Mekong Quilts may be the leading quilt boutique in Vietnam and Cambodia, but its core mission remains unchanged for almost 20 years; a social enterprise that focuses on improving lives in Indochina. To founder Bernard Kervyn, it’s a challenging yet straightforward double mission.
“We create employment for underprivileged women, [and] our profits are in general dedicated to children’s scholarships,” he explained.
In what he believes as a system with less than 5% false positives and negatives, Mekong Quilts works proactively with the People’s Committees of local communes in Vietnam where the organisation is frequently updated with lists of families and children in need.
“Our volunteers [then] proceed to work closely with the families to ensure [that] we get close to zero misidentification [of beneficiaries],” he said.
“We talk to school teachers and children, [and] do home visits. Our volunteers work very closely with the people while also living in the villages.”
Profits a promise to improve life in the Mekong Delta
In 2018, VND900,000,000 of profit was generated from merchandise sales. Apart from paying the administrative staff and craftsmen, almost every single remaining cent has gone to funding the scholarships of children in the Mekong Delta in a programme that spans Grades 1 through Grade 12.
“[Education in the Mekong] is a big commitment for parents. [It is] expensive,” Bernard explained.
Primary education may be a ‘mere’ VND500,000 per year, but the number becomes exponentially greater as we steered away from that (delete this). Kindergarten in the provinces costs families VND6,000,000 a child every year as young children need more care. Families that work long hours struggle to put rice on the table while taking care of multiple children. High school often costs more than VND12,000,000 a year per student, and poses a huge logistical problem for families that live in the extremities of non-urban areas.
“[The] child might need a motorcycle. Sometimes [they live] 30 kilometres away! If you can’t dothe trip in one day, [they] rent a room in a town or city,” Bernard said, while further dispelling the myths that life in the provinces is cheap.
With less than a 2% drop-out rate from Mekong Quilts’ scholarship programme, its success largely lies in Bernard and his team’s deep understanding and empathy for the lifestyle of the people in the Mekong Delta.
“There is a big cultural difference. In the Mekong, life is ‘easy’, [so] no school is ok.”
In general families with lower education see less importance in their children’s education.
“They often give excuses for the kids. [Talking] about his or her intelligence,” This, Bernard recalled, is the most frequent type of defensive message the team received.
Kindred connection between rural education and livelihood
With that in mind, Mekong Quilts’ rural micro-crediting connects the dots to form a bigger picture. Small bank loans are impractical for many rural families due to the nature of capital credit and profitability. Banks are weary of defaults, with thresholds being a minimum of VND20,000,000 for a basic loan. Thus, the social enterprise offers loans of approximately VND2,000,000 – VND3,000,000 for rural families to do everything from growing vegetables, rearing chickens and even purchasing fertilisers for a successful crop. It’s not just money though; experts within the Mekong Quilts’ team work closely with locals to provide training and coaching to ensure they receive adequate knowledge to keep systems going.
“It’s a little brutal, but if the kids aren’t going to school, why should we continue with the micro-crediting?” Bernard explains. He believes that a combination of education and financial freedom is the path to escape the vicious cycle of poverty. With traffic accidents and alcoholism a huge problem in the delta, Mekong Quilts also maintains a team to help single mothers.
“It’s a huge difference when you’re a single parent and have vegetables to sell while the child is going to school everyday,” he said jovially.
Involving the whole community means committing to a united cause
Ultimately, Mekong Quilts notes the importance of community spirit. A solidarity run is hosted in the Delta annually where all involved communes participate. At the end of the 2.4 kilometre run, every participant, regardless of status and income, is encouraged to donate a sum of money.
“The number of participants [is] massive, [a] huge number! Last year, the total amount [of money raised] was more than VND950,000,000,” Bernard exclaimed.
Given the purchasing power of the rural Vietnamese, Bernard insists that it’s a huge amount. He believes that this contributes to the success of the programme by giving a sense of ownership to the people.
“They all run!” Bernard reiterated. “People want the scholarship and almost everyone knows about the programme. [Since] the whole community has contributed, there is definitely social pressure. It’s the motivation, and stimulation that uplifts them.”
Mekong Quilts has observed a year on year reduction of students dropping out of school. And since only 2 – 3% of children in the area receive the Mekong Quilts scholarship, beneficiary families deeply respect the community effort.
“If you are one of the only eight in school, you better go to school and study!” He grinned.
With wildly different circumstances burdening the year 2020, the team has adjusted its efforts slightly by focusing more on charity through distribution of rice, oil and soap, as well as working with another social enterprise to assist locals with recycling plastic waste. Social distancing due to the pandemic meant several months of virtually no income for countless families in the Mekong. The country has seen no tourists in the past six months, but Bernard remains positive while the team prepares to resume biking trips.