Mekong Plus, previously Vietnam Plus, was founded 16 years ago in Vietnam by a group of Vietnamese and Belgians, one of whom was a quilter and came up with the idea of teaching local women how to quilt. It was the start of a booming operation and high quality products which now form a two-country business with quilting production and sales finding major success in Cambodia. It expanded into the Kingdom in 2007, changed its name then to Mekong Plus and later established Mekong Quilts, a retail arm with outlets in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. The mission of Mekong Plus which began in southern Vietnam was to provide skills to rural women – in its case, teaching them how to make quilts – then sell what they made and invest some of those proceeds back into the community. Ingrid K Mogstad talks to the women quilters and the organisation’s founder.
OM Nuon remembers the days 10 years ago when she had to forage for food in the forest to feed her child.
“I could sell a little bit, but I was very poor,” says the 45-year-old resident of Romduol village in Svay Rieng province.
“Now I earn about $70 a month and am very happy with my salary. I’m not rich, but I have enough. I used to go hungry, but these days I have enough to eat and so does my child,” she said.
Om Nuon is one of hundreds of Cambodian and Vietnamese women who have benefited from Mekong Plus.
It is a private-sector approach to development, and one that founder Bernard Kervyn says has proved its worth. The organisation, which operates five shops in the two countries and has more than 400 employees, strives to create incomes that in turn provide independence.
The idea to use quilts came from Thanh Troung, a self-taught quilter who is still on the board of Mekong Plus, which oversees the umbrella of subsidiary organisations such as Mekong Quilts.
Kervyn says it took time to get going.
“The first year we only trained a dozen. It took a couple of years until we could sell the first quilts. In the beginning we had to ask friends to buy the products as favours.”
But after several years of effort, failure and continual training, the quilts took off. Mekong Plus opened its first shop in Ho Chi Minh City and called it Vietnam Quilts.
Four years ago it expanded into Cambodia, which now boasts two shops in Phnom Penh and another in the tourist haven of Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Also the sister enterprise Mekong Creations has opened, selling rugrags, purses, bamboo products and other creative items.
“We get customers from all over the world. People tend to bring the quilts home or give them to friends and family living in colder countries,” says Channy Panh, who manages one of the shops in Phnom Penh.
Quilts are not a Khmer tradition, so the bulk of clients are foreign tourists and expatriates.
Om Nuon’s village of Romduol in the southeastern province of Svay Rieng is the main Cambodian centre for making quilts and rugrags, a particularly poor part of the country, a place of muddy, red dirt roads and seemingly endless lush green rice paddies.
Half an hour of bumping along on a motorbike brings us to our destination: Rugrag Group 1. The women sit together underneath a roof, chatting and working quickly. In their midst sits Un Noan, her legs stretched out and covered by a piece of flowered batik cloth.
Un Noan, who is divorced, recently started working for Mekong Plus.
“I used to work in a factory in Phnom Penh, but I hurt my leg in a traffic accident so I had to stop. When I worked in Phnom Penh I could only come home during festivals. My children lived with my parents so I didn’t get to see them much.”
She says the accident made everyday tasks much harder, but working now does not present problems and she sees her children more.
“They often come to visit me at work so I get to see them a lot. It’s the same with the rest of my family.”
Un Noan explainED that her salary now depends on her output – the more she makes, the more she will earn.
“So if I can get good at quilting, I will earn more than in the factory. But it is more expensive to live in Phnom Penh than to live here, so at the end of the day, when all expenses are paid, I am left with more money.”
Quilting is also physically less demanding than factory work, and the women are able to work fewer hours.
But making quilts is only half the purpose. Social upliftment is the other, and Mekong Plus’s philosophy is to attack a range of poverty-related issues.
One simple program sees children lined up daily at a local school to brush their teeth. Each gets a cup with their name on it and a toothbrush to go with it. The hope is that they will pass on their good dental habits to their parents.
Then there is the latrine program, under which families can apply for funding for a toilet. The program sees Mekong Plus cover the cost of the plumbing and fittings, while the family pays for and builds the structure.
Staff say that compelling families to carry some of the cost allows the organisation to “get further with less money and people have a sense of ownership and responsibility when it comes to the things we provide”.
The principle guiding these services is simple: To resolve poverty one has to tackle all angles of the problem. If a mother has a sick child, she doesn’t need free education, she needs health care. People in extreme poverty have a range of needs that require meeting, and they are all important.
Getting the community involved is vital too, as is recognising different communities have different needs.
Another factor is making sure a little goes a long way, and over the years the cost of the programs has come down thanks to outside help. Last but not least, the programs need to target the poorest of the poor – many of these beneficiaries were living on less than one dollar a day.
Back at Rugrag Group 1, Om Nuon says she will continue perfecting her craft.
“I want to stay working here, and I want Mekong Plus to make this group sustainable and safe for us who work here,” she says.