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Ná Nả: How a Grassroots Initiative Enriches the Lives of Ethnic Minorities

Khang A Tủa is attending university in Ho Chi Minh City, but he took the last semester off to run a project supporting people of the H’Mong ethnic minority.

Tủa is the founder of Ná Nả — Mùa gì mua nấy (literally: Ná Nả — Buy by the season), a project that delivers agricultural produce and handicraft products made by H’mong people from mountainous provinces to sell in Hanoi. Born to an indigenous H'Mông family in Yên Bái Province, the 27-year-old loves his origins and wants to help his people to have a better life. He aims to create a sustainable income for H’Mông farmers, and build capacity for local women and girls.

A social business

The project was established from an appreciation of authentic produce that developed in Tủa over time. It started when he was attending a university in Hanoi.

“While I was studying at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, my hometown had a lot of honey and other authentic agricultural produce. I didn’t pay attention to them at first as in my hometown they were not considered having high values, they were just something that we had always had,” Tủa tells Saigoneer in a Zoom interview.

“But my classmate always asked me to buy them for their families, and I realized the reason they often bought them from me was because they knew I could get them the real things, not the substandard products often sold in the market.”

Selling homegrown produce to his classmates helped Tủa make ends meet in the capital city. But during the harsh winter of 2016, all the bees that lived in his hometown’s forests were frozen to death. There was no honey, and Tủa’s little business came to a halt.

Then in 2019 he took part in a social project — a summer camp — which brought children from mountainous provinces to experience life in Hanoi. That was when the idea of developing something part-business, part-social came to him.

“After the camp I spoke to a lot of parents, and with my experience selling honey and agricultural produce before, I wondered if I could do something that combined the experiences I had. On the one hand, it’s purely social and aims to build the capacity of local people — almost not-for-profit, I don’t earn money from it, even spend money and effort on it. On the other hand, it operates like a business,” he recalls. “So I talked to a friend called Mua, who is of H'Mông origin in Điện Biên Province. She supported me, and we started working on the project.”

Ná Nả is spelt "Nav Nam" in the H’Mông language, which is the endearing call for “Mommy, mommy!" The project operates mostly online. Tủa and Mua announce what’s available on Ná Nả’s Facebook page, and customers send them messages or leave comments in their posts to order. They used to have a small warehouse on Núi Trúc Street where they store all the produce and people can go to pick up their orders. But it’s now closed due to COVID-19.

As Tủa is from Mù Cang Chài and Mua is from Nậm Pồ, they sell what their hometowns offer. Tủa gets raw honey from natural beekeepers, free-range chicken of local breeds and seasonal greens, while Mua gets authentic rice. Handicraft products are sourced from both areas, which include brooms, baskets made from bamboo, embroidered fashion items, and brocade fabric.

The project used to yield a revenue of VND10-20 million a month. But sales has dropped drastically since social distancing measures were put in place. “Some months we didn’t pay ourselves so we had money to sustain the project,” Tủa says.

Helping local farmers

Apart from coordinating sales, deliveries and marketing work in Hanoi, Tủa also helps farmers in his hometown learn and apply healthier, more effective farming methods. He does it for two reasons. “We believe that what is indigenous to an area and has been preserved through generations must be the result of certain soil conditions and cultural traits unique to that area,” he says.

“And we believe that what we can make a small contribution to reducing climate change. Because climate change has been affecting my parents and I directly. For example, all it takes is a shift in the rainy or dry seasons and all of our crops will be ruined, or floods can wash away an entire year of our work. It’s been having such a direct impact on us, so we want to mitigate it.”

Proficient in both Vietnamese and English, Tủa translates studies and resources he learned and provide them to his neighbors to help them improve their agricultural practices.

“We don’t strive towards productivity,” he says. “It’s rather dangerous nowadays that when talking about agriculture, people only care about output, not the quality of the products or how they were made. It’s something that we had to discuss with our farmers a lot. It’s obvious to them that they want to produce a lot without using too much resource, but is it worth it?”

To prove his point, Tủa experimented with some organic farming methods himself. On his parents’ rice field, he grew sticky rice plants of the local variety instead of the Chinese one his parents often cultivated. Manure was used to enrich the crop instead chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

“The yield was much lower, I only got three bags of rice from that crop, which is half of what we normally get. But the value is higher, because we can sell it at almost double the price of the old variety,” Tủa says. “So my neighbors started to recognize the benefits of the new way of farming. But it’s something I had to explain to them over and over again.”

Long-term plan

It takes a lot of efforts and commitment, but Tủa says he will maintain Ná Nả for as long as he can.

“I will try to work with our farmers as long as I can, unless something happens and makes us unable to continue,” he says. “I still want to do it in the near future. Because who are the farmers? My neighbors. They are the ones that are close to me. So we will try to get the project back on track and spread the word to more people, not only farmers but also customers who support us.”

Ná Nả has never had a slogan to say what its vision is, Tủa says, but in their mind, he and his partner Mua have thought a lot about it.

“We will always ensure benefits for farmers, for their health and our customers’ health, with high quality products,” Tủa says.

“We also want to create an environment where people can share and exchange what they have, not only sell. We don’t want it to be a place where people say ‘I have money, you have products, so I buy them from you,’ but where they can give each other what they have and take from each other what they need.”

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