Going gourmet in Vietnam’s uplands

1 August, 2013 by (comments)

Hoa Bui sits crossed-legged, pouring green tea into small china cups with a thoughtful look on her face. An ethnic minority farmer in Vietnam’s upland northwestern district of Tan Lac in Hoa Binh Province, her stilted house is nestled in remote green sloping fields. She’s mulling over whether to grow chayote again this year – the leafy vegetable enveloping everything around the house, which – over the last four years – has earned the family food security, enough money to buy a gas cooker, and petrol to take the children to school. “Probably not,” she says.

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Throwing a glance out of the window, she elaborates: “When we started growing chayote we had a high price for it. Now we don’t,” she says. Then she explains how a recent visit to a market 50km away sealed her decision: there’s nothing like a glimpse of the competition to spur any entrepreneur into action.

“When [I went] to the market, I saw that if vegetables are few, the price is high. When there are a lot then the price goes down,” she notes. Applying this basic economic principle to her household, she has concluded that this year the family will probably grow chilli instead. “Or maize,” she adds, after a brief interjection from her husband, listening carefully while smoking a bamboo pipe.

Finding the niche

It might seem odd to shout about the fact that a crop promoted by the Small-scale Agro-enterprise Development in the Uplands (SADU) project, managed by CIAT and funded by the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, is being swapped for alternatives. On the contrary, the project’s work was less about the crop, chayote, and more about responding to the market. Weighing up what niche produce to cultivate instead of chayote, based on how alternatives are currently doing on the market, would never have occurred to farmers like Hoa Bui and her husband in the past.

Boosting household profits enough to support the whole family, chayote has certainly played its part in keeping many families in Tan Lac District food secure. In 2010, Hoa’s farm produced 1.6 tons of chayote leaves and shoots, fetching a net income of US$350. Had she harvested maize instead, her net income would have totalled no more than US$40. Back then, the village planted 3.5 hectares to chayote – now that figure is 30.

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But the proverbial honeymoon with the green leaf is over, the market having become a bit crowded with all the neighbours growing it too, driving prices down. Now, some are switching to other, more lucrative crops to sell in Hanoi’s biggest food markets, which ultimately end up at some of the city’s top restaurants – and that is the legacy of SADU.

You could say farmers have learned how to conduct a very basic cost-benefit analysis, deciding where to invest their resources for maximum returns, based on current trading patterns and prices. “That, for a small farming family from a remote upland ethnic minority, is impressive,” noted SADU senior project officer Thuy Cu Thi Le. And so is the fact that their produce still ends up in some of the finest restaurants in the country more than four years after the project has ended, without them actually having to physically travel anywhere.

It’s who you know

Of course, SADU staff were not only concerned with facilitating markets. When the project first started in 2007, assessments established that chayote leaves could fetch higher prices in the Hanoi markets than traditionally sold fruits could in local markets. Chayote also has limited vulnerability to pests, and is an excellent control against soil erosion: soils remain untouched during the three to four-year harvest period, and the broad chayote leaves protect it from sunlight and rain. Climatic conditions in the uplands also allow communities to supply regional markets during the off-season.

Instead of working directly with farmers, the need to build institutional links was emphasised – in other words, it’s not just what you know, it’s also who. Along with government extension officials, farmers from six pilot villages were mentored and accompanied to their nearest market to meet traders and find out where their produce would end up after leaving the farm gate.

Training was provided in improved planting techniques for chayote and working relationships were established with extension workers, traders and buyers. Traders began investing in chayote growing communes, providing pick-ups by motorbike or truck and advising which fertilisers to apply and how to bundle chayote. Farmers invested in improving the quality of their produce and this ready supply chain, linked to the wholesale markets like Long Bien night market in Hanoi, is still strong.

Top technology

SADU also focused on supplying cutting edge scientific technologies to farmers to boost the quality and market value of their product. Take persimmon. Unlike chayote, persimmon trees could be found almost everywhere in the upland northwestern district of Da Bac. So popular had they become, following a government-led programme to promote bitter tasting astringent persimmon production, the market was swamped.

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Due to the resulting low prices, many farmers destroyed their persimmon trees and began to grow maize instead. Yet a sweeter persimmon variety, popular in China was growing in demand. Lieu Nguyen was one of the few farmers who preserved her 100 strong persimmon tree orchard, and learned grafting techniques from SADU to graft the non-astringent persimmon variety onto her astringent root stock – a much more lucrative option than replacing the persimmon with maize.

“I didn’t want to chop the trees down like everyone else, and the non-astringent variety is popular in the markets in Hanoi,” said Lieu. “I’m happy that I’m the only person in this area who has this variety of persimmon, so I get a good price. Persimmon is suitable to the soil conditions here and is a high value supplement to my income,” she added. Walking through her orchard, she also has an impressive array of jackfruit, plum, peach and guava trees, which supplement her staple income from livestock, rice and maize.

Green shoots

Smallholders mentored under the SADU project have reaped significant profits: Targeting mainstream markets, linking traders and farmers and introducing farmers to relevant and improved technologies has paid off. Other benefits have been apparent – for example chayote leaves can also be fed to pigs, and thanks to an education in basic market economics, remote communities are testing niche markets by themselves, experimenting with high-value chilli, coriander and ginger.

There is still much need for scaling up and sharing these successes more widely.  One reason the project has had lasting impact among remote and poor farmers is that no financial incentives changed hands. Farmers received training, market information and transport to build relationships with market traders, the only incentive was knowledge. Which is a very valuable thing – participating farmers now know that producing quality goods is one skill; selling them successfully is another.

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See also – Chayote – a CIAT success story

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Filed Under: Asia @en, Crops @en, Regions, Soils