Almost thirty years ago, Mekong Plus, a Vietnam and Cambodia-based non-profit organisation focusing on human development of rural communities, began work to alleviate the problem of lack of employment for underprivileged women in the region.
“It all began as a very small group in [Vietnam’s coastal] Bình Thuận province,” Managing Director Bernard Kervyn said, recalling the early days.
Noticing his late wife’s sewing passion, it became apparent that work and income could be created for local women thanks to the availability of patience and nimble hands; an abundant resource in a country of almost 100 million inhabitants.
By 2009, Mekong Quilts established its first workshops in Cambodia.
Training community leaders a core strategy
During the first two years of Mekong Quilts’ existence, the team realised that innovating on new quilt designs isn’t enough to keep the enterprise intact—a sound strategy of training and management was vital.
“We went from recruiting through word of mouth to training local group leaders,” Bernard explained.
Unlike quilters in a Mekong Quilts sewing group who may focus on completing orders, the team sought out to nurture leaders who were able to provide a sanitary workspace and help distribute work and train newbies. For large quilt item that typically involve a month of work by a single person, coordinating several craftswomen to work together at the same time means fulfilling urgent orders for tourists who may be passionate to return to their home countries with what Mekong Quilts considers some of the best handmade fabrics in the region.
Madam Út from Long Mỹ district of Vietnam’s southern Hậu Giang province is a prime example of a group leader who began working with Mekong Quilts in 2003.
“A tight delivery schedule meant we sometimes had to send out 6 or 7 quilts a day,” she exclaimed.
“That is no longer the case because of [the COVID-19] pandemic but we distribute the work in the most honest way possible,” Madam Út added.
For many seasoned craftswomen, becoming more adept at quilting work means they can often bring unfinished work home—a valuable option for many single mothers who may need to work and take care of children at the same time.
Responsible and communicative leaders help to ensure that craftswomen do not feel undermined by any perceived unfairness of work distribution.
“We share a percentage of profits with the group leader. There is no corruption,” Bernard, sharing insights on how this meant that craftswomen would not be motivated to bribe leaders for additional work.
Ultimately, the effective enterprise-style system has helped Mekong Quilts achieve its core goals—helping underprivileged women and their families while alleviating poverty in the region.
Global trends and going beyond quilts
“We have come to realise that quilts will be the priority so long as there is market,” Bernard said while elaborating on how demand has dropped significantly due to several factors including the pandemic, lack of tourism, and a general downturn of the global economy.
To ensure that Mekong Quilts continues to create sustainable employment for rural communities, the team has embarked on several new projects such as creating weather-resistant quilt-style cushions from leftover fabrics from partner and international furniture conglomerate Scancom.
“We are also making cushions for pets!” Bernard reminded enthusiastically.
Essentially, Mekong Quilts’ core focus has expanded towards the realm of sewing without abandoning its core range of quilts products. As of February 2022, Mekong Quilts’ team has also released a line of quilted jackets that utilises patchwork similar to the brand’s original line of eyecatching adult bed quilts inspired by Southeasty Asian design motifs and ethnic fabrics.
Beyond that, the team has begun working with craftswomen with arable land to create covered vegetable gardens that are environmentally friendly and pest-resistant.
“With this [option], the ladies can create income to supplement their families when orders are low,” Bernard explained.
Due to lack of demand, more than half of Mekong Quilts craftswomen have had to seek employment in factories and in the agricultural sector. Farming off-season vegetables at home thus creating income for many.
“Interacting with the women beyond fabric work means we can assist with other problems [such as gender and health issues,” he said.
“Quilts are good but we want to be ready for a day where it may become insufficient!”
The big picture and how you can help Mekong Quilts
Handmade fabrics means that jobs are created for as many women as possible at Mekong quilts. Visit the Mekong Quilts website to find a wide array of high-quality quilts, clothes and souvenirs made of silk, cotton and linen—perfectly suited for both tropical and temperate climates.
With Mekong Plus assistance, more than 80% of income from product sales at Mekong Quilts goes on to fund a scholarship programme that benefits more than 1000 primary and secondary school students in the Mekong Delta region annually.
Visit Mekong Plus’ website to find out more about the other human development-focused efforts in the region and to view the portfolio of beneficiaries that you may opt to sponsor directly.