An Interview with Mr. Bernard Kervyn, Mekong Quilts director
Mekong Quilts employs Vietnamese women in communities northeast of Ho Chi Minh City and Long My in the Mekong Delta.
In addition, Mekong Quilts offers employment opportunities to Cambodian women through a similar project located in the village of Rumduol, near the Vietnam/Cambodia border.
The first quilts were sold in friends’ homes. Today there are seven shops and over 340 women in full-time employment.
An Interview with Mr. Bernard Kervyn, Mekong Quilts director
When did you create Mekong Quilts and what are its main objectives?
The company began in 2001. Based on Mekong Quilts’ success, we decided to launch Mekong Creations in 2010. Mekong Quilts is about quilts and Mekong Creations sells other handmade products andnatural products. Both projects share the same goals: create employment through gratifying, high-skill jobs that provide good incomes for local populations. Roughly, we aim to double people’s income after they join the programme. Usually, women working for us earn 100 U.S. dollars per month. We aim to provide employment to these women in a location very close to their homes.
How do Mekong Quilts and Mekong Creations differ?
Mekong Quilts is concerned with quilts, bed covers, bags and the like and Mekong Creations is a brand new enterprise using materials like bamboo and papier-mâché. We want to create new things and see what happens. Right now, we have quite a few successful products.
We received The Good Design Award in Tokyo in June 2013. This award is supported by the Japan Institute of Design Promotion (JDP) and ASEAN-Japan Centre. The Good Design Award supports design-oriented companies that are selected on the basis of how they use traditional materials, craftsmanship and mode of production.
How are your products different?
Regarding bamboo, for example, we try to use it differently. We don’t want to compete with products that you can find inside Ben Thanh Market or on the streets of Hanoi. We try to make products nobody else is producing. We are deliberately focusing on the tastes of foreign customers, expats and tourists. We don’t want to compete with local businesses – they have their own skills, and we have ours.
Are all of your products made by hand?
Most of our products are handmade, by women. Only for ourbamboo productsdo we use machines, and in that case we also employ men. We don’t want to be too dogmatic though. If the machine can make a better quality product, we’ll use the machine. We don’t want to be too focused on the handmade angle and then end up with poor quality products. Although bamboo products are also produced by craftspeople in Thailand, Philippines and Africa, the quality in Vietnam is very good. And today our price is around 25% cheaper than the competition’s.
Our bamboo products are also very resilient. For instance, in the beginning, our staff didn’t believe that our bamboo bikes would be strong enough, so I said, ‘Ok, let’s break one.’ They took a hammer to the bike to destroy it, but they got more and more impatient. They hit it repeatedly and ultimately gave up. They couldn’t break the frame! It’s really strong. It will bend but it will not break.
Can you speak a little about Mekong Plus?
Mekong Plus is an NGO which was first created in France 20 years ago. This year, we are celebrating its 20th anniversary. We first started in Vietnam and then expanded to Cambodia.
We began from scratch, from nothing, just two or three friends, each putting 2-3000 dollars on the table for the first year, volunteering without payment for a while. We grew fast and today have 250 staff working in five districts in Vietnam and one district in Cambodia. We have roughly 180,000 beneficiaries every year and we provide scholarships for children, employment and set up minor infrastructures in the Mekong Delta such as bridges and small roads. I say, ‘we’, but that is not entirely correct: Mekong Plus relies on the participation of those we partner with. We don’t do anything if the people don’t work with us from the very beginning.
When we first went to the Mekong Delta, we never thought about bridges, but people told us, ‘We need bridges to go to schools, to go to the clinic, to the market.’ They really insisted. So, we told them, ‘Ok, but what can you contribute?’ So now, locals contribute two-thirds of the cost and Mekong Plus funds one-third. For everything, this is the same policy.
How do you achieve such great results in such a short time?
A lot of people can hugely benefit from a bridge. If you build a bridge, you can count the number of motorbikes crossing.A bridge costs 4-5000 dollars to build, but if you factor in the time savings, it’s amazing. Say, for example, a person wants to sell a pig [at market] and there’s no bridge. They usually lose 20% on the regular price because they can’t bargain. The longer the route to the market, the more petrol you buy. And the longer the wait, the more you have to feed your pigs. But if there’s a bridge it’s possible to get to market faster and sell at the actual market price. The impact really is huge.
We are also working on health education in primary schools and kindergarten. Today, we reach 65,000 children and work in almost 200 schools. In Vietnam, much is learned by heart. You learn by heart how to brush your teeth, but the irony is that sometimes there is no toothbrush. Nevertheless, we noticed that people’s health was not so good, so we launched a health education programme in schools. When children go home, they tell their parents about what they learned in school. This has a huge impact on the entire community.
Where do your funds come from?
Mekong Quilts and Mekong Creations generate profits. If you buy something in the shops that costs 100 dollars, fifty dollars goes back to the village. Roughly, it’s half-half. But we also have fund raisers and private donors. This year we organized a Brussels-Saigon trip with 20 teams to raise money.
Is it possible to visit the villages where your products are made?
If you want to visit the villages, just ask at the shop when the best time to visit is. Then, we’ll try to group people and organise a one-day trip. The return trip takes eight hours.
Visits are not organised on a frequent, regular basis, but rather several times a month. However, prior to departure, we need to ask for police permission, as these are very poor, isolated areas. We need two-week’s notice and one copy of your visa and passport. Everything can be processed by email. You can find more information on our website www.mekong-quilts.org/our-news