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Bamboo bike helps in the slow walk from poverty
Simon Speakman Cordall
Monday,  Aug 13, 2012,21:12 (GMT+7)

Bamboo bike helps in the slow walk from poverty

Simon Speakman Cordall

By Simon Speakman Cordall in HCMC

Ngo Mekong Plus' regional director, Bernard Kervyn and his bamboo bike - Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

Saigon’s streets are famous for the volume of their traffic. However, for NGO Mekong Plus, the introduction of their new Bamboo Bicycle isn’t so much as about easing congestion as easing the hardship of hundreds of families within Vietnam’s most deprived rural areas.

While the Vietnamese government is making great strides in lifting much of Vietnam out of poverty, many pockets of hardship remain; not least in the remote regions that government relief can sometimes be slow to reach. With alcoholism and domestic abuse everyday factors for some, many families can find themselves getting by on as little as half a dollar a day. Worst hit are those families without land of their own.

For them, the daily commute can mean a journey of up to half a day, with the prospect of returning home the same day doubtful. For those with small children, this can mean having no option but to lock them in the house as both parents are forced to leave for work. Often hungry, thirsty and unsupervised, the effects of this can be disastrous.

It’s a problem that Bernard Kervyn, Regional Director at Mekong Plus, is acutely aware of. Bernard came here nine years ago, after working for NGOs in Bangladesh, as well as picking up the business skills he’s needed in his native Belgium. Mekong Plus aren’t offering anyone a quick fix, Bernard explains, rather they’re partnering with entire communities to create long lasting solutions for the long term,  “Say you’ve got a Chicken farmer whose business has failed three, maybe four, times. You can offer him the micro credit to start again, but what’s going to be different? The likelihood is you’ve only added further debt to his next failure”.

Instead, as well as the credit to start again, Mekong Plus work to provide the technical expertise that will help ensure future failure is less likely a possibility.

Bernard tells of one farmer the NGO has helped. The husband, a violent and chronic alcoholic, would think little of chaining his wife within the house during his often prolonged absences. By deliberately choosing to work with that family first - providing the tools, expertise and support required to turn their farm around - Mekong Plus were able to create a visible example within the village that others were quick to follow.

Rather than easy handouts - often only matching a community’s investment in a project by 25% - Mekong Plus provides innovation and expertise to a project. However, whatever the business model, funds must still be found.

Here, as a direct extension of their philosophy of building sustainable partnerships with those they help, Mekong Plus’ subsidiary social enterprise, Mekong Creations, plays a pivotal role. Everything, including the Bamboo Bike, sold at Mekong’s outlets is produced within the villages they work with. For the women who make the craftwork and quilts on sale at their shops, the difference can be life changing. Not only are they now able to stay within the villages to care for their children, but they also have access to a new community of women in which to find support.

Poverty is always ugly. It dehumanizes those trapped within it and its reach can extend through generations. Great advances are being made within Vietnam. However, it can be easy to overlook those most isolated and, as a result, most vulnerable. There are few quick fixes to villages mired in generational poverty. However, by working alongside these communities and enabling them to help themselves, real progress will always be possible.

Mekong Creations, Mekong Plus’ Saigon based social enterprise, can be found at: 35-37 Ngo Duc Ke Street, District 1 and S17-1 Sky Garden, Nguyen Van Linh Parkway, District.7, HCMC.

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