By Khoa Ho-Le
A dying land
Soc Trang is a province in the Mekong Delta, bordering the East Vietnam Sea (aka South China Sea). Many years ago, rice farmers turned to prawn (shrimp) farming for a living. At first, good profit was made.
Intensive prawn farming requires antibiotics and many chemicals to keep the prawns alive. After some years, the farmland became toxic. Prawns died.
To farm prawns, saltwater was pumped into former rice farms. Salt kills most plants, creating wasteland. The farmers could not go back to rice farming. Many had to emigrate.
In the hope of rehabilitating the land, Dr Duong Van Ni of Can Tho University experimented with various salt-tolerant plants. He found that bulrush, a tough long grass, grew extremely well (see photo). The bulrush is naturally adapted to the brackish condition in the area. Because it can regrow from the root system after harvesting, no management is needed for regeneration.
But you cannot eat bulrush. The farmers still had no income. The situation became desperate.
Amidst the doom, someone had a bright idea. Bulrush could be woven into artistic baskets for household use. But who was going to buy it for a price that could sustain the farmers?
Entered Vietnam Housewares, a leading manufacturer of products for the home, specializing in handwoven natural products, furniture, and hand-made ceramic good.
With extensive market knowledge, Vietnam Housewares saw a potential for exporting bulrush to wealthy countries such as USA, EU and Australia. If successful, profit could be made for the company, while providing a good income for the farmers.
One problem remains. Weaving baskets requires skills that farmers didn’t have. Producing the baskets in the large numbers that Vietnam Housewares wanted meant that many thousands of farmers must be trained. Vietnam Housewares is not in the business of training and education.
The Good Samaritan
Vu Van Hieu, a recipient of the prestigious Australian Colombo Plan Scholarship in 1974, is a successful IT nerd. He is also a kind soul, wanting to pull the disadvantaged people out of poverty. At much personal expense, he founded the not-for-profit Mekong Conservancy Foundation (MCF).
This organization is dedicated to the conservation and sustainable management of the Mekong River and its basin. Dr Duong Van Ni happens to be the Chairman of MCF. For more info, see https://mcf.com.vn/en/about-us/
Besides applied research on ecology, Dr Ni and MCF has also been training the Mekong Delta farmers on sustainable farming. With such experience, MCF took on the job of organizing the training schools for new weavers, called Craft Villages (Làng Nghề). It did this by partnering with Vietnam Housewares and a local business called Mekong Livelihoods Solutions.
The Soc Trang Craft Village
… is not a true village. It is a simple building where MCF trains hundreds of villagers, mostly women, on bulrush weaving. On the other hand, it is a village in the sense that the weavers know each other intimately, and chat nonstop while learning the new skills.
The workers bring with them many young children, so MCF provides a library stocked with books and toys to keep the youngsters occupied while their parents work.
Vietnam Housewares brings bulrush and basket wireframes to this facility. Workers take them home for weaving. The finished products are brought back here to be shipped to a central warehouse.
Five Craft Villages have been established by MCF and Vietnam Housewares in the Mekong Delta. They have trained thousands of weavers, who could earn a decent living while remaining in their villages rather than having to emigrate.
The warehouse/drying/finishing facility
MCF and Vietnam Housewares collaborated to build a warehouse to store bulrush sold by the farmers. Before use, bulrush must be dried under controlled temperatures and humidity. Lacking capital for expensive control equipment and facility, MCF improvised with a greenhouse made from cheap clear plastic. The side walls, also made from clear plastic, can be moved to control the airflow. Costs are therefore kept low.
The dried bulrush is shipped to the Craft Villages along with the basket wireframes for distribution to the weavers. The woven baskets are brought back to this facility for post-processing, including:
- Cleaning dirt.
- Spraying the baskets with a natural glue made from rice to keep the fibres in place.
The finished products are shipped to overseas consumers, including Walmart in the USA and Bunnings in Australia. In 2022, 900 thousand baskets have been sold – a significant figure, bringing much needed cash to the Mekong Delta.
The happy collaboration
The problem was tough: what to do with a poisoned agricultural land, which could grow neither rice nor prawn? The solution could only be found from the collaboration of various actors:
- Able and willing workers.
- A scientist and a university that provide scientific knowledge.
- A capitalist company with market knowledge and a distribution network.
- A not-for-profit organization that has training capability.
The result is a success story. Farmers turned weavers can now make a decent living from their land.
Bulrush is a successful species. It grows so strongly in the coastal regions of the Mekong Delta that annually there are still millions of tons of unharvested bulrush. If new markets for bulrush products could be found, there would be employment for thousands more farmers. If you have any marketing ideas, please contact MCF or Vietnam Housewares.
Climate change remains a great challenge. In a few decades, 40% of the Mekong Delta is predicted to be inundated by rising sea levels and will have to be abandoned. The Mekong Conservancy Foundation is working hard to address the issue.
Please give them a helping hand or make a donation.
The Soc Trang visit
On 07 December 2023, a tour organized by Nguyen Hoai Bao, CEO of Wild Tour, brought several visitors from the USA and Australia to Soc Trang. Meeting them was the ex-Professor Duong Van Ni, who gave them a guided tour of the Craft Village and the Warehouse. The tour was both informative and interesting.
The visitors learned with their own eyes a lesson about sustainability in practice: how to bring social, economic, and environmental concerns together in a harmonious way, especially in the face of climate change. The visitors left with an awareness of a successful project thanks to the collaboration of many sectors. A textbook example of how sustainability works. It is hoped that many more people will take a tour of the Craft Villages. Some visitors on this tour are members of Vietnam Foundation, a not-for-profit organization with a mission to help and empower the poor and disadvantaged people and communities in remote areas in rural Vietnam to break out of the cycle of poverty. In the future, the Mekong Conservancy Foundation and the Vietnam Foundation may collaborate on some projects.
This report is my personal recollection, which may contain errors.
The author is grateful for the feedback on this report that many people have provided. Special thanks are due to Dr Duong Van Ni, Dr Tran Cao Hao, Mr Rhys Williams, Mr Le Ba Hong and Mr Vu Van Hieu.
Photo credits: Pacific Standard Magazine, Dr Duong Van Ni.