Teaching men to fish

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A Belgian expat's trio of charities provide technical training and interest-free loans to struggling Vietnamese farmers

Bernard Kervyn, 59 with his Vietnamese staff and farmer in Binh Thuan Province

Every week, Bernard Kervyn, 59, leaves his family in Ho Chi Minh City and travels for four to five hours by bus to a poor remote community in Binh Thuan Province.

On the bus, the Belgian expatriate strikes up conversations with the locals in Vietnamese, a language he learned to woo his wife a Vietnamese dentist he met in Paris and followed to HCMC more than 18 years ago.

Kervyn steps off the bus in Duc Linh District. He is dressed in rolled-up trousers and a green T-shirt emblazoned with the words "˜Mekong Creations' across the front.

He spends the day walking down dusty, rocky roads that turn to a muddy sludge after the afternoon downpour.

After nearly 20 years of visiting this community, Kervyn is quite familiar with the roads. He is welcomed into a number of households whose monthly incomes once hovered around VND250,000 (US$12) but has increased to at least $50 with Kervyn's help.

"I still don't understand how they survive on such a small sum of money," said Kervyn, who founded three NGOs, including Thien Chi (Good Will), Vietnam Plus and Mekong Plus to support long-term activities for community agricultural programs.

The "˜jobless life'

Kervyn grew up in Belgium, the oldest of nine children. He had an early immersion in community service as both his parents were social workers.

After graduating in economics, Kervyn spent nine years working for an NGO in Bangladesh. He went to Paris to work but quit his job at the age of 37 in order to pursue what he calls "a jobless life." After falling in love with a Vietnamese dentist, he began studying the language and followed her to Vietnam in 1993.

Moved by the poverty in the country, Kervyn scraped together a few thousand dollars from his savings, donations from family and friends in Belgium most of whom are social workers and started his first social work venture.

He had to borrow money from his parents to cover staff salaries when he first started out. Most of his early volunteers and employees left because they could not bear the hardship or the lack of basic comforts, he said.

But his hard work has paid off. His first venture, Mekong Plus, alone has a regular annual budget of a million dollars, donated by companies and international organizations from across the world.

Despite their sizeable endowment, Kervyn and his staff regularly sleep in schools and hospitals when they are in the field.

Kervyn's crew

Tran Le Chi, a recent college graduate has worked for Mekong Creation (a Mekong Plus program) for nearly a year.

One of Mekong Plus's projects supports women in Binh Thuan and Ben Tre provinces by teaching them craft making skills. The organized teams twist recycled cloth, paper and bamboo into doormats, jewelry and gadget covers.

The items, which are quite popular with tourists and backpackers in the region, sell at six Mekong Creations shops in Vietnam and Cambodia. Chi runs the organization's Bui Vien branch (on the main drag of HCMC's District 1.)

The personal satisfaction she gets by being a part of the development project more than makes up for the lack of a good salary.

"Though my salary is not enough to survive on in an expensive place like HCMC, I'm happy with the work I do," Chi said.

Huynh Hoang To Trinh, a fundraiser for Mekong Plus in Hau Giang Province says her $200 monthly salary is quite low compared to other NGOs. Regardless, most of her colleagues have worked for Mekong Plus for more than a decade.

Trinh, who hails from the central province of Phu Yen, "boasted" that her office in Long My District was a small, cheap room. The organization staff, she said, strives to save money for the needy, instead of spending it on luxuries. "Sometimes, we even hold meetings outdoors," she said.

Roadblocks and successes

Occasionally, Kervyn says, they run into problems. "In Dong Nai Province, local authorities attempted to take control of their loan fund. Back in the 90s, local governments repeatedly suspected or rejected us when they found out how small our budget was," he said.

Kervyn's non-profit organizations do not offer full financial support to local farmers. Instead, the group provides technical training and lends them 30 percent of the capital they need to purchase new technology.

The loans are given at zero interest and 90 percent are paid back. In fact, most customers borrow again. "What the locals lack the most is technology, and confidence to do business," he said.

A decade ago, when he was still a teenager, Nguyen Thanh Tam lost his father in a tragic accident. Suddenly, Tam found himself responsible for a younger sister and a bedridden grandfather. Now, at 26, Tam owns a successful farm full of fruit trees, a fish pond, poultry and cattle.

The farm also uses animal waste to generate biogas for Long My District. After its energy value is exhausted, the spent dung is reused as fertilizer.

At one time, he said, farmers in the area focused on scrimping and saving as much as possible. No one ever thought to invest for fear of financial ruin.

"Most of us didn't know how to start a business; we knew nothing about new technology," he said. This changed when Mekong Plus came to his district. "Bernard, Trinh, and other experts in agriculture and animal husbandry visited me every day. They studied my living conditions and encouraged and advised my family on how to build on what I already had."

Tam's four-person family now earns $200 every month, in addition to the $5,000 they pull in every year from their rice and catfish harvests.

Kervyn's group also provided a scholarship to his younger sister so she could continue her education. Today, she is a student at the HCMC Medicine and Pharmacy University.

More than fifteen years after Kervyn founded his first NGO, the sacrifices of volunteers and social workers have borne fruit. The organization says it has helped over 10,000 local families escape from poverty. They have also provided basic community health care information to more than one million people in two provinces.

So far, Mekong Plus's community projects have spread to three districts in Binh Thuan Province. In the Hau Giang Province, they have set up operations in Long My and Phung Hiep districts.

"More people are aware that social issues like poverty and sustainable development affect everyone," said Kervyn. "Things are getting better in Vietnam now."

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