Boby