by Le Quynh Anh
NAM DINH — Even in her wildest dream, scrap collector-turned-microenterprise-owner Duong Thi Tuyet from a small village in northern Viet Nam never thought she would be on stage at Paris' Louvre Museum – one of the world's greatest arts museums.
|Hands-on manager Duong Thi Tuyet (second,left) instructs her workers how to carve decorative patterns into bronze decorative items . — VNS Photo Le Quynh Anh
Yet, that's exactly what she went through on December 5, 2011, as the first Vietnamese to receive the International Microfinance Award for 2011 along with five other prize-winners.
The 38-year-old woman from Nam Dinh Province's Y Yen District was honoured for her work in microfinance that not only helped her own family rise out of poverty but also preserved her hometown's traditional bronze-casting craft.
From a scrap collector who earned barely enough to cover her family's daily expenses, Tuyet now manages a workshop of 10 people which can manufacture up to 10,000 products annually.
Much of Tuyet's success can be credited to her incredibly strong entrepreneurial spirit and help she received on the way.
When Tuyet finished secondary school, she started collecting scrap metal to generate income, and discovered a constant demand for the metal from her hometown's widely-practised bronze-casting craft.
Tuyet had done this arduous job from age fourteen, throughout her teenage years and even after marrying and become a mother of two.
"While the hard work of travelling an average of 70km per day on a bicycle as well as the condescending attitude the community had towards the job were already hard to take, what worried me most was that we couldn't secure a stable income from this job," she said.
"So everyday a big question struck me when I woke up: would I be able to earn enough money to buy rice, vegetables and meat for my kids today," Tuyet recalled during an interview with us at her house on Wednesday.
While she and her husband, who worked as a hired worker at a nearby workshop, struggled to make ends meet, in 1998, Tuyet was introduced to the Tinh Thuong microfinance institution (TYM) which had recently been established in her town.
"Back at that time, credit was not that easy to access so we were very interested in this new fund. Plus microfinance, due to the small size of the loan, didn't need a security which we didn't have," she said. So she became its client and her first 50-week-tenure microloan she received was worth VND500,000 (US$35).
Tuyet used the loan to increase the amount of scrap she collected, which in turn translated into higher profits.
"If I started my day with VND500,000, I could a day earn up to VND100,000, a five-fold increase compared to what I normally got," she said.
In the year 2000, two years after the first loan, the scrap business was running well and Tuyet was even able to save money. She applied for another microloan, which helped her open a small workshop.
"It occurred to me that it could be a good investment because my husband was an experienced craftsman and the demand for bronze products was increasing," she said.
Yet things didn't work out as planned and they couldn't sell a single product. But for a resourceful woman like Tuyet, challenges only made her even more persistent.
Eventually, she even went to Ha Noi to ask a relative for help in finding prospective customers. This relative brought in the first customer for Tuyet's workshop, who bought a bronze ball worth VND9 million.
For the next there years, Tuyet went to every shop in town to negotiate for a display spot of her products and find out what was selling well, and to gear her products in that direction.
Her efforts paid off in 2003, when her workshop started to see considerable profits, and it's safe to say now, the business develops considerable wealth for this once-poor family.
Tuyet's energy hasn't stalled, and after returning from Paris, she said she had found Western customers interested in bronze statues and decorative plates and believed the expertise of her workshop could cater for the demand of these prospective clients.
Given that Tuyet had a limited education and opportunities to leave her village, her business acumen has proved strong.
Although her larger-scale workshop has necessitated borrowing from commercial credit institutions, Tuyet said she has maintained links at TYM, adding that her story may inspire other women to find help through microfinance.
Pham Kim Thuc, head of Y Yen District's Union of Women, said, "TYM stands out because they are different from other credit institutions - its mechanism requires clients to pay both principal and interest on the weekly basis, which puts healthy pressure on women to be proactive in business." — VNS