Passion helps woman’s start-up dream succeed

December 03, 2018 - 09:00

Have you ever tried eating tomatoes like other kinds of fruit such as apples or grapes instead of just using it for cooking or making salads?

Lê Thị Lệ Phương has succeeded in growing organic tomatoes following Japanese technology. — Photo courtesy of Lê Thị Lệ Phương
Viet Nam News

by Khánh Vân

HÀ NỘI — Have you ever tried eating tomatoes like other kinds of fruit such as apples or grapes instead of just using it for cooking or making salads?

Lê Thị Lệ Phương from the Central Highlands province of Lâm Đồng’s Đà Lạt City came up with a concept to grow sweet, delicious, eye-catching tomatoes that smell good with the hope of encouraging more people to eat the nutritious fruit.

“Tomatoes are full of nutrition and very good for the health but not many people like them,” she said.

“Research also shows that tomatoes contain cancer-resistant properties,” she added.

Her idea became a reality after meeting a Japanese expert in Đà Lạt who told her about an idea to grow organic fruit using milk and eggs which had been successfully applied in Japan.

After studying the idea, Phương decided to start growing organic tomatoes three years ago.

However, growing normal tomatoes is difficult and growing organic fruit is even harder.

The quality of the product depends on many factors, from the variety, land and weather to growing technique and fertilisers.

Phương failed with her first batch of tomatoes in late 2016.

“My lack of experience and information together with unusual changes in the weather spoiled the crop. Most of the tomatoes split and we had to throw them away. We tried to save the tomatoes by making purees and sauces but that also failed,” she recalled.

She lost an estimated VNĐ300 million (US$13,000) for her efforts.

However, it did not discourage Phương and instead provided more motivation for her to try harder.

Despite the sleepless nights, Phương continued to study growing and processing techniques.

“I have never thought about giving up. Failure has encouraged me to try harder,” she said.

And her efforts have paid off. Phương succeeded in growing and processing products made from organic tomatoes using Japanese technology.

Growing organic tomato requires strict rules, Phương said.

Seeds need to be germinated in warm water at 45-50 degrees Celsius for 12 hours before being planted in a sponge box for eight to ten days. They are then replanted in soil with a density of 2,500 plants per 1,000sq.m, according to Phương.

Organic fertiliser plays an important role. Nutrition is sourced from eggs, milk and molasses which are left to rot for 30 days. The mixture is then diluted and mixed with calcium and magnesium before being used to water the plants, she explained.

Each plant usually starts bearing fruit after two months with an average crop of 5-7kg of tomatoes per year.

Growing organic tomatoes has many advantages in comparison with traditional tomatoes.

“It creates high-quality products that help raise the price. These tomatoes are tasty with a sweet smell, and they look beautiful,” she said.

Normal baby tomatoes are sold on the market for VNĐ10,000-20,000 ($0.4-0.8) per kilo, while the price of organic tomatoes is ten times higher.

Phương’s tomato crop covers 2,000sq.m and she can harvest 12,000kg of organic tomatoes per year, bringing in VNĐ500-600 million ($21,000-25,000).

“Without using any chemicals or fertilisers, this eco-friendly way of growing the fruit also helps protect consumer health and protects the environment as well,” she added.

Female start-ups

Phương’s project to grow and process organic tomato products is one of 20 outstanding projects that were selected among thousands of ideas across the country to take part in the Women’s Start-up Festival held in Hà Nội last month.

The event, the first of its kind, was organised by the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU) to honour and support innovative women.

According to VWU Chairwoman Nguyễn Thị Thu Hà, more than 8,500 women had received support from women’s unions at all levels to start businesses in 2017 and 2018.

“In two years, we have completed one-third of the target of having 20,000 women start successful businesses by 2025,” she said at the festival.

Statistics from the Vietnam Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (VINASME) shows that SMEs, including micro-enterprises, contributed 45 per cent to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), and accounted for nearly 98 per cent of total businesses.

A study conducted by the Development Economics and YouGov on behalf of Facebook, which was revealed at the “Key to Success in the Digital Age” forum in Hà Nội last month showed that four in five women in Việt Nam wanted to start a business.

If only half of these women were empowered to start a business today, it would not only boost economic growth, but also help to build 1.1 million new businesses, and create 3.9 million additional jobs – all by the end of 2021, according to the study.

However, women still face many challenges in starting businesses.

“Lack of market information, professional knowledge and skills are one among key challenges facing female start-ups,” Phương said.

“Many women also fail as they forget to focus on market demand and orientation,” she added.

Female start-ups also met with more difficulties than men due to social prejudices that say women need to spend more time on housework and taking care of their husbands and children, she said.

However, as Phương said: “With strong passion and determination, we can still succeed.” — VNS