now stands at some 50 hectares, belonging to 171 households, including 332 women, most of whom are from the Tày, Dao, Mông, and Xa Phó ethnic minority groups.
Black sticky rice cake
Since 2020, the GREAT Program has been working with the Van Ban District Women’s Union to support local women start-ups, including Hoàng Thị Huế’s black sticky rice case business.
Prior to her involvement in the project, Hue wanted to expand her business but did not know how. With training and ongoing advice, Hue now has a clearly branded product, she employs local women and earns VND 15-16 million per month, a significant increase on her previous income of VND 2-4 million per month.
Black sticky rice cakes are a traditional delicacy of the Tay people and Hue’s cakes have been granted a provincial-level three-star One Commune One Product (OCOP) certificate in recognition of their high quality and traceable origin.
Agriculture is a keystone of community life in Vietnam’s north-west and an important source of income. With diversified agriculture opportunities that tap into clear market demand, these communities have an opportunity to become more financially secure and build their resilience to economic shocks. By ensuring women have access to these opportunities, GREAT is encouraging equal opportunities for women and men and shifting some of the social norms that can prevent women, and their families, from benefiting from the region’s economic development.