When Bernard Kervyn first arrived in Vietnam in the mid 1990s, the country was still ravaged by a lack of basic amenities and infrastructure—no doubt a turning point for the creation of Mekong Plus, a non-profit organization that now strives to improve rural lives and eliminate poverty in villages in southern Vietnam and Cambodia through purpose-driven action targeted at education, sustainable employment, agronomy and health.
In the very beginning, most of the NPO’s efforts were focused on co-funding basic infrastructure for rural communities who were largely detached from larger settlements—closing the gap through transportation was the fastest way for many of these villages to earn a living as locals could then travel easily to more developed location to find work.
“For example, Mekong Plus would fork out 30% of the cost to build a bridge that would eliminate the need for dangerous river crossings,” Bernard explained.
This helped create a valuable sense of ownership amongst locals, inevitably becoming the catalyst for change by giving the hope of a better future.
As rural conditions improved over the last two decades, Mekong Plus identified another hurdle that stunted the financial development of many rural families—the lack of capital and assets to pursue domestic investments.
Microcredit loans key to motivating small-scale agronomy projects
With increasing debt due to the recent pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war, local banks have become reluctant to provide smaller loans which many rural families desire.
“Loans of less than VND20,000,000 (USD820) are considered a burden to banks due to the high cost of management,” Bernard explained.
In its simplest form, Mekong Plus takes over the debts of locals from money lenders who demand cut throat interest rates. But loans that Mekong Plus believes make the greatest difference are those that help villagers start cottage businesses that range from growing organic vegetables, duck eggs, to exotic endeavors such as eel and turtle farms.
With a capital of less than VND2,000,000 (US$85) from Mekong Plus, Đinh Văn Ly from Long Mỹ District in Vietnam’s southwestern Hậu Giang province began to harvest straw mushrooms five years ago.
Most importantly, Innovation is everything when it comes to turning ‘waste material’ into gold.
The leftover rice paddy straw from growing mushrooms is then treated with microscopic trichoderma fungi to produce compost, eliminating bacterial problems of traditional techniques that often lead to crop diseases.
Annually, Ly produces more than 2 crops of straw mushrooms and at least 8 tons of organic fertiliser which has helped his family’s income increase by 45%.
Creating sustainable employment through Mekong Quilts
Starting in the early 2000s, Mekong Plus began to search for a solution for a multi-generational problem—a lack of meaningful and sustainable work for underprivileged women in the region.
With a team of five volunteers and less than 20 nimble-handed ladies, Mekong Quilts started as a small quilting workshop in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City. The social enterprise’s goal and mission was straight-forward and simple—creating quilt and fabric souvenirs sold to local and foreigners as a form of long-term sustainable income for its artisans.
Today, the social enterprise employs nearly 100 female artisans from more than 20 villages in Vietnam and Cambodia, creating handicrafts that have far exceeded the initial boundaries pre-conceived by its team during its early existence.
From fashionable wearables to papier-mâché Christmas decorations and even bamboo bicycles and artisanal incense sticks, Mekong Quilts is a testimony to how Mekong Plus has transformed with new trends in the last three decades.
“We have to change and come up with new strategies and products everyday,” Bernard insists.
Giving back to rural communities through scholarships
Unfortunately for many rural families who believe in the importance of education, the average income of a typical family in the Mekong Delta is less than VND2,500,000 (US$105) a month—much lesser than that required for a child to complete high school in Vietnam.
“For rural communities far away from big cities, families often need to account for the cost of rent [to allow their children to attend high school],” Bernard reminds.
For many, the only way to send children to school is to borrow haphazardly or liquify assets, a tragedy that Mekong Plus seeks to address through the help of Mekong Quilts’ Scholarship Fund.
Together with 100% profits of Mekong Quilts’ merchandise sales that go into funding the education of rural children, the sister organizations work hand-in-hand to organize an annual solidarity run since 2001 that attracts thousands of participants from all beneficiary communes.
With the support of the local community from all walks of life, the short 2-kilometre ‘marathon’ ends with participants contributing any sum of money they deem fit.
Seeing a growing number of runners every year, the solidarity run of 2022 was joined by 196,000 participants that contributed a total of US$63000 to the fund. Mekong Plus has since amplified this number to support more than 2% of every student cohort—children from the neediest families in the region.
“We no longer need to enforce a minimum [number of runners] for beneficiary communes because of the overwhelming support we receive,” Bernard related.
Ultimately, the camaraderie and drive for a better future generated through the annual run is in line with one of Mekong Plus’ core beliefs—great efforts are made possible through the passion of the community at large.
How you can help Mekong Plus!
Beyond sponsoring your preferred beneficiary from a list of projects at Mekong Plus, every purchase at Mekong Quilts website or its new physical store at 85 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City will go a long way to uplifting the lives of needy villagers and their families.
With something for everyone and every budget, every gift purchased from Mekong Quilts is a gift that gives twice —putting a smile on friends and family, and putting rural children back into school!