Mekong Plus : An organisation dedicated to renewing the lives of the poorest in the Mekong Delta.
Twenty years may seem like a long time, but to Bernard Kervyn, the founder of Mekong Plus, a Vietnam & Cambodia-based NGO that is committed to the development of disadvantaged rural areas of both countries, it has been a well-deserved journey of both tears and joy, often from witnessing the renewal of the lives of some of its poorest beneficiaries.
A new beginning motivated by experiences in South Asia
Deeply motivated by French agronomist René Dumont, whose book illustrated vivid scenes of poverty in India, Bernard left for Bangladesh to join an NGO for a stint that lasted more than a decade. He then brought the valuable experience gained in South Asia to Vietnam with his wife to start Vietnam Plus. It has since been renamed Mekong Plus to reflect its commitments to both Vietnam and Cambodia that share the geographical Mekong region.
“When we started [the organisation] in 1994, there was no culture of social work and hardly anyone with experience in the field”, Bernard revealed.
In the earlier days of the project, It was common for city-dwellers to join the team and be ‘shell shocked’ by life in the rural areas and leaving for the big city within days. Soon after Bernard’s first inaugural social work trip to the then impoverished coastal province of Bình Thuận, old colleagues and friends from various NGOs he worked with decided to lend a hand financially which leapfrogged Mekong Plus’ earliest efforts.
A lady cleaning her dishes by the river in a rural village of Mekong Delta.
A myriad of strategies developed over two decades
One of the earliest strategies designed by Bernard and the team was co-funding.
“[At first], we had no intention of embarking on the construction of bridges and roads.” Bernard explained truthfully. He then asked community leaders of a village what they could contribute, and was eventually surprised that villagers had unanimously decided to bear 75% of the costs. This eventually became standard protocol for most projects supported by Mekong Plus.
“The bridges were well built, strong and built to last, and cheaper too.” Bernard remarked. He and the team realised that community participation and the sense of ownership was crucial to successful programmes. This was re-adapted to Mekong Plus’ first school latrine programmes, where Mekong Plus would reimburse schools with the cleanest toilets a sizable part of initial construction costs.
Many bridges are in poor condition in the Mekong Delta.
“The latrines have become their latrines, [and] not [just] project latrines!” He exclaimed.
Henceforth, Mekong Plus’ focus on education advanced spontaneously, birthing further programmes such as providing scholarships to needy children in the Mekong Delta. To Bernard, one of the most effective ways to bring families out of poverty is to ensure that children prosper in school.
“At that point [of time], many [of the] families’ we work with did not realise the importance of education.”
A little girl crosses a monkey bridge in the Mekong Delta.
One of the most remarkable initiatives that Bernard believes Mekong Plus has helmed, and is still doing so today, is an annual solidarity run that brings together almost all of the beneficiary communes in each of the regions where Mekong Plus’ initiatives flourish.
“Everyone including the children, teachers and government cadres [run]!” Bernard said, as he depicted, picturesquely, the sheer extent of the final runs in 2019 before the pandemic caused ripples in 2020. Annually, the runs see around 125.000 participants. At the end of each approximately 3-kilometre charity run, every participant is encouraged to donate an indefinite sum of money to help the community fund scholarship to about 2% of schoolchildren.
Kids running during the solidarity run in the Mekong Delta.
“It’s not about the value, it is the concrete mark of solidarity [that matters].”
Micro-crediting; Jumpstarting financial independence
Amongst the most effective of initiatives developed by Mekong Plus is the micro-crediting scheme that allows beneficiaries to borrow small sums of money without zero interest for the first 3 years. Bernard believes that this facilitates a pathway out of poverty for many of the poor in the Mekong Delta, many of which are single mothers from broken families.
“Before supporting the family with training and a microcredit, we ensure that the children do not drop out of school.” Bernard explained. Once a family has been evaluated as a prime choice for financial assistance, Mekong Plus’ team of volunteers proceed with training beneficiaries to ensure the longevity of a project, which includes small-scale farming such as vegetables, poultry and rice-paddy eels.
A family growing vegetables in their garden in the Delta.
“30 to 50 chickens with proper care will give a good return in 3 to 4 month. [But] if they do not use good techniques, chick mortality can reach 80%,” Bernard cautioned.
Initial loans average VND2,000,000 and are expected to be paid back in 6 months. Mekong Plus then evaluates the overall situation of the family before proceeding with providing a bigger loan; often larger than the initial.
“Defaulters are extremely rare and we see an average income increase of 25% [per annum].”
Enriching the project through retail: Mekong Quilts
At Mekong Plus, the human dimension is the foundation of any community, and almost all of its activities strive towards assuring that people meet their needs and live in dignity.
With that in mind, shortly before the summer of 2001, Bernard discovered a golden opportunity which would soon prove to be the key to improving the lives of countless disadvantaged women in Vietnam and Cambodia. Mekong Plus began to work with madam Thanh Truong, and a fabrics designer, to train local women to produce high-quality quiltwork. Backed by nimble hands, high-quality quilts and word of mouth, Mekong Quilts was born, and now employs more than 100 women in both countries, producing a large portfolio of products that’s no longer just limited to its signature line of quilts. During the early days of the pandemic in 2020, its aesthetically pleasing line of designer 4-layered facemasks became one of the best selling items.
A group of artisan quilters, creating beautiful quilts.
“We have learnt so much through years, and evolving with the times and crisis has kept us afloat.”