International trade with a real soul? That’s the very personal ambition of Thuy Pham, a young Vietnamese woman now living in Birmingham with her own mission to build new business links between her home country and the UK.
And with a trade seminar hosted by the Vietnamese Government in Birmingham next week, the opportunities are becoming more apparent and tangible.
Global business is of course all very important and vital stuff. But, truth to tell, it can be a bit dull and earnest too. Hard faced folk and heartless spreadsheets. It might set the pulses of accountants and economists racing... but for the rest of us?
Actually it couldn’t be more packed with human interest – as Thuy’s own story reveals only too vividly.
Thuy doesn’t just ‘talk the talk’ with regard to business – she boldly ‘walks the walk’.
Her new business venture is in partnership with Mr Vo Minh Khai, who operates the only-organic certified rice farm in Vietnam, making Thuy the first and only importer of organic Vietnamese black rice – branded as Hoa Sua – to the UK while working full time as an eye specialist in Birmingham following her education and training in the UK.
Black rice was once the exclusive preserve of emperors with a reputation as a ‘super food’, rich in the antioxidant, Anthocyanin.
Passionate herself about healthy eating and the daughter of doctors still practicing in Vietnam, Thuy is eager for further research into the health benefits of the product to be carried out, in particular its impact on Type 2 diabetes.
The death this week of Vietnamese national hero General Giap reminded many that one of the defining conflicts of the latter twentieth century raged through Vietnam for some 25 years with consequences that continue to shape power relations even today.
However, Vietnam today is of course a very different country. It has a growing tourism market which has rapidly expanded from a back-packers destination to become something much more sophisticated and all-embracing without losing any of the courtesy and grace which genuinely characterises the people and their attitudes.
With a population of some 90 million, Vietnam is the thirteenth largest country in the world, and the eighth largest in Asia.
The economy emerged from a very centralised form of state control in the 1970s and, while still officially Communist, is in a continuing process of a transformation which saw it as one of the world’s fastest growing economies through the late 90s and early 2000s. The global recession has had its impact, but trade is hugely important and Vietnam is one of the most open economies in Asia.
Industrial development has had its greatest impact in the north and agriculture remains a central element of activity.
The country is one of the largest producers of coffee in the world, after Brazil, and the second largest exporter of rice, after India.
And that’s quite enough excitement for the accountants and economist – back to Thuy Pham and her project
Some seven years ago, in Vietnam’s deep south Ca Mau region, Mr Vo committed himself to putting economic vitality back into the community he and his family initially came from.
He first cleared and drained some 170 hectares of marshland to create the rice paddy fields – a task itself taking some three years of single handed backbreaking endeavour.
Once this was completed in 2009, the process of growing the crop and bringing it to market began and is now well established.
Total production for 2013 is 1500 tonnes of rice with expected turnover of two million dollars.
The income generated by this project has in turn brought investment to the local community, including new facilities for health care and education.
The project is expected to increase to 5,000 hectares, employing up to 8,000 local people by 2019, increasing income from 20 to 180 dollars per month per farmer with an eventual output of 10,000 tons of rice each year.
Furthermore, a range of new products including health drink, natural antioxidants supplements are on the way.
Thuy is so personally inspired by the commitment, achievement and continuing social benefits of the organic rice project, that she is actively marketing the product at community events and online, and is now exploring connections to major retail channels with the aim of presenting the products to a national market across the UK.
Thuy’s ambitions stretch to building much more extensive trade and business links between Vietnam and the UK. At a time when we are encouraging our own SMEs to engage with overseas markets, her example might well be an inspiration to other sectors of the UK business scene.
* Mike Loftus is a former manager of Locate in Birmingham and current director of News from the Future