Lê Hương & Minh Phương
In many ways Lường Thị Hồng Tươi, Hà Thị Huế and Cao Thị Tâm are similar. They have the same worries, loves, desires, and frailties, and have managed to take opportunities to earn money, support others and lead people in their community to improve their lives.
One more thing they have in common is that they have joined the Gender Responsive Equitable Agriculture and Tourism (GREAT) Programme, funded by the Australian Government, aiming to promote women’s economic empowerment in the north-western mountainous provinces of Sơn La and Lào Cai.
Vặt Village in Mường Sang Commune, Mộc Châu District, Sơn La, is home to many ethnic Thais and is becoming a popular tourist destination for domestic and foreign visitors. It has 14 households offering homestay experiences, while 50 other households provide tourism-related services.
Mộc Miên Homestay run by Tươi's family is a popular destination for visitors. — VNS Photo Nguyễn Nam
Tourism has changed the lives of the locals, and Tươi, head of the homestay service group, has actively contributed to that process.
According to Đinh Thị Hường, head of the Mộc Châu District’s Culture and Information Department, Tươi has been one of the leading members of the group.
“Tươi has not only done great work but also persuaded other women to join the programme to sell more farm produce and get better income from tourism,” Hường said.
The income of Tươi’s family has improved significantly since she started her homestay service in 2017. Before that, they had relied mostly on the yield of their plum, apricot and strawberry gardens, which brought them about VNĐ40 million (US$1,750) each year. Now they make VNĐ900 million from both agriculture and tourism. Her homestay has received even more guests since 2020.
“In 2017, I realised that the homestay service has potential here as our village is close to popular destinations like Dải Yếm Waterfalls and Vặt Hồng Pagoda,” Tươi said.
Tươi (right) welcomes a guest in her strawberry garden. — VNS Photo Nguyễn Nam
“At that time, two other families began a homestay service in the village. As young people, my husband and I thought we could do the same and wanted to build a house on stilts to receive guests. Before joining the GREAT Programme in 2019 we learnt from other host families’ experience, now we are receiving professional training through GREAT.”
Tươi and other women have been trained in guest reception, room service, cooking and other things.
They have also been taught marketing skills to introduce and advertise local goods and homestays on Facebook. The members have been divided into homestay, performance and handicraft production. They also have access to finance at favourable interest rates.
“We have coordinated our services so that all host families in the village can receive guests and ensure the best service quality,” Tươi said.
Tươi said she feels much more self-confident as she sees her role in the family’s business and the village development grow.
“Before, I used to be shy when standing in front of a crowd,” she said. “But I have had the chance to be trained as a group leader, and I have been able to arrange my timetable and tasks more efficiently.”
Tươi’s husband, Hà Văn Thủy, cannot hide the pride he has for his wife.
Tươi and her husband always share tasks. — VNS Photo Nguyễn Nam
“I think women working as leaders is very good,” he said. “We, as a couple, help each other do our work. I sometimes do the housework and take care of the children so that my wife can have more time for social work and activities.”
However, Thủy said that some other men in the village had not always felt comfortable seeing their wives take on more work and demonstrating more confidence. They were not used to it.
“I just try my best to help my wife show her capabilities,” he said. “Our whole family has benefited from better income thanks to tourism and selling agricultural produce, mostly handled by my wife.”
The power of bamboo
The programme has helped Hà Thị Huế, a Thái ethnic woman, in Xuân Nha Commune in Vân Hồ District, also in Sơn La, to become a decisive, powerful leader.
From being an active member of the local bamboo producer group, she has become Deputy Director of the Xuân Nha Bamboo Cooperative, which was established in July 2020 and now comprises 12 members (four males and eight females) of the Thái and Mường ethnic groups.
“GREAT has helped us form working groups,” she said. “Now we have four working groups, and each group includes 80 to 100 households.”
Huế said a decade ago there was plenty of bamboo in the forest. But locals did not know how to harvest bamboo shoots properly. They cut all the shoots, big and small, which damaged the harvest in subsequent seasons.
“Families also applied simple drying techniques using firewood, which resulted in the poor quality of dried bamboo products,” she said.
The GREAT-supported project started in 2019 and has trained farmers to harvest bamboo shoots sustainably and plant more high-yield bamboo varieties. It also equipped villagers with a giant boiler, which can boil up to 1.2 tonnes of bamboo shoot in around one hour.
Huế is no longer shy and reserved. She has gained much self-confidence thanks to GREAT's leadership course. — VNS Photo Nguyễn Nam
A solar-energy drying-house has been installed in the Cooperative’s workshop, which can dry up to 1.5 tonnes of fresh bamboo shoots in three days. During those three days, the workers only have to turn over the bamboo shoots once or twice. From one tonne of fresh bamboo shoots, they get 80-100kg of dried product.
