Lao Ngam is one of the 8 districts of Saravane Province, a region in South Laos that borders with Vietnam to the east, Thailand to the west, Champasak and Sekong Provinces to the south and Savannaketh province to the north. With sticky and red soils and average temperatures of 13 and 28 C degrees, the plateau of Lao Ngam district is a suitable area for cultivation and livestock. Current economic crops are coffee, cassava, cardamon, pepper, peanuts, sweet potato, maize, fruit trees and beans. According to a publication of the Provincial Tourism Department, the region is also suitable for food processing and raising livestock. Yet I (Wageningen alumni 1) found difficult to find enterprises that process any of these crops. Only the small shops selling papaya salad and fresh coconuts that I encountered during my first long run along road 20 seem to be 100% Lao business. Dreaming of gold medals and national records, I use the signs of companies on this road as landmarks that help me to keep the pace and increase kilometers to my dreams; most of the signs are written in no Lao language.
One day later a single study tour (this one by car) from Lao Ngam towards the city of Salavan with some colleagues (Wageningen alumni 2 and 3) who collaborate with the Green Earth Center of Village Focus International will confirm these first impressions. The signs belong to one Vietnamese cassava powder factory, one Chinese Hydro-power Corporation, one Japanese enterprise, a Thai maize processing plant. Later on another Chinese sign, this one of a furniture factory. Thirty km from Lao Ngam we encountered the first Western investment: a Dutch piglet raising farm run by a Dutch expert (Wageningen alumni 4) which seems to have a strong commitment with improving the livelihood of poor farmers. The farm breeds and sells piglets to local farmers for 300,000 kip (approx. 35 US$; price for piglets of 7 Kg). The farm also provides fodder and free veterinary advise to farmers. Once the pigs are around 120 Kg farmers bring the pigs to a slaughterhouse in Pakse for a price of 14,500 kip/Kg; this is around 200 US$/pig.
Growing mushrooms seems less “profitable” for farmers than keeping pigs. The district agricultural and forestry office sells micellized bags at the price of 2000 kip/bag (0,23 US$). After 4 months farmers can collect 800 grams of mushrooms per set. Farmers sell mushrooms for a price of 15,000 kip/Kg in the local market. In other words, one bag of mushrooms gives around 12,000 kip (1,4 US$). A more lucrative type of mushroom and cinnamon are germinated at the same station of DAFO, but most of the processing is done in Japan, where these are sold for medicinal purposes. A similar story can be told for the cassava, and for the maize, and the electricity: made in Laos, proce$$ed and $old overseas. Meanwhile, Laos continues to import most of the processed products one can buy in a supermarket in major cities like Pakse and Salavan. And with the exception of Beer Lao, some coffee, the exceptional products of Xao Ban (village in English) and few others, supermarkets in Vientiane do not look like much different. Running back to the Center I like to think that there is room for skill development in transfer of agricultural technology and in the development of (Laotian) agro-processing industries. The Green Earth Center, which is located in Lao Ngam District Center (click here for a map of the location), may well play a role in this, since it aims to become a center of agricultural training, research, production and marketing to directly support local farmers and government officials.
Mr. Kesone, manager of this Center wishes that “the Center becomes a full time venue for knowledge development and sharing about sustainable agriculture and sound rural development, not only for and by (I)NGOs but also by and for entrepreneurs, government agencies and rural citizens”. Therefore, ideas are currently generated and collected to ensure that the Center meets the needs of the interested groups and users and has an added value for sustainable rural development in (South) Lao PDR (for a note of this concept please click here). And it seems that the first steps have been done in the right direction. Mrs. Nut (Wageningen alumni 2), a Thai social entrepreneur who founded and manages Xao Ban products will collaborate with training and processing of some fruit crops in the Green Earth Center. Likewise, Mr. Jacob, (Wageningen alumni 4) manager of the piglet farm introduced above showed interest to collaborate with the production of pig fodder.
Beyond the development of agribusinesses, the Green Earth Center seems to have potential in another meant to be cash industry: tourism. In fact, 20km short of Lao Ngam, the ten-meter-high Tad Lo Waterfall has lead to a steady stream of foreign visitors. Yet, Green Earth Center may be a better destination for visitors looking for the rural and farming Laos. Or for national and international agricultural and international development students who may find in the Green Earth Center what a Dutch expert (alumni 5) described as a “one-stop demonstration / shop for customized sustainable solutions”. This idea was shared by an Australian livestock researcher while drinking coffee in the French style Sinouk cafe in Pakse (email@example.com). By the way, the more exquisite foreign visitors may better stay in the very attractive tourist resort that Sinouk Café Lao is building in its organic coffee plantation on the Bolaven Plateau. Of course, they will always be welcome to enjoy fishing in one of the two ponds at the Green Earth Center!