Phạm Hồng Vân (first, left) and her colleagues at the mushroom processing factory in Hà Nội's Gia Lâm District. — Photos courtesy of Phạm Hồng Vân
HÀ NỘI — Back in 2005, Phạm Hồng Vân used to wake up at 2am every day to make homemade mushroom floss to earn money for her family.
She sometimes had to lug 100 kilograms of dried mushrooms on her old motorbike from a farm 20 kilometres from her home.
She sold the floss, a popular local food, at her small shop in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội.
Nine years later, she became the CEO of a company pioneering in manufacturing processed food made from mushrooms in Việt Nam.
Looking back on her start-up journey, Vân is proud of her achievements.
“Mushrooms have provided the livelihood to help my family get out of poverty."
“They have also brought me a better and meaningful life. I’ve found a new me getting out of my shell, daring to do what I thought impossible,” Vân said.
Vân was born and raised in the Old Quarter of Hà Nội. She had a peaceful life in the busy area until her family went bankrupt as her father and older sister were seriously ill and couldn’t work.
The day she passed her university entrance exams in 2001 was the day she was forced to quit studying as the family couldn't afford the fees.
Vân took many different jobs and worked hard to keep her family going through hard days, but she never stopped dreaming of university.
That dream became a reality when she got a place in the commercial marketing faculty of Thăng Long University in Hà Nội a year later.
Vân had to work and study so hard at the same time that she fell into depression.
In 2007, Vân went to a meditation class to improve her mood. That’s when she was introduced to mushroom floss – a vegetarian food full of flavour and nutritional value.
Vân asked for the recipe and cooked it for her family. She even made some as gifts for friends and neighbours, who encouraged her to start her own business with homemade mushroom floss and became her first customers.
Good news travels fast. The orders flooded in and Vân and her mother had to work until midnight to produce enough mushroom floss.
The problem was that they did it all manually.
“We had to tear mushrooms’ stem into fibres to make the mushroom floss. The job took hours to complete and it was painful,” she said.
Looking down at her swollen fingertips, Vân understood that it was time to make a change.
In 2013, Vân met foreign investors from the Thriive programme – a US fund that gives interest-free loans to small businesses in Hà Nội.
She wanted to modernise the manufacturing process, which shortened the time to process mushrooms so she could increase the number of products and could gain more customers.
After explaining her plan to commercialise her mushroom floss, Vân was loaned the maximum sum of US$10,000, which she spent on purchasing production machines.
Things went so well that Vân was ready to a big risk.
With the support of her mother, she mortgaged the house – the family's most valuable property – to get a bank loan to invest in a mushroom processing factory.
She wanted her products to be sold at supermarkets and food shops across the country.
Vân introduces her mushroom floss with the brand name of Smiley Mushroom to a customer at a trade fair in Hà Nội.
In 2016, the factory, which meets the international standard ISO 22000:2005 on food hygiene and safety, was built in Gia Lâm District.
The factory has a capacity of 12,000 cans of mushroom floss per month, providing five different types of mushroom floss and mushroom sausage roll under the brand name ‘Smiley Mushroom’.
DHA JSC, now renamed Emmay and Colleagues JSC, was born.
“Switching from the model of business household to enterprise was such a bold step for me. My colleagues and I have spent a lot of time, efforts and money to improve the quality of the products as it is the key to expand our market,” Vân said.
She explained all of the products had their own secret recipe to suit customers from different regions with different culinary cultures.
After nine years, roughly one million Smiley Mushroom products have been sold at 230 retail shops via seven distributors.
Vân plans to develop more products made from mushrooms and is busy working on mushroom biomass technology, which makes use of agricultural and forestry waste such as sawdust, corn cob, discarded papers and mushroom roots to make eco-friendly bags to replace plastic bags.
Building a domestic material zone
The biggest concern for Vân and her colleagues now is building a suitable mushroom planting area as the main supply for her company.
Currently, no single supplier can meet the firm's high demand for dried mushrooms.
“We are kicking off the project to create a domestic material zone that meets the requirement of Global Gap, so that we can complete the value chain of food production,” she said.
Four localities of Đà Lạt, Ba Vì, Thái Nguyên and Tam Đảo have been chosen to implement the project, with the start date unclear.
Vân also hopes to begin exporting the products, perhaps her greatest challenge yet.
“I’ve found out that working in the agricultural food processing industry is the most challenging. Unlike interior or decorative products, food products have to meet a lot of criteria and requirements before being licensed for export.
“Those who produce food products must be devoted and honest to be able to make qualified products,” she said.
In the next month, Vân, together with her mushroom products, will join the final round of Vietchallenge, a global entrepreneurship competition for Vietnamese start-ups held in Boston, the US. This will be the chance for her to introduce the mushroom biomass technology as well as the ‘Smiley Mushroom’ products to the world. — VNS