Mekong Plus empowering women through rural development

Charcoal and firewood might seem like typical necessities of rural living, but Vietnam and Cambodia-based Mekong Plus sees it differently.

“[These methods are] very polluting and create a lot of smoke,” Bernard Kervyn, Managing Director of the non-profit organisation that has spent more than 30 years improving lives in areas such as the Mekong delta and coastal Vietnam, explained.

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A woman cooking using methane biogas

And the most common victims of this seemingly innocent form of fuel? Rural women spend more than three hours a day preparing meals for their families and the consequence of breathing in cooking smoke is often under-estimated; manifesting as respiratory illness, impaired lung capacity and even cancer later on in life.

Community projects with multi-faceted impact

This problem then became a driving force for the Mekong Plus team to develop an alternative fuel that is both accessible and clean.

Beginning with a first successful pilot experiment in the 1990s, Mekong Plus has now managed to help more than 3,000 households with chicken or pig excrement to produce biogas through a low-cost plastic reservoir system that only requires locals to shove animal faeces directly into an installation built behind pigsties and chicken pens. The system can also be adapted easily for cow and human waste.

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After two or three weeks of natural fermentation, sufficient methane gas is produced, no pump is necessary and only polyurethane or PVC pipes are required to channel the gas to a heat-resistant concrete stove.

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The methane biogas tank, floating above two pigs

“In most cases, only VND2,000,000 (US$87) of investment [is needed]!” Bernard exclaimed.

The benefits of burning Methane goes beyond reducing women’s exposure to smoke in the kitchen. As a greenhouse gas that is about 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat, burning it as a fuel prevents its release into the atmosphere.

Women’s well-being linked to agricultural habits

Realising that not all households are able to employ techniques that involve animal husbandry, Mekong Plus also helps households with limited land to build covered farms that are protected from the elements and pests, allowing even non-seasonal vegetables to be grown and sold for prices 2 times higher than when in season.

“Pesticides become unnecessary for most vegetables and farmers are exposed to fewer toxins,” Bernard reminded. 

With an increasing number of men leaving the countryside to look for work in developed cities, the impact of these women-focused initiatives become greater by day.

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A greenhouse filled with vegetables in rural Vietnam

For paddy crops, Mekong Plus developed yet another strategy–leftover rice straw after harvest is treated with a spray that contains Trichoderma fungi, producing natural anti-microbial compounds in the process. The treated rice straw can then be used as compost or as bedding for raising pigs, reducing the spread of infectious diseases and in turn the need to bathe pigs with large amounts of water regularly. 

“Once the pigs are sold, the dry litter can be collected and used as compost too!” Bernard reminded.

Mekong Plus considers this a much better solution than what is done traditionally–burning rice straw with the misinformed belief that heat purges bad soil.

“Women thus have much less work to do,” Bernard said.

Growing the potential of girls and women

Ultimately, Mekong Plus believes that nurturing the next generation is key to alleviating poverty.

Priority is given to girls for Mekong Plus’ highly-acclaimed scholarship program to discourage families from continuing the tradition of preferring boys over girls for further education.

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A teenager working on her homework

Mekong Plus micro-credit programmes that provide smaller sums of financial support, which are often unattractive to banks as loans, are also focused on women since a large number of beneficiary households comprise of single mothers or widows due to unfortunate yet common circumstances such as motorbike accidents and rampant alcoholism.

“Empowering women in the household might begin as a loan and technical support to help a rural lady rear her first batch of chickens,” Bernard elaborated.

As household income increases, these women can choose to opt-in on many other programmes helmed by Mekong Plus.

“Through regular meetings [with the women], our volunteers also identify cases of domestic violence and sexual abuse,” Bernard said.

How you can help

Beyond rural development projects focusing on farming, Mekong Plus’ sister social enterprise Mekong Quilts offers a wide range of artisanal quilt, fabric and handicraft products handmade by female artisans throughout Vietnam and Cambodia; more than 80% of profits at Mekong Quilts goes back to Mekong Plus’ scholarship and rural projects that have helped improve the lives of underprivileged women since 2001.

Visit Mekong Plus homepage today to learn more about its mission and beneficiaries and how you can help to improve lives in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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