Mekong AgriBusiness Tour: Startup Stories, Lessons Learned, and Regional Collaborations

17 April 2017 | Mekong AgriBusiness Tour – a part of Mekong Agri-Tigers, the idea won a grant of US$5,000 at the 1st Mekong Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Summit – is organized by the Center for Business Study and Assistance in three days, from 1st to 3rd April 2017.

Sponsored by leading corporate members of the Vietnam Premium Manufacturers Association – i.e. Vinamit, Thien Long, Tam Lan, Trung Nguyen – and international programs of Tigers@Mekong and IPP, the tour has invited delegations from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam to study entrepreneurship ecosystem in Dong Thap Province, Vietnam. 85 participants – including young entrepreneurs, startup founders, business owners, mentors, and investors – have visited eight agribusinesses, joined one innovation & entrepreneurship forum in Dong Thap University, and enjoyed a lot of cultural exchange and networking activities.

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Startup Stories
Destinations of the Tour are startup companies running by young entrepreneurs. The businesses are based on the Province’s competitive advantage of agricultural production and produces.

Huong Dong Thap (http://huongdongthap.com/) produces essential oils from local plants -including pomelo, cajaput, clementine, peppermint, lemongrass, citronella – as well as lotus and cajuput soaps.

Tam Viet Rice produces organic rice by Vo Van Tieng. After returning home from military deployment, Tieng started studying how to grow rice with no use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Two years ago, when Tieng first told his family, neighbors, and friends about his idea, many said he was insane. Tieng did not give up. His first crop yielded 60% in comparison to the conventional production method using lot of chemicals. Tieng keeps improving the natural ecosystem on his fields. He uses earth worms to enrich the fields. He brings in natural enemies to protect the rice plants. Tieng also gives his fields some rest by cultivating two crops in a year instead of three. Today, Tieng reaches the yield of 7 tons per hectare in a year.

Tam Viet Rice is now a brand and Tieng has a team of 10 colleagues. He also gets an angel investment to scale up from 2 hectares to 50 hectares. When Tieng won the first prize of Startup Competition 2016 organized by BSA, the founder of Vinamit, business champion Nguyen Lam Vien decided to give Tieng not only money but also business supports. Consumers and housewives now are able to buy Tam Viet rice in Ho Chi Minh city and Hanoi.

Khoi Minh Thanh Cong (Ecolotus) produces dried lotus flowers. They also make artworks from dried lotus. Normally, a lotus flower dies in three days after being cut – a very short life. Khoi Minh successfully prolongs the dried lotus flowers by three months while keeping their natural colors unchanged. The next challenge is improve the processing procedure to keep fresh lotus flowers in at least seven days. The team also needs to have a business, especially sales, person since the founder is very technically minded.

Khoi Nghiep 152 is the first privately-run incubator in Dong Thap by a champion entrepreneur. Mr Thong (duythong@152.vn, +84 98 915 21 52), a former university professor, is currently vice chairman of Dong Thap Young Business Association. He runs B2B businesses and is willing to share his business connections with large corporations (VNPT, Viettel, Mobifone, Vinaphone, Bao Viet) to startups. Selected startups are offered free space – where they can use to register their companies – in six months. Veteran business people in the province are supporting young entrepreneurs by sharing sessions and short-term financing. They are eager to provide mentorship but in need of some helps.

Heo Rung (Wild Pigs) has an owner who started studying how to raise adapted wild pigs in farms since he was a student. In seven years, he has developed three designs of wild-pig farms which are suitable to various condition of farmer households in Mekong River Delta. His story tells us that an agri-entrepreneur consists of a researcher (studies how to raise wild pigs), a farmer (works on the fields and the farms), and a trader (sells the produces).

Lessons Learned
Many lessons are shared in the tour.

The founder of Vinamit Nguyen Lam Vien points out three advantages of starting agribusiness at present. First, despite of various disadvantages, Vietnamese produces attract international buyers and consumers because of large volumes and low prices. Market attraction is important. Second, the Government is paying more and more attention to agriculture, considering how to promote high-tech agribusiness, and more important, large-scale agri production. Last but not least, the business champion reminds young entrepreneurs that before thinking about raising funds they need to be certain of having a unique quality product. Agribusiness should first start small to focus on safe and quality products.

The founder of MimosaTek – a rising company providing precise agriculture solutions – Nguyen Khac Minh Tri addresses the popular challenge in selling IOT solutions to farmers and agri-corporations: costly market education. To overcome this, MimosaTek persuades community influencers first. The Company then works closely with the influencers on applying new technology on their fields. After a successful harvest, there will be many followers.

There are also lessons from Cambodia and Myanmar. Interestingly majority of agri entrepreneurs from the two countries are women. In addition to work-life balance, it seems that joining women entrepreneurs association is of help.

In Myanmar, one business is not enough. Once an entrepreneur gets the first business up and running she starts thinking about the second, and the “next” businesses as an effort of diversifying. A comparative advantage of Myanmar agribusiness is availability of large fields where almost no chemical has been used. Indeed, Soe Amy Kyaw is managing a travelling company, an eco hotel, while growing 100 hectares of cocoa on lands where there are still mines.

In Cambodia, social enterprises are struggling and entrepreneurship ecosystem is quite dependent on donor-funded programs. Meanwhile, Vannary San – the founder of Lotus & Silk Boutique – finds her husband an angel investor. Vannary’s husband – a veteran businessman – provides her with not only financial investment but also business connection. And very critical, he takes care their three children when she is busy at her workshop, an eco-hotel, and traveling around the world to attend trade fairs and women entrepreneurship conferences.

Regional Collaborations
What happen when genuine entrepreneurs staying together in three days? They enjoy parties, sing and dance, and talk about business collaborations. Exchanging name cards, making bunches of questions, and working out what to do together are as simple as breathing. Results of the Tour are more than that. Vannary and her husband reach an agreement to import Khoi Minh Dong Thap’s dried lotus. She plans to sell their dried lotus flowers and artworks in her boutique shop and eco hotel. The Cambodian couple also works out a collaboration plan with the owner of Khoi Nghiep 152. They are also interested in essential oils and brocade fabrics made by ethnic minority entrepreneurs from Sapa, a traveling destination in the northern border of Vietnam.

The 3-day tour is just so short. There are so many unanswered inquiries. Leaving with lots of memories and food for thought, participants know the entrepreneur journey is just started. Some are arranging their next trip to Ho Chi Minh city. Some are planning for exploring Burmese markets. Some are eager to see eco-hotels./.

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