|Two Thai ethnic women, Lo Thi Thom (left) and Leo Thi Chon, harvest tea leaves in a plantation in Lai Chau Province's Tam Duong District.
LAI CHAU (VNS) — Lo Thi Thom is happily looking forward to moving with her family into their new spacious house before the Tet (Lunar New Year) holiday.
She is a 30-year old Thai woman from Kun Ha Commune in Tam Duong District. Her new two-storey house, which is near completion, has been built in a design that is popular among the Thai minority community. Thom estimates the total cost of the house to be VND400 million (US$17,780), something that used to be beyond the dream of many households in the northern mountainous Lai Chau Province, more than 300km from Ha Noi, where the poverty rate was more than 30 per cent five years ago.
Thom, a mother of two, is a busy farmer. She makes wine, provides rice-husking services, raises pigs and poultry and grows rice and vegetables, besides earning money from tea cultivation. She earned about VND160 million ($7,100) in revenue last year and managed to save half of that, she said, while her husband, busy with his work, rarely had time to help her in the farm work.
Both their incomes in addition to a small loan have contributed towards making their dream house come true.
Thom said she felt being more respected ever since she started earning money, becoming less financially dependent on her husband. Her husband asks for her opinion in every family affair now. "The situation is a little bit different from several years ago."
Thom said women now had greater influence in her village too. Recently, local women asked for the upgrade of the transformer station to ensure power supply for daily activities and production and it was approved, Thom proudly said.
"It had been common to see domestic violence and men getting drunk in my village several years ago. But that is changing now. Women are more treasured," said Thom.
Thom is a link in the high-quality value chain for tea in Lai Chau Province that involves mostly ethnic women in most of the production stages, and provides them financial security through rising incomes from tea cultivation that follows technical procedures.
It's not just Thom who is sensing the change in the air.
Leo Thi Chon, a middle-aged woman who led the village's group of farmers, said women were now capable of doing many things and could earn money themselves, and their voices were more influential, Chon said.
Chon's husband said her opinions were as important as his own in their family.
Thom and Chon were trained in techniques of tea cultivation within the framework of a project "Developing High Quality Tea Value Chains for Poverty Reduction for Ethnic Minorities in Viet Nam, Laos and Myanmar – ShanTea" funded by Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and implemented by HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation for the period of 2013-2016.
|Two men talk inside the showroom of Tam Duong Tea Company, which opened on Sunday in Lai Chau City. — VNS Photos Doan Tung
This helped to increase the production of better-quality tea leaves that could be sold at higher prices and brought higher incomes for the growers.
Thom, who owns 5,000sq.m of tea plantation, said she earned VND20 million from tea last year, a whopping 70 per cent increase compared with two years ago. "The income from tea is steadily increasing and many households in my villages want to plant tea. After the training, I know how to grow tea of the highest quality and output by following technical procedures, instead of arbitrary and uncontrolled use of pesticides as before," she said.
Ethnic women comprise the majority of those involve in tea cultivation in Lai Chau Province where 90 per cent of the people are from ethnic groups. HELVETAS estimated that roughly 60 per cent of the tea plantation labourers in the province were ethnic women.
The ShanTea project provided training to the tea growers and contributed significantly towards enhancing women's ability to bring about economic change for themselves.
Twenty-three-year old Nong Thi Le, chairwoman of the Women Union's Association in Ban Bo Commune that set an example by growing high-quality tea in a 360ha plantation, said incomes from tea cultivation had improved in recent years along with their living standards and the women's status in the family and community.
"Tea cultivation helps ethnic women avoid being marginalised. Their improved economic status is setting them on a path towards gender equality and poverty eradication," Le said. Local women were also getting better access to healthcare services and were becoming more capable of getting their children educated, Le said.
She cited statistics showing that the poverty rate in Ban Bo Commune had dropped from 37.5 per cent in 2011 to 15 per cent today, largely driven by high-quality tea cultivation.
ShanTea project also focused on promoting direct links between farmers and processors, which enabled tea growers to get the benefits.
Nguyen Thi Loan, director of Tam Duong Tea Producing and Investment Jsc., which received support from ShanTea project, said the quality of tea leaves decided up to 80 per cent of the tea's quality. She said the direct linkage with farmers to develop raw materials of high quality was of great importance and a solution for promoting the development of the local tea industry for greater outreach.
The company now connects with about 1,700 farmer households to grow tea in 3,200ha, 90 per cent of which is owned by ethnic minorities as of the end of 2015, in addition to its own 600ha tea plantation.
Loan said her company joining with HELVETAS provided agricultural techniques to tea growers that helped boost the tea output by 10 to 15 per cent, quality by 20 per cent and price by 50 per cent. In addition, the processor also benefit as they have stable supply of high-quality raw material.
The incomes of her company's workers, 80 per cent of them being women, also increased by 35 per cent to reach about VND6 million ($267) per month, Loan said.
Bui Thi Kim Lieu, forewoman of about 60 workers of Tam Duong Tea Company, said higher incomes were changing the lives of workers, instead of them staying at home, doing no formal jobs and earning a modest amount of VND500,000 per month.
Stable incomes also helped to reduce the burden on many female workers who were the breadwinners of their families, Lieu said. "Improved economic status gives us strength and confidence to overcome difficulties in life and opens up more opportunities," Lieu, who raised a child alone while pursuing studies in food processing in junior college, said, adding that education had enriched her.
Story of revival
Shan Tea project of supporting the company and farmers to develop a high quality value chain of tea began in 2013, when Lai Chau Province was trying to revive the tea industry that dates back to the 1960s.
"The tea industry of Lai Chau Province was facing the risk of being wiped out in the 2004-05 period," Le Trong Quang, deputy chairman of the People's Committee of Lai Chau province, said. He said urban construction since the foundation of the province in 2004, coupled with poor-quality tea were among the causes of the drop in tea cultivation area.
Seeing the undeniably important role of the tea industry in creating jobs, reducing poverty and promoting economic growth, the province was determined to revive the industry with a five-year plan that focused on enhancing the connection between farmers and firms, Quang said.
The province's support policies and support received from organisations such as HELVETAS made tea a success story, he said.
He cited statistics that said more than 2,000ha were recovered besides more than 1,000ha of new plantations being set up, bringing the total tea plantation area to reach 3,500ha by the end of 2011. As of the end of 2015, the tea plantation area was spread over 4,000ha, while another 500ha are expected to be added in 2016.
Quang said with improved quality, tea cultivation generated stable incomes for growers, which encouraged more farmers to grow high-quality tea. Revenues are estimated to be about VND150-200 million per ha.
The higher incomes gained from tea cultivation helped "free" women, especially ethnic women from poverty, while empowering them with better economic strength for a better life, Quang said. The province's poverty rate has dropped to about 20 per cent today.
"I see that the economic strength the ethnic women have gained from the development of the tea industry have helped them to raise their voices, promote their roles and improve gender equality," he said.
What's required now is to develop and promote a recognised tea brand of Lai Chau Province in the domestic and international market for the long-term and sustainable development of the tea industry, which would certainly bring greater benefits to farmers, Quang said. "Greater efforts are needed," he said.
The opening of the first tea showroom of Tam Duong Tea Company in Lai Chau City on Sunday marked a breakthrough in the development of the value chain that would enable more consumers to access tea products and contribute to promoting the Lai Chau tea brand.
Loan said she hoped that by participating in the tea value chain, women would get more opportunities to prove that they were in no way inferior to men. — VNS