Swords to plowshares message inspires Vietnamese farmer

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Tran Quoc Hai with the machine he fashioned to harvest manioc roots. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre

Tran Quoc Hai gained international fame ten years ago when helicopters that he designed to fertilize fields were exhibited in the US and South Korea and bought by foreign museums.

Subsequently, he had many chances to work abroad, but despite the opportunities and the lack of recognition from his own government, he stayed on and worked on other machines, saying his needy fellow farmers inspired his inventions with their "very practical" demands.

The farmer from the southern province of Tay Ninh made his first helicopter called "Hai Lua" (Paddy Brother, humorous, sometimes demeaning nickname for a country bumpkin) in 2003 and the second one in 2005 with some renovations.

Hai, who studied sports in college, never got any professional training in mechanics or the like, but he proudly describes himself as a farmer who loves to learn and research.

He made his helicopters from scratch after reading many books, both in Vietnamese and foreign languages, as well as online data, and visiting many museums across the south just to watch aircraft.

"I want to show to the world that Vietnamese farmers are as inventive as those in Western countries," he told local media.

While his field trials with the copters were successful, the defense ministry decided they could not fly and were airworthiness.

However, international science and technology groups were so interested that they brought the copters in the US, Germany, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, marking him as a "farmer engineer."

The first helicopter was bought by a museum in New York and the second one by the Busan Museum in Singapore.

"I made a third one in 2007 and I am waiting for a convenient time to fly it [in Vietnam]," Hai was quoted by a Tuoi Tre (Youth) report as saying.

The 53-year-old farmer and inventor said he'd sold the helicopters for several hundred thousand dollars each and all the money has been invested in subsequent machinery projects.

Hai describes himself as a science geek who was inspired by an American book that he once read. The book said aircraft and tanks should be turned into agricultural machines.

He began to help farmers at home who had to expend hard labor in many stages, delaying their work and increasing their costs.

"Many farmers came to me and talked about their troubles, motivating me to work on the machines. They made suggestions that I took."

One suggestion was to make a machine to plant manioc, which is a highly labor intensive task requiring around 17 people to plant one hectare a day, or nearly VND2 million (US$96) a hectare, based on average wages in the area.

Sometimes even money failed to solve the problem, requiring a big workforce in the season and farmers tend to get caught in unhealthy competition with each other for the workers, Hai said.

Each of Hai's machines can plant ten hectares a day with the help of five workers, and the labor plus the fuel cost VND1.5 million. Each machine costs between VND30 and 40 million ($1,434-1,912).

Hai also made a weeding machine and another for fertilizing, and has thus mechanized almost the entire manioc cultivation process.

Many farmers also complained to him about young men flocking to cities and abandoning the fields, leaving them with no strong workforce to carry their produce.

So Hai made a six-wheel vehicle that can carry crops in all terrain including mountainous areas.

He also came up with a machine to blow leaves fallen from rubber trees away from the roots after farmers expressed concern that the leaves could start a fire and destroy their entire plantation.

They also needed 10 people to sweep the leaves off five hectares every day. Hai's machine can clear 25 hectares a day.

When the farmers wanted to make use of the rubber sap mixed with dust and soil, he produced a machine that, in an hour, cleans 800 kilograms of dirty sap, sold at VND9,000 a kilogram, into 400 kilogram of clean sap that is worth VND22,000 a kilogram. It saves each rubber farmer thousands of dollars a year.

All of the hundreds or products are made by a team of six people, including Hai and his son. They have not only been used in Vietnam, but also sold to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

"Many people in Hanoi have given orders to take the machines to Laos, and the Cambodian government has also ordered dozens of machines used in manioc cultivation, including planting, weeding and fertilizing," Hai told Tuoi Tre.

Dang Kim Yen, who owns a rubber plantation in Tay Ninh, has bought all the machines Hai has made to plant, fertilize and clear leaves.

"Now I just need a few people to cut the trees for the latex, and one or two to run the machines. He has saved me time and money and helped increase my profits [through higher productivity]," Yen said.

Problems

However, Hai said he has had a few problems with local authorities.

Tay Ninh Province recently ordered him to make a harvesting machine to dig up manioc roots. He has finished his job, but the province is still in the process of setting up a council to assess his work before they decide how much they will pay him.

The province's Department of Science and Technology is also reluctant to pay after asking him to make a sugarcane harvesting machine that can chop the canes and remove all leaves at the same time.

Engineer Le Ngoc Tinh, who used to work for the department, said a similar machine imported would cost at least VND5 billion ($239,000), while Hai charges less than VND1 billion.

Nguyen Thi Thay, former chairwoman of Tan Chau District Farmers' Association in Tay Ninh, said Hai's machines are in high demand and are sold out as soon as they are finished.

"A farmer with such a love for technology is hard to find."

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