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Increasing the safe production, promotion and utilisation of indigenous vegetables by women in Vietnam and Australia


Indigenous vegetables (IVs) provide smallholders, particularly women with the opportunity to engage in high-value urban markets. Consumer demand for these vegetables is increasing, as IV's are perceived as novel, safe and nutritious with substantial health benefits. Likewise provincial and local markets are also expanding through increased tourism enabling these smallholders to also capitalise on higher demand in their own regions. To exploit this commercial potential, farmers need to be able deliver a quality product to market.

The aim of this project was to develop and test models that improve the profitability of women farmers supplying indigenous vegetables into transforming markets. The project also sought to develop effective communication strategies for women farmers that encourage practice-change, in both the production and marketing of their crop. 
The role of women in agriculture, and how their livelihoods are influenced by agriculture; the role of traditional knowledge and products and how this interacts with rapidly transforming markets; and consumer and government requirements and responses for food safety are key issues in international development and are of strategic concern in Vietnam.

The project was a partnership led by the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU) and NSW Department of Primary Industries (NSW DPI). The Vietnamese Academy of Agricultural Science (VAAS), the National Institute of Medicinal Materials (NIMM); Field Crops Research Institute (FCRI) including CASRAD and Phu Tho and Lao Cai Plant Protection sub-Departments partnered in the project.  Fresh Studio was also engaged as a consultant to the project. 
In mid-2009, the project was redesigned, reshaping it as a research for development style project. The objectives of the redesigned project were to:
•    Develop models that enable a competitive market position for smallholder women farmers in a transforming market. 
•    Gain a greater understanding of consumer benefits from indigenous vegetables 
•    Improve on-farm and through chain management to deliver safe quality products into a transforming market 
•    Develop communication strategies that facilitate practice-change in women smallholders
Following the project re-design, a series of scoping activities were undertaken including:
•    Developing an initial list of 22 potential indigenous vegetables (11 in each of Phu Tho and Lao Cai) for further consideration
•    Undertaking a needs analysis of women farmers (176 interviews) in the six communes the project operates in
•    Documenting indigenous knowledge about the production of these vegetables
•    Evaluating the market potential of the selected vegetables 
•    Determining the production constraints to producing these vegetables in a semi-commercial way

In November 2009, a Revitalisation Workshop was held where the results from the scoping study were presented and discussed, and the direction for the next phase of the project determined.   At the workshop a list of 6 vegetables (3 from each province) were selected and agreed upon for the project to focus on. The vegetables selected were cai meo (Brassica juncea), bap cai xoe (Brassica oleracea), khoi tu (Lycium chinense), khoai tang (Colocasia esculenta), bo khai (Erythropala scandens) and a local bittermelon (Momordica charantia), providing a good cross-section of vegetables types (fruit, root and leafy).  A workshop proceedings was produced documenting the research, stakeholder engagement and the decision making process.

Project research and extension activities have centred on 3 key areas:

1. Value Chain Analysis (VCA) and developing appropriate market interventions

Following two VCA studies – the first looking at the market potential of indigenous vegetables and the second specifically looking at the 6 selected vegetables – a stakeholder workshop was held in Sa Pa, Lao Cai in August 2010 to consider How do we bring about change in the marketing and production of indigenous vegetables? The workshop attracted 63 participants including government officials, farmers, collectors, wholesalers, retailers and representatives from consumer groups. Through a series of facilitated activities, participants were asked to identify the priority production and marketing issues and put forward ideas for the types of marketing interventions that should be looked at. Priorities identified by stakeholders were then used to set the research direction for the remainder of the project.  Key activities for the marketing team have centred around: 1) understanding consumer preferences; 2) developing local and regional marketing opportunities and 3) developing a Farmer Marketing Group.  Examples of activities have included: 1) sensory evaluation of cai meo and khoai tang to identify consumer preferences; 2) an Indigenous Vegetable Restaurant Challenge – where restaurants competed in a cook-off designed to showcase the 3 indigenous vegetables from Lao Cai and 3) the formation of a Farmer Marketing Group in Na Hoi commune, Bac Ha. 

2. Developing ‘best-bet’ management practices for the production of the 6 selected indigenous vegetables

Nearly 40 research or demonstration trials have been undertaken to address key constraints in the production of indigenous vegetables including propagation, nutrition, plant density, crop management and postharvest handling. Recommendations from these trials have not only assisted farmers as they transition towards semi-commercial production of indigenous vegetables but are also feeding into the development of the production modules for the Farmer Business School (FBS).

The Australian component has looked at the potential of emerging Asian vegetables (including bitter melon, gogi and gac) and, together with a Horticulture Australia project, has looked at managing nitrate accumulation in Asian vegetables.

3. Developing a Farmer Business School (FBS)

The ‘hub’ of our research for development activities is the Farmer Business School (FBS) that covers both business and production aspects of indigenous vegetable production.  The Indigenous Vegetables FBS is modulised and flexible enabling trainers to utilise the resource as they see best.  The resource library for each module includes a: 1) Trainers Guide - Theory; 2) Trainers Guide – Practical (step-by-step instructions on how to undertake the training and in some cases 3) a farmer resource. In total 15 manuals were produced and a DVD set on Value chains – Why I should work with others? The IV Farmer Business School (FBS) was then piloted in 6 communes in Phu Tho and Lao Cai.