As soon as we cross the bridge over the Mekong River, the landscape changes. We enter the southern coastal province of Ben Tre, on our way to Binh Dai district. The many waterways make it impossible here to grow crops or to raise livestock on a large scale. The water is brackish and that makes the soil unsuitable for almost all crops. On pieces of land we see coconut palms and some houses. Along the main road there is more activity, a workshop, coffee shop and a few small shops have survived with minimal resources. The people in Binh Dai are poor, you can see that immediately. Many families are even extremely poor, and for them MCNV has started Micro credit projects ten years ago.
In 2009, the Women’s Union asked MCNV for support to provide loans to women in the poorest villages of Binh Dai, so that they could buy a cow, a goat or a couple of ducks to supplement their income. In the beginning the women struggled to repay the borrowed money. Some groups now succeed in providing loans using the paid back money. They save a little together and help each other out if they have trouble paying back, for example because a goat dies. They absorb setbacks in the group, thus creating a social safety net. The MCNV project staff supervise the credit groups, giving practical advice and organizing simple training courses on how to handle, borrow and save money. For these women, MCNV’s supervision is indispensable for now, as they are not yet fully confident.
After ten years, aren’t we done yet?
No, we are not there yet. Our experiences with other projects teach us that it takes longer to structurally improve the living conditions of the poorest people. We devised a plan to let more women and their families benefit from the positive effect of the credit groups. By working together in a cooperative production group, such as a mushroom farm or a fish drying facility, the women together can borrow a larger sum of money and thus earn a more stable income. The first groups started in Binh Dai in 2016 and we hope to be able to start another 22 together with our partners until 2020.
What do we know about mushrooms?
Nguyen Thi Anh Tho (37, son of 11), leader of the oyster mushroom group in An Phu, at first thought it would be impossible to grow mushrooms. “We had to come up with something to make money, because the vegetable and fruit harvest often failed because of the brackish water here. The Women’s Union told us: why don’t you grow oyster mushrooms, that is a good product to sell. But what did we know about that? We started in 2016 with 20 women and a loan of 186 million Dong (approx. 7000 Euro) and we received an explanation from a man who knew everything about oyster mushrooms. By working very hard, we have managed to earn a steady income. Our group now has 27 women. We are very proud of that!”
Phan Ngoc Minh is 36 and has 2 children aged 10 and 14. She enjoys working here. She used to be a tailor but there was not much demand for her work, she also works in rice growing. “Working in a group is good for me, I use the extra money for food and school expenses. I can now buy more for my children. I work here 8 hours a day. What is the best part? Harvesting the mushrooms!”
More work for more women
Along the road, in My Chanh village, we visit the new cooking group of leader Hong Van. She says: “Almost everyone works here during the day and there are many large gatherings such as weddings and funerals. It takes the villagers a lot of time to cook for all those people. We offer to cook at people’s homes or we prepare the food at home in my kitchen and then take it away.” By working together, the women will soon be able to cook for large groups of up to 600 guests, they calculated. Because most women work in the fields or keep a cow, and have no experience cooking for groups, they started following a cooking course together. Hong Van: “With the money loan, we will soon be able to buy cooking utensils, bowls, chopsticks, and even a refrigerator. And if all goes well, also a motorbike with a trailer to be able to deliver the food faster.” These women are enthusiastic and have plenty of plans, and when they leave they proudly offer their self-made calling card from the Hong Van Cooking Group.
Our request from you
We request your (extra) contribution this spring so that MCNV staff can continue to supervise the credit groups in Ben Tre. It is not easy to find extra money for these costs, the project money is only meant to give loans to the women. That is why we ask for your help! With an amount of € 20,000 the MCNV staff in Ben Tre can continue their advisory and support work until the summer of 2020. Only with your support can we continue to help the poorest women!
By Saskia Stevens