S.Lhagvajav is an ordinary farmer. Early on in her career she worked as a lathe machine operator at Hovdaimag Vehicle Maintenance and Repair Centre in addition to being the elected representative in the People’s Congress. A lack of ambition meant she gave up her job in politics and she turned her hand to vegetable farming. Below is an interview with S.Lhagvajav, a leader of Bayalag Gazriin Shim cluster of Hovd aimag.
Did you have some long term goal to move away from political life and into farming? It has been said that once you leave politics there is no way back?
I worked for 26 years as a lathe machine operator for Hovd aimag Vehicle Maintenance and Repair Factory. During this time, I was elected asa deputy of People’s Congress and three times as a deputy of Hovd Aimag Congress. But in 1990, the Government made a resolution forcing all women with more than 4 children to retire regardless of age. I had five children, but was still young enough to work effectively, so I was reluctant to retire. However, in the end I had to comply with the government’s decision. From early childhood, I have never sat idle so I started taking orders from local people to sew mittens and traditional deel dressing. But the income was not sufficient to sustain my life so I turned to itinerant trading.
What was the reasons you started vegetable farming? The nutritional values of the so called ‘yellow potato’ from Hovd are well known, but growing vegetables in this area is not easy. Do you have your own special ‘recipe’ for successful farming?
Obviously, Hovd aimag is isolated in the western part of the country whereanimal husbandry has traditionally dominated, as opposed to more favorable regions for vegetable planting. But, where there is a will, there is way. Our area offers an opportunity to plant a wide variety of vegetables, but more care and labor is required. The main problem is our geographical isolation from the central marketplace, so finding potential buyers is the key to producing premium quality vegetables. Honestly, I have no special “recipe”, my business is just based on my feelings and hardwork coupled with skills and practices gained from Project funded trainings.
Generally, relatives of my husband are very hard-working people. They used to plant vegetables on a small plot of land, which motivated our family to move into the vegetable planting business. I quit itinerant trading, planted 2 sacks of potatoes and harvested 40 sacks from 27 acres of land. This provided good incentive and motivation for me. For time to time, we increased the variety of vegetables and planting land. Exactly 10 years ago, we planted potatoes and other vegetables on a hectare of land and harvested28-30 tons of potato, cabbage, tomato and cucumber. That was enough for our household consumption as well as providing extra income of MNT 5 million per year. But we encountered times and situations when we needed more support including finances. Although we had a firm commitment to expand our business and were prepared to work hard, it was through the support of the EMP-1 Project, implemented by the UNDP and Government of Mongolia, that were able to stand on our own two feet.
So, the Project provided you with some funding. Looks like being able to use the support effectively without losing the trust of others require greater responsibility?
Support in terms of funding is important, but there are more important types of support. I was trained by the Project on different trainings such as “Start your business- Develop your business” and “Vegetable Processing” at training sessions for supporting SMEs and alleviating poverty. All this training greatly motivated me, resulting in the formation of the“Bayalag Gazriin Shim” cluster. From these training sessions, I learned how to preserve and market vegetables. It was a more important version of support than funding. Afterwards, we recruited 4-5 people who were willing to learn how to plant and preserve vegetables and started producing 1000-1500 jars of vegetable salads, cucumbers and tomatoes. In addition to this, the Project supported us to participate in the “Western Region Partnership” trade fair. This enable local consumers to become aware of the taste and quality of our products. Many of them are now loyal consumers of our produce.
As food safety is one of crucial issues, how do you make your products safe and unique as opposed to other products?
Our goal is to supply consumers with safe and healthy products.We plant ecologically pure vegetables in unpolluted Mongolian soil followed by direct preservation just after harvesting. We do not use any conservatives in preserved vegetables in order to extend the shelf life. Vegetables preserved in August are sold out within 5 months, mostly during the autumn trade fair. Moreover, consumers prefer using healthy foods, so more and more people are buying from us as they realize the quality of our products.
As your business grew, you must have needed more area for planting and more human resources. How many jobs have you created in the local economy?
We have 4 full-time staff. As vegetable growing is seasonal, we also hire 20-30 people during peak production times. Our business is going well, so we have enlarged the planting field to 3 hectares and harvest about 100 tonnes of vegetable annually. That amount is quite enough for our livelihoods, but we should ensure that our business is sustainable and stable. The EMP Project helps us to learn such skills. TheProjectmonitors how the business is going.Our initial success meant that the Project enabled us to be beneficiaries for the phase 2. The most crucual thing we learnt from the Project was the importance and benefit of working in groups.
When you have excess harvest, you will need storage pits so that you can ensure you supply your customers with fresh and high quality vegetables.
We built a 65 tonne capacity storage unit in 2002. We have had larger and larger harvests and the storage capacity was inadequate so we had to rent one last year for our additional vegetables. We are planning to build a 100-tonne storage unit next year if our financial situation permits. If not, will build a 70 tonne version.
The local community has many positive words to say about your work and success. They mention that yourparticipation in international fairs and the awards you have received.
Just this year, I have participated in several events such as Tsagaan Sar Trade Fair and Autumn Market Days as well as others. In addition, I have also displayed my products at the Technology Fair, which was organized in the city of Manchuria in China, where Ireceived an award for best product. The Projecthas provided MNT 3 million funding for developing packaging and labeling for the preserved vegetables. All this support from the Projecthas motivated me to work more effectively. EMP Project not only supports our work, but also monitors our operations and ensures we take responsibility.
Obviously, you want to expand to markets out of your aimag. Are there any such possibilities?
I am willing to supply good quality vegetables to as many as people as possible. Every one knows that most of the vegetables sold in markets are imported from China. During the past period, the Project supported us to participate in different events, which served as a bridge connecting us with markets and laid foundations for our product to become a local brand product. Just a few days ago, I received a phone call. A lady from “Federation of Household based Producers” said, “We want your vegetables, including onion and garlic, to be displayed in a trade fair to be held in Japan in January as your products are ecologically pure”. She said samples of our products were sent for testing. I was very excited and this made me proud that products from our cluster will be on world market as a result of our hard work, support from Project.
What about the support from local administration aside from the Project?
Yes, to some extent. The local governmenthas supported our commitment to supply the market with ecologically fresh and pure vegetables and we also hope that we will be able to cooperate in the future. If such domestic production is supported well, we will be able to supply the market demand for vegetables. Vegetables and fruits grown in Hovd are known around Mongolia for their taste and quality. It is vital to consume pure products for the well-being of our children. Therefore, I am willing to expand my business and serve as an example to younger generations demonstratingthe value of hard work.
Someone may want to buy your ecologically pure vegetables and other products, or may have offers of cooperation. Then how can they get in touch with you?
Obviously, I will warmly welcome any proposal for cooperation. We will organize a demo-training this spring showcasing how to plant vegetables in the field. We supply our preserved vegetables to other aimags in western region and are more than willing to expand the scope of our market beyond the western region. If someone wants to buy fresh and preserved vegetables, we would be interested in cooperation. Interested people may contact us by phone 99479159 and 99435405.
Interview by B.Maitsetseg