With one important decision and a life full of dedication, Ms. Trieu Mui Pham, a 94-year old cinnamon farmer in the North of Vietnam, supported many households in her community to lift themselves out of poverty. We visited Pham in her house nestled in a cinnamon forest to document her inspiring story.
Ms. Pham is part of the Dao ethnic minority group and grew up in a farmer’s family in Nam Det, a commune in Lao Cai province in the northern mountains of Vietnam. Lao Cai is a province with a high poverty level and a large ethnic minority population. The province has been left behind by the economic growth that has transformed Vietnam over recent decades. As is the case for many households in the area, Ms. Pham’s family was very poor. When she was young her family produced rice, corn and cassava but the yield was not enough to feed all the members in the household.
Already at a young age Ms. Pham felt the urge to give her family and her community a better life. In 1966, Ms. Pham became the first female secretary of the Communist Party in Bac Ha district. During this time, Ms. Pham had the chance to meet the leader of North Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, whose inspiring words she will never forget. “Women like you are very rare in these mountainous areas, you should try your best to support your community.”
In 1974, Ms. Pham heard that many people in Yen Bai, a neighbouring province, escaped poverty by planting and growing cinnamon trees. After hearing this news, Ms. Pham decided to go to Yen Bai to learn more about cinnamon farming. And she did not come back empty handed. Ms. Pham believed in the potential of the tree and made the decision to bring 200 kg of seeds and 20,000 seedlings back to her community. Upon return, Ms. Pham enthusiastically planted her seedlings but had to be patient while waiting for her first yield. On average it takes around 3 years before you can sell the leaves of a cinnamon tree and 10 years before the bark is ready to be removed. Even though it takes a long time before the first harvest, once the tree is fully grown cinnamon is a very efficient crop as you can sell the leaves for the production of oil, bark for the production of cinnamon spice and oil and wood for the production of furniture.
Remembering the words of Ho Chi Minh and strongly believing in the potential of this new crop, Pham walked from house to house to promote and guide farmers in cinnamon production. “In the beginning, people were very reluctant”, explains Ms. Pham. “They were afraid that the tree wouldn’t grow, that transportation would be difficult in the mountains and that they wouldn’t be able to find a market.”
Eventually, with the support from the local authorities and her family, Ms. Pham was able to successfully grow cinnamon and earn a good income from her first yield. Throughout the years, more and more households witnessed how cinnamon farmers gradually lifted themselves out of poverty which rapidly increased the popularity of the crop. Up to 1986, Pham sold her cinnamon to the State and could exchange cinnamon for other products, like clothes, shoes, food or utensils. After the economic reforms in 1986, when Vietnam moved to a more market-oriented economy Ms. Pham was able to sell her cinnamon to traders for a better price.
Nowadays, cinnamon production and processing is a booming industry in Lao Cai province. A total of 470 households from 7 villages in Nam Det commune are growing cinnamon on an area of 1,500 ha. Ms. Pham and her family now manage a cinnamon forest of 5ha with 50,000 cinnamon trees. In 2016, the total income from cinnamon products in Nam Det commune reached an amount of 32 billion Vietnam Dong, which is around 1.4 million USD.
Between 2013 and May 2016, the family business of Ms. Pham joined SNV’s Spice for Life project which aimed to improve income security and livelihoods of ethnic minority smallholder cinnamon producers by increasing productivity, making production more sustainable, and encouraging the development of mutually profitable relationships with processing and trading companies.
Gender transformation in the cinnamon value chain
In June 2016, the family business joined the Women’s Economic Empowerment through Agricultural Value Chain Enhancement (WEAVE) project which aims to facilitate a gender transformation in the cinnamon value chain and to accelerate ethnic minority women’s empowerment. The project focuses on promoting equality between female and male cinnamon farmers within households and producer groups, strengthening cinnamon farmer’s producers’ skills and bargaining power, and working with business and government decision-makers to improve the policy environment to support cinnamon producers and promote women’s economic empowerment in the value chain. She brings the expertise and spirit of cinnamon production into a new chapter by increasing women’s role and improving the image of ethnic minority women groups in the cinnamon value chain.
The family business of Ms. Pham is part of a farmer group with other cinnamon farmers in the area. They meet once per month to agree on the selling price and to learn from each other about organic farming and how to limit chemical use through alternatives. Growing cinnamon enabled many households to send their children to school, built houses and buy motorbikes and refrigerators. “Cinnamon trees do not only serve as poverty reduction trees, but also as wealth making trees”, says Mr. To Manh Tien, Vice Director of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) in Lao Cai province. Many times people in the community come to thank Ms. Pham for her braveness to bring cinnamon to Lao Cai province and for the continued support and guidance she provided to farmers in her community. One women said “without you, I never could have been as rich as I am now”.
In June 2017, Ms. Trieu Mui Pham and many other cinnamon producers, public actors, scientists, processing companies and traders visited the Cinnamon Trade Promotion Event in Bac Ha district, which was organised by SNV and its partners under the Women’s Economic Empowerment through Agricultural Value Chain Enhancement (WEAVE) project to promote and enhance an inclusive cinnamon value chain to accelerate women’s economic empowerment in Lao Cai province. The 94-year old cinnamon farmer, Ms. Pham, travelled 2 hours to attend the event and with a smile on her face, she proudly realised the impact of her first cinnamon tree.
Women’s Economic Empowerment through Agricultural Value Chain Enhancement (WEAVE) is a three-year project funded by the Australian Government and implemented by a partnership of three international non-governmental organisations — CARE International, Oxfam and SNV. The project aims to promote equality between women and men within households and producer groups, strengthen women and men producers’ skills and bargaining power, and work with business and government decision-makers to improve the policy environment to support producers. WEAVE is supporting ethnic minority women’s economic empowerment in pork, cinnamon and banana value chains in Lao Cai and Bac Kan, two provinces that have been left behind by the economic growth that has transformed Vietnam over recent decades.