Empower a woman and witness the real change!

By Magali Marguet and Ritik Joshi

"We are happy now because we have a sustainable income source in the form of our home gardens and now we can afford to send out children to school" are some words from Ms Khoun, a 38 year old woman with a family of six, including three children. Ms Khoun is an active farmer. She owns a farm with three other families in Thetsaban, a village in Samouay district, Laos.

She has been a farmer for a long time, but she only produced a small number of vegetables, most of which were to feed her family and sometimes generate a small income. Before any of the new plantation techniques were introduced, she used to plant vegetables using the traditional way. Farming rice as a major consumption crop and planting vegetables only in the non-rice planting seasons, following which Ms Khoun had three months of food shortage every year. All family members lived in a small hut and, overall, living conditions were poor.

Ms Khoun has been a beneficiary of the Southern Laos Food and Nutrition Security and Market Linkages Programme (FNML) since 2015. The FNML operates in five districts across three of Lao's southern provinces: Phouvong and Xansay in Attapeu Province, Ta'Oy and Samuay in Salavan Province and Dakcheung in Sekong province, which stand among the poorest districts of the country.  Development objectives are to ensure sustainable food and nutrition security and income generation for households in the target area.

The programme supports improved techniques and practices to maximise agricultural output both for food and cash crops, while maintaining soil fertility and reducing negative environmental impact. It  promotes farmer-driven innovation, based on an enhanced understanding of agro-ecological systems and of the consequences of agricultural practices and inputs on biological processes and ecosystems. Aside from supporting food security through increased agriculture production and marketing, the programme promotes improved nutrition through a combination of capacity building, development of home gardening, and improved access to water and sanitation.

FNML's intervention supported the development of smallholder production beyond subsistence farming. Before the programme Ms Khoun's production was not able to meet the household needs all year long, but afterwards she started having a surplus. Her children went around the village to sell her vegetables and they were sold out every time. Adapting to the idea, Ms Khoun started expanding her garden area to produce more vegetables to sell in the district market and to neighbours. Progressively increasing her production allowed her to start selling wholesale at the district market and at the farm gate, catering to the demands of local restaurants and building up return customers.

The project allowed Ms Khoun to overcome many challenges that she faced in the past when growing vegetables, due to her lack of techniques and instruments. She used to practice slash and burn cultivation, sow her seeds without any seed beds and relied solely on rain for irrigation. Now, after receiving training from field staff on the preparation of plots, developing nurseries, fencing, putting up shade net covers, irrigation system, etc., she and other villagers can use capital and labour efficiently and produce high profits in return.

Through FNML's support she has now signed contract farming with wholesale traders. While gaining knowledge and experience on various farming models and technology through farmer to farmer study tours. She has also applied for a micro irrigation scheme under one of the programme interventions, which according to her calculations, can increase her income generation by increasing organic vegetable production. With the technical training she received from FNML's field staff on various topics, now her home garden is adapted with integrated and climate resilient crops in order to diversify food security and cater to the demands of different customers. She practices the crop rotation model religiously to maintain soil fertility and avoid erosion.

Due to the lack of vegetable and crops in the market during the rainy season, Ms Khoun can sell her produce at good prices as she practices home gardening all year round. By selling her vegetables she can now generate around 600,000 Kips or US$ 75 per month, around US$ 900 per year. She invests her income in seeds, meat, fish, cooking ingredients for her family, sending her children to school, clothes, books and saving for emergency or medical needs. 

Before the programme supported Ms Khoun in 2015, her family had been classified as living under poor conditions by the district authorities. A recent survey by the district authorities has elevated her household to a medium status and she has started building a new permanent house.

With her diligence in acquiring knowledge and active participation in agricultural activities, she is now considered a "lead farmer" of FNML and trains existing and new farmer groups from her district on growing vegetables for consumption and commercialisation, production of organic fertiliser, compost, time management and collective farming models.

Because of such perseverance her group members elected her to be the group leader of the agricultural production group (APG) from other villages. As a result, she has become more confident and can now do things independently which she considered impossible before, from operating bank accounts to getting materials for her garden.