In the past, the same one tonne of fresh bamboo shoots took many days to be dried by firewood, and they had to turn the bamboo pieces over and over up to 15 times. It was hard work and inefficient.
The project has also offered Photovoice classes to all Cooperative members to document the changes brought by participating in the bamboo shoots project and encourage them to express themselves more openly. Together with gender equality awareness-raising events and leadership classes, it has also brought an understanding of gender equality to men and women, and leadership skills to new leaders.
“Now I am much more confident when speaking to people,” Huế said.
Huế has been an active official in Tun Village while holding the post of Deputy Director of the Cooperative.
“The project has enhanced both women’s and men’s knowledge of their responsibilities at home and in society,” Huế said.
Thanks to the GREAT Programme, the cooperative members get higher income while spending less time and energy at work.
There are three bamboo shoot seasons each year, and before joining the cooperative in July 2020, their income was VNĐ10-20 million per season.
Products produced by the Cooperative include fermented bamboo shoots to export to Taiwan. Each year, the Cooperative produces over 20 tonnes of packed bamboo shoot products. The Yên Thành Company in Yên Bái Province has signed a contract to buy the Cooperative’s products for 20 years.
After the solar drying-house was built, the Cooperative produced dried bamboo shoots to sell in the domestic market all year-round.
The Cooperative’s trading on online platforms like Shopee and Lazada has been encouraged. The average income of members doubled to VNĐ40 million per season.
“I had the chance to visit other successful models in Bắc Hà, Lào Cai, Yên Bái and Hà Nội,” Huế said. “I have learnt a lot from these trips. I know that I have better knowledge and economic conditions than many other local women. So I have tried to guide them to work better to earn more income so they can enjoy a better standard of living.”
Working with a sincere heart
Cao Thị Tâm, Director of Tân Xuân 269 Cooperative in Tân Xuân Commune, Vân Hồ District, has received the same support from GREAT to expand her production and enhance her leadership.
As a primary school teacher, she moved to a remote area in 2012. She first opened a small shop to earn a living. She saw locals trekking to the mountains to cut bamboo shoots and sell them to wholesale traders at cheap prices. The average income of each family was VNĐ3 million per month.
Tâm receives a customer in her workshop. — VNS Photo Nguyễn Nam
“They could not make ends meet, and their children did not have warm clothes in winter,” she said.
Tâm often gives food and clothes to help them.
Gradually, Tâm realised that if she acted as a trader to buy bamboo shoots from farmers at a higher price, she could help them more sustainably. The Cooperative was established in 2019 when she found a wholesaler to purchase her bamboo shoots.
“I bought bamboo shoots from local farmers at VNĐ8,000 per kilogram, higher than they sold to other traders. They were happy, but I almost did not have any benefit for the whole first year. Many of them registered to join my Cooperative,” she said.
Four years since its establishment, the 70-member Cooperative now produces 30 tonnes of dried bamboo shoots each year from a 1,000ha bamboo planting area. The main product of the Cooperative has been certified with the national four-star OCOP (One Commune One Product) standard.
Last year, the Cooperative had a total trade turnover of VNĐ3 billion, 30-35 per cent of which was profit despite the pandemic. Each member got a salary of VNĐ5-6 million per month.
GREAT has supported the Cooperative with a drying cabinet, which can dry up to 500kg of fresh bamboo shoots, a 700ml steamer that holds up to 500kg of bamboo shoots and a spin-dryer, which can process the same amount. The processing can be done every day with this professional equipment, whatever the weather.
Tâm had learnt a lot from the GREAT leadership training course.
“Before I just said what I think,” she said. “But now, as a leader, I think twice before speaking. I have learnt how to plan, to propose deadlines for others to make production go smoother and more scientifically.”
According to Nguyễn Thị Mai Hoa, a Business Consultant with the GREAT programme, Tâm is a typical female leader trained professionally in leadership. The course has helped improve her income. Her skills in online trading have resulted in a 3.5 times higher income for the cooperative.
“She has inspired people to join the cooperative,” Hoa said. “Initially, the enterprise had 30 members. Now it has 70 members. She has also inspired other local women who want to start a business.”
When working with ethnic minority women, Hoa said, the project was initially bogged down with various obstacles, including geography, language, social stereotypes and lack of knowledge.
The GREAT Programme has encouraged local women to be more confident and increase their economic participation, including training and support build skills in managing cooperatives, business planning, finance, leadership and digital competencies, especially through gaining access to e-commerce platforms.
Hoa said that the GREAT would further focus on enhancing women’s self-confidence and capability to make decisions in the coming months, with a focus on increasing access to financial services.
“GREAT will continue to cooperate with agencies and national programmes to provide more favourable policies for enterprises run by women to develop more sustainably,” Hoa added.
Through programmes like GREAT, a new generation of rural women is feeling empowered to take on the world, creating better lives for themselves and their wider communities. VNS