By Bich Huong
BAC KAN (VNS)— The noise of a fruit-cleaning machine and workers' chitchat dispelled the grey gloom of a foggy afternoon in Dong Tam Co-operatives' large yard.
|Ma Van Chang (right) a Nung farmer weighs canna rhizomes at a co-operative. Given proper assistance in finance and techniques, private enterprises can prosper and help local farmers improve income. — VNS Photo Bich Huong
It was getting more and more lively when a local farmer entered the yard in northern mountainous Bac Kan Province's Na Ri District, driving a three-wheel vehicle with big bags trailing behind.
"My family has been harvesting canna rhizome this morning," said 56-year old Ma Van Chang of the Nung ethnic group, hurriedly unloading canna bags and urging workers to bring scales for weighing.
Besides rice and corn, canna is among the few crops that grow well on the mountainous district's sloping land, over 230km away from Ha Noi.
"We started growing canna three years ago as there was an increasing demand for the provincial speciality - cellophane noodles (mien dong) which is made from canna starch," he said.
Having gradually expanded from 2,000sq.m to one hectare (10,000sq.m), Chang's family can now produce about 70-75 tonnes of rhizome each year.
Previously, he took his harvested rhizome to markets across or outside the province. On good days he sold out, but on unlucky days, he had to take the surplus home with him, Chang said.
But since last year this has no longer been a problem, he added, explaining that the problem was solved by an offer to buy all of his canna from Dong Tam Agriculture Products Processing Co-operative based in the district's Kim Lu Commune.
"The co-operative also helps us with breeding and teach us how to grow and nurse canna in a productive way," Chang said.
"It pays us VND1,800 for each kilo of canna rhizome, equal to the market price," he added.
Head of the co-operative Hoang Doanh Thang said it was established in 2009 and specialised in making cassava and canna starch which have been then sold to other firms to produce vermicelli.
He revealed that both demand and growing areas for canna have increased in the last few years but small co-operatives like Thang's found it difficult to expand production due to financial constraints. Until early this year, his co-operation was eligible for nearly VND2 billion (US$95,000) in aid from the province's Agribusiness Promotion and Investment Fund (APIF).
"With that sum plus contributions from co-operative members, we bought three machines to make starch and vermicelli and built a workshop," Thang said, noting that they can process 30 tonnes of raw material or produce two tonnes of vermicelli each day.
At present, the co-operative employs 27 workers, providing seedling and canna farming techniques for over 200 poor households in the district.
Vice director of the province's Planning and Investment Department Hoang Van Giap said that canna farming and vermicelli production had helped raise income for local residents who previously earned their living mostly from rice/corn farming and forestry.
Pointing to the environmental benefits of the initiative, he added that waste discharged from vermicelli production can be used for raising pigs and making biogas, providing people with energy and a more efficient alternative to firewood. "At present, the province is home to about 1,800ha of canna fields, representing a staggering three-fold increase on last year," Giap said, adding that the province was studying market demand to make appropriate land allocations for canna farming development.
"The move is needed to avoid an oversupply of canna which could lower its value," he said.
The province launched a $2 million project assisted by APIF, the first of its kind in in the locality in March 2011 as a tool to leverage private investment from enterprises in and outside the province by co-financing business initiatives to reduce poverty.
The fund provides financial assistance from $30,000 to $100,000 for each investment initiative and in special cases, the figure can reach up to $250,000.
So far, the province has approved five investment initiatives with total investment worth VND23 billion ($1.09 million), of which APIF funded about VND15 billion ($714,000).
Giap said that attracting investment to the province was still a tough task as it was among the least competitive provinces in the country due to disadvantages including its mountainous location, lack of seaports, country borders, railways and airports, as well as general poor infrastructure.
"Offering financial assistance to private enterprises, we expected to make use of their ability in using capital and accessing market more effectively than individual farmers," Giap said, noting that most local farmers are from ethnic groups and face difficulties in keeping pace with market trends.
The fund is part of a six-year project on Pro-Poor Partnerships for Agro-Forestry Development funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in the province which started in 2009 in the districts of Ba Be, Na Ri and Pac Nam . It also receives technological support from the Netherlands Development Organ-isation.
"APIF is an excellent initiative encouraging public-private partnership in the fields of agro-forestry and tourism," said Henning Pedersen, IFAD Country Director in Vietnam.
"I hope the fund will create a breakthrough and lay strong foundations for rural financing and investment promotion, which will greatly benefit Bac Kan Province and its poor rural farmers.
"It will also help reduce poverty reduction in remote and ethnic regions by creating new jobs, while bringing expertise and new technology from the private sector," he said. — VNS