|Dao Do ethnic minority women harvest tea leaves in a plantation in Lai Chau Province. They expect to earn more and save more from tea growing in the future because of a new, improved and fairer supply chain model. — VNS Photos Viet Thanh
by Thu Giang
HA NOI (VNS) — It is hot, although it is still very early in the morning, and a group of ethnic minority women are already at work, picking tender tea leaves on a mountainside in the northern province of Lai Chau.
The Dao Do (Red Dao) women of Tam Duong District are dressed in their colourful traditional clothes, and their nimble fingers and hand movements seem to split the sunbeams slanting through mist as they keep putting handfuls of tea leaves into the papoose they carry on their backs.
Lifting up the papoose and wiping the sweat on her face as she takes a break under a tree on the tea plantation, Phan Thi Mui said she and other growers always harvested the tea leaves early in the morning. When the sun is up high in the sky, it is blazing hot and they cannot do anything, she said.
Mui, who is married and has two children, lives in Ban Bo Commune. She said her family previously grew maize and cassava, but this did not go smoothly and they were often faced with the prospect of going hungry.
In 2009, Mui's family began growing tea in 2009 with financial support from provincial authorities and the Lai Chau Tea Joint Stock Company. She said that without the support, her family's life would not have been as stable as it was now, and her children would not have been able to continue their schooling.
"My family earned VND70 million (US$3,200) last year, nearly half of it from tea. We now have some savings for the future."
While her family's income is not high compared to urban areas in the country, it is a significant sum in Tam Duong District, where the average annual household income is VND17 million ($790).
Mui's family is one of many who have benefited from the schemes carried about by the local tea company.
Located in a valley surrounded by many mountains, the company's Tam Duong factory is now seen as the heart of the tea business in Ban Bo Commune.
The factory, the second one opened by the company, began operations last June. It imparts tea cultivation knowhow to local residents, buys their produce and processes them for domestic and export markets.
In the past, more than 320 farmers from Ban Bo Commune sold their tea leaves to small processing facilities at low prices and in small volumes.
Today, the new factory on the spot allows for fresh tea leaves supplied by small producers to be processed very soon after harvest, helping the growers save significantly on transportation costs.
"In the past, the transportation cost was subtracted from tea leaves' prices. Now, that cost is fully credited to farmers. The local farmers harvested 558 tonnes of fresh leaves last year. They are estimated to have earned VND1,500 ($0.07) extra per kilogramme from this," said Director of Lai Chau Tea Joint Stock Company Nguyen Thi Loan.
Loan said local tea production had developed strongly since it began receiving technical support from HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in Viet Nam. HELVETAS works in the field of development co-operation, helping disadvantaged people and communities in developing countries improve their living conditions.
"HELVETAS has helped us increase linkages between tea farmers and buyers of finished products, improve the quality of tea production at both the farm and processing levels, and supported us in building an environment that enables sustainable tea value chain development."
|The corner of a nursery at the Tam Duong Tea Factory in Lai Chau Province. Local tea production has seen robust development since it began receiving technical support from the HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation.
Until 2011, when HELVETAS began supporting the company and farmers, residents were growing tea in a very unprofessional way, and lacked the knowledge to produce and harvest quality leaves.
"It was difficult. It took a really long time for us to persuade the ethnic minority people, who were most used to shifting cultivation, to develop tea gardens," said Loan.
She said two factors decided the quality of tea, the way it was harvested and how it was processed.
"It sounds so simple, the technique of pick one bud and two leaves, but we had to spend about half a year to persuade the growers to follow it. If they picked more than two, they would have more in quantity, but it would not meet our quality needs," she added.
Nguyen Hong Son, deputy head of Tam Duong District's Agriculture Division, said Lai Chau Province had 2,500 hectares of tea plantations, and 60 per cent of these were managed by the Tam Duong tea factory.
In Tam Duong District, 1,025 households grow tea and earn an average annual income from VND5-10 million ($230-460) each, the highest one earning VND50 million ($2,340).
"This is good for local residents, because they are able to do something with very little investment. They would not be interested if a venture demanded investments they could not afford. If it needed big investment, they would not have been interested," said Son.
Son said the district had identified tea as a key crop for poverty reduction and sustainable development. The district administration and the Lai Chau Tea JSC had canvassed households to try the new value chain model and guided them in implementing it.
"To kick start development, the district has provided money to growers to buy tea varieties and the Lai Chau Tea JSC has transferred knowhow and lent fertiliser and plant protection chemicals. The farmers have contributed their land and labour," Son said.
Loan said her company had been providing the farmers with fertiliser and plant protection chemicals for several years, but was yet to recoup its investment.
"In this province, especially in highland area, businesses have to accept some obvious disadvantages. If it does, it will be able to reap future gains.
"We want them to use quality fertiliser and plant protection chemicals. If they buy the wrong type in the market, it will affect the fresh tea's quality."
The company serves huge volume orders from the Middle East, Taiwan and mainland China. The collaborative project seeks to ensure stable and high supply of tea leaves through better management of tea production resources. It is set to export some of its tea products to Japan this year.
The company has eight main tea products including Oo Long, Sancha, Kim Tuyen, Sao Lan, Bao Chung and Nhai (Jasmine). In 2014, it exported nearly 800 tonnes of tea, earning VND50 billion ($2.34 million).
Loan said the factory provides jobs for nearly 50 workers and seasonal jobs for about 40 workers. Nearly 1,400 households participate by supplying tea to its factories.
HELVETAS Shan Tea project manager Vien Kim Cuong said Lai Chau Province was part of the "Developing High Quality Tea Value Chains for Poverty Reduction among Ethnic Minorities in northern Viet Nam, Laos and Myanmar" project, which is funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Co-operation – SDC.
The project document says that it aims "to deliver sustainable livelihood improvements to tea producing smallholders by implementing a set of coordinated interventions to tackle interlinked constraints of tea value chains."
Cuong said that the increase in benefit farmers receive as a result of shortening the value chain by connecting growers directly with the processing company, eliminating middlemen, could be estimated at $120,000.
Lai Chau is located in the tropical zone and in a mountainous region endowed with a temperate climate "characterised by a strong monsoon influence, a considerable amount of sunny days, and with a high rate of rainfall and humidity."
"It is a poor province and it was not easy to decide which kind of crop HELVETAS should support. So far, I think tea is still the best crop that can be grown in this area," said Cuong.
Tea plantations have changed the landscape of Tam Duong District, replacing haphazard cultivation of various crops with one that benefits farmers and provides good quality produce to the company, serving the administration's poverty reduction target.
Looking out at the lush green plantations from atop a small hill, Loan said she had a dream. She hoped that this area would not only become the cradle of tea cultivation in the northern region, but also a popular tourist destination. — VNS