|Diep Ha Chau (scientifically known as Phyllanthus amarus), a popular herbal plant in South America, is grown in Phu Yen province by Vietroselle company under the BioTrade model. — VNS Photo
by Khanh Van
It had started to rain heavily and Van tried his best to collect in a hurry all medicinal plants which were being dried on the ground.
However, the 56-year-old man could not save much.
"Again, I have lost most of the herbs because of unexpected rains," Lam Thanh Van, a farmer in the northern province of Nam Dinh, said recalling the last crop he had proceeded on a trial and error method three years ago.
"It also meant I had lost the main income to support my whole family," he said.
The old man intended to give up.
"But then I changed my mind," he said and smiled, with wrinkles clearly rising on his face.
He was invited to join a group of farmers to grow medicinal plants on a trial basis following a BioTrade model after that crop.
BioTrade refers to those activities of collection, production, transformation, and commercialisation of goods and services derived from native biodiversity under the criteria of environmental, social and economic sustainability.
The model was carried out by Nam Duoc Pharmaceutical Company in Nam Dinh province under the assistance of HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation as part of the BioTrade project.
Under the project, Van and other members in the group had a chance to join training sessions on cultivation, harvesting, processing and preservation techniques in line with the Good Agricultural and Collection Practices (GACP) recommended by the World Health Organisation, which plays a significant role in producing materials that meet standards to be used as medicines.
"Applying the new cultivation, harvesting and processing technique and standard has helped us to improve quality of the plants," he said.
"The project also provides funds to help farmers buy essential equipment such as driers and build infrastructure such as warehouses, sun-drying sheets, inter-fields watering system. So that all are done professionally now," he said.
"Before that, we just grew the plants through our own experience and the quality was not stable. We had to sell the medical materials at a loss many times as a result of substandard cultivation, harvest, processing or preservation," Van added.
Farmer households in his commune have started to use land funds to grow such plants which have helped to generate stable incomes that are 7 to 10 times higher than growing rice.
|Le Van San
Annual income has reached between VND400 and VND500 million (US$17,900 to $21,500) per hectare per year.
Farmers' concerns over small-scale production have also been resolved by encouraging them to engage in production activities through the establishment of co-operative teams.
Farmers in Van's village are not the only ones who have benefited from the BioTrade project. In the past three years, the project has helped improve the income and lives of nearly 500 farmer households in many localities, including Nam Dinh, Lao Cai, An Giang and Phu Yen.
Since its launch by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in 1996, the BioTrade Initiative has been promoting sustainable BioTrade in support of the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The BioTrade project in Viet Nam, the first in the country so far, is funded by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) of Switzerland over a period of three years from 2012 to 2015 with a total budget of $1 million. It is implemented by HELVETAS Vietnam in partnership with the National Institute of Medicinal Materials.
The overall project goal is to make Viet Nam an internationally recognised supplier of choice for biodiversity derived natural ingredient products sourced, processed and traded in compliance with the BioTrade principles and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
|Lam Thanh Van
SECO Director in Viet Nam Miroslav Delaporte said BioTrade is a very important concept to support in Viet Nam, mainly in the sustainable use of natural resources and in improving income for the population and in creating higher added value .
"The project is innovative. There is no reason why a country with such rich biodiversity and rich agriculture such as Viet Nam cannot apply this. We try to promote at the same time environmental, social and economic interests," he said.
"The initial result of the project in Viet Nam was remarkable given the fact that we started from zero. So, now we plan to continue funding the project to help continue what we have done here in the country and probably would expand to other value chains apart from medicinal plants," he said.
Not only supporting farmers in cultivation, harvest, processing and preservation, the project also promoted discussion between enterprises, farmers and local authorities to build trust, linkage mechanism and resolving issues arising from the implementation of linkages in the development of medicinal plants through agricultural contracts.
Concerns over unstable output and lack of linkages are holding back farmers from investing in large-scale production.
"The purchase of our products depends largely on middlemen of traders. In general, the sale channel is not stable," Van said.
"Now, the project has served as a bridge between farmers like us and businesses so that we could have peace of mind that our qualified products would be sold out at reasonable prices via contracts," he said.
Meanwhile, it helped enterprises get a reliable source of supply of qualified medicinal plants.
Viet Nam has a large resource of many precious medicinal plants, which account for about 4,000 out of 12,000 plant species. Currently, there is a huge demand for drugs from medicinal plants in both Viet Nam and other countries in the world.
However, enterprises with high demand still have to import most of their materials from China whose quality is not controlled and supply unstable.
Le Van San, Deputy Director General of Nam Duoc Pharmaceutical Company said the company had to face difficulties in finding a quality source for seeds, or figuring out an effective way to co-operate with the farmers, who are not familiar with such ideas of standardised procedures or international certifications.
"When participating in the project, all these difficulties are solved. The plan to cultivate and collect medicinal plants is implemented in a specific roadmap," he said.
The project also helped Nam Duoc to construct cultivation and harvest procedures, train company staff about the GACP and other international promotion efforts. As a result, Nam Duoc acquired the certificate of the GACP by Ministry of Health.
Apart from having the capacity improved to meet international standards, enterprises also had opportunities to participate in both domestic and foreign fairs sponsored by the project to explore new markets and promote their products.
Le Tuyet Anh, Director of Vietroselle one of the leading companies in Viet Nam in growing and supplying medical materials for drug production and functional food, said the project helped the company develop GACP-WHO standard complied planting areas to ensure their products met international standards.
"As a result, many partners still purchase our products even though they are sold at prices higher than that in the market," she said.
"After joining the project, our company's turnover posted a record increase of 400 per cent in 2014 in comparison with 2012," she said.
"Specially, the project also helped to connect us with both local and foreign businesses which our members of the global Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT) and get access to international markets by joining international conferences and fairs and visiting global leading companies in the fields of natural materials to learn their experiences such as Pierre Fabre of France and Japan Bioindustry Association," she said.
The success of Nam Duoc and Vietroselle and other companies proved that production of medicinal materials in compliance with BioTrade principles would be a right path for Vietnamese pharmaceuticals.
The project also had influence on policy formation, encouraging the Ministry of Health to perfect its policy and legal frameworks to create favourable conditions for enterprises to implement and apply GACP standards in medicinal material development, Project Manager Ta Minh Son said.
"Quality management of medicinal materials under GACP-WHO is not only an inevitable requirement determining the existence and sustainable development of enterprises but also an expression of producers' medical ethics for the sake of public health," he said.
"The impressive result is that the BioTrade project has attracted participation of both farmers, local authorities, relevant ministries and agencies, and enterprises in Viet Nam. The role of enterprises has been promoted as the first factor in the value chain,"he said.
Particularly, intervention plan was developed for five determined natural ingredient value chains and the BioTrade Interest Group Vietnam (BIG Vietnam) was established to continue supporting businesses and farmers after the project ended, Son said.
"A medicinal plant is just a case study for the project to be implemented on a trial basis. It could be then applied on other natural ingredients," he said.
As farmer Van said, the project ended but its impact would last.
"I will surely not give up as long as I can," the old man said. — VNS