For more than a decade, under-privileged women who live in rural areas of Vietnam and Cambodia have benefited greatly from the stable employment created by the workshops run by Mekong Quilts, thanks to a steady flow of foreign visitors, but the year 2020 was one of stark difference.
“[Now] our workshops only operate when we have orders, unlike in the past,” Bernard Kervyn, found director of Mekong Quilts, explained with a slight tone of despair. On the bright side, the social enterprise’s speedy reprioritisation towards online sales has kept everything, at least relatively, afloat.
Vietnam triumphs over the pandemic but a challenging year for many quilters
With Mekong Quilts workshops only producing when orders arrive through the website or social media channels, many of its hard working team have had to seek additional employment beyond quilt making. Quilting sister Bé Tư from the rural district of Long Mỹ in Hậu Giang province shared that with a lack of quilting work, her family now lives on less than US$20 (VND460,000) a month compared to better times where it was often possible to make more than US$173 (VND4,000,000) a month just from working as a quilter. Her family now survives mainly on the limited income made from selling crops grown on a small patch of land in front of their home.
“We hope it’s possible for us to find alternatives as soon as possible,” she said.
Madam Diệp from an adjacent district also shared her woes when the Mekong Quilts welfare team visited recently.
“Many of us had to start working in the paddy fields again,” Diệp explained. Her family’s eel farm also did badly this year, with countless dying due to the increasingly harsh weather in the Mekong Delta and a lack of helpers during the initial phases of social distancing. The months after June have been particularly hard for her when the last of the annual rice harvesting season ended. Madam Diep realistically has no remaining viable sources of income.
“It used to be both [me and my husband] working. But now, it’s [only] him.”
“Families like us are cutting [our] daily expenditure as much as possible,” she added. Market visits were once a near daily affair to procure the best foodstuff for the family, but that has gradually become a scarce venture for sustenance.
“We [the quilters] hope that the team can get through this together. We hope to get more orders somehow.” are the sentiments shared by all members of the Mekong Quilt team.
The situation is no better in Cambodia, where Yana, the ex-manager of Mekong Quilt’s shop in Siem Reap, has had to seek employment as a cleaner elsewhere.
“Two of her team managers at our Siem Reap shop have left for Phnom Penh, leaving their families behind, to work in a garments factory,” Bernard shared. “This breaks my heart.”
Diversification of product line key to brand’s survival
Ultimately, Bernard and the Mekong Quilts team has placed diversification of products as one of the current priorities beyond building a strong online presence. The recent Christmas season has seen unexpectedly profitable sales especially with innovative and eco-friendly items such as Mekong Quilt’s foldable bamboo Christmas trees and hand-sewn designer face masks.
“We are always trying to expand our product range,” Bernard explained. To him, seasonal items like these provide much needed ad-hoc work for locals, many of which do not require as much training as quilts to produce.
Beyond that, additional training and modifications to previous approaches has made a pandemic-driven year an unexplainably fruitful one; the team has never spent more time online than ever before, with even training sessions conducted on Zoom and Skype across the country.
“With such a vast increase of demands to ship our quilts and fashion out of the country, we are working on a non-plastic solution,” Bernard said, while reminding us that the ‘evils’ of plastic may be difficult to eliminate completely when waterproof packaging is essential to protect fabric-based merchandise.