Formed in 2001 with the objective of creating sustainable employment for underprivileged women in the Mekong Delta region of Vietnam, Mekong Quilts began its operations as a humble quilting workshop in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City.
Collaborating with no more than five skilled female artisans at the start, quilting and handicraft work formed the foundations of the womens’ source of income and helped put their children in school and food on the dinner table of their families.
One of Mekong Quilts’ bed quilt
As a sister social entreprise of Mekong Plus, a non-profit organisation that has spent the last three decades improving education, agriculture, infrastructure and health in the region’s rural communities, Mekong Quilts foray into sustainable employment has helped the team discover an indisputable link between stable income and a rural family’s ability to keep children in school.
This belief then sparked a unique approach to empowering rural families—a structured microcredit and independent loan system with the aim of helping locals start backyard businesses without exhausting the funds needed to complete a child’s education.
All-encompassing microcredit loans help locals fight poverty
“With increasing debt due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic, local banks have become more reluctant [to provide loans],” Bernard Kervyn, Founding Director of Mekong Quilts, explained.
Since most rural families desire to only borrow as much as they need immediately, loans of less than VND20,000,000 (USD820) are considered a burden to banks because of the high cost of management.
But quick loans have become vital for the survival of Mekong Quilts’ artisans and their farming communities.
A group of craftswomen working on the creation of bed quilts
The impending financial crisis and Ukraine war has effectively doubled the cost of fertilisers, forcing families into ‘unequal’ agreements with middlemen and input suppliers.
“The ‘tricks’ vary and come in all shapes and sizes,” Bernard elaborates.
According to calculations made by Mekong Plus’ volunteers, farmers lose up to 10% on investments because of heavy interest arrangements with suppliers and moneylenders.
Beyond exploiting a farming family’s moral and business obligations to their suppliers, many farmers are coerced to sell to the same merchants when market prices are the lowest, often at a large discount on weight.
Before help from Mekong Quilts, Huỳnh Thị Liễu’s family from Tân Sơn township in Ninh Thuận province was struggling to raise her family of three children with her husband who ploughs their neighbour’s fields for additional income.
A local feeding her chickens
The family owed the local cattle bank more than VND26,000,000 (US$1060) after a failed attempt to raise cows which ultimately perished during a difficult period in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After 7 rounds of microcredit loans from Mekong Quilts since February 2019, the family no longer has to lose more than VND1,300,000 (US$53) per crop due to interest that amounted between the family and fertiliser sellers.
Mekong Quilts’ microcredit loans of between VND1,000,000 (US$41) to VND5,000,000 (US$205) has helped 1000 new households in the last 6 months.
Currently, about 7000 households in Vietnam and Cambodia benefit from the scheme.
Training and education key to success
Relieving the stress of finances is merely the start of the plot and identifying a suitable form of investment for different households is even more important.
“We spend a lot of time talking and listening to the needs of the locals,” Bernard explained.
With failure often on top of a local’s minds, Mekong Quilts and volunteers seek out tailormade solutions for different households. For example, families with little land may benefit more from starting a small-scale covered vegetable farm than raising pigs.
A woman is busy working in her vegetable farm
With training from Mekong Plus and a microcredit loan of less than US$100 to purchase protective covers, Madam Võ Thị Thu A from Vĩnh Thuận Đông township in Long Mỹ province has increased her production of off-season vegetables to 9 cycles from just 4 cycles annually.
Organic produce commands a higher price in developed cities, and off-season vegetables sell at a 2 or 3 times premium over in-season vegetables, increasing the family’s income by more than 180%.
The family has since become tech-savvy, installing their own automated watering system that ensures that crops are nourished on time.
Creating unique solutions for unique times
Helping farmers turn organic has unexpectedly become a path to increasing profits while reducing the need to rely on cut-throat input prices.
Taking the definition of unorthodox solutions to another milestone, Mekong Quilts has also begun assisting its beneficiaries in Hầm Thuận Nam district of Vietnam’s coastal Bình Thuận province by implementing debt swaps with moneylenders that its local artisans are indebted to.
Instead of a 10% monthly compound interest that often becomes uncontrollable, Mekong Quilts team takes over the debt and locals repay with only 0.5% simple interest on a monthly basis.
Despite all this, Bernard believes that moneylenders are a necessary evil in rural societies, playing a similar role to pawn shops in big cities.
“When the child needs money [to go to school or the hospital], the rate is no longer relevant [to locals],” he explained.
How you can help Mekong Quilts and Mekong Plus
Impact due to the COVID-19 crisis has resulted in loss of assets for many of Mekong Quilts’ artisans and their families but not all hope is lost.
Tourism has recovered steadily in Vietnam and Cambodia over the last year, with orders and purchases for Mekong Quilts’ quilts and handmade souvenirs increasing month over month.
Mekong Quilts’ team, posing at the new shop in District 1, HCMC
Every purchase at Mekong Quilts’ online shop or physical shop at 85 Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City is a gift that gives twice—putting a smile on the recipient’s face while giving hope and joy to rural children and their families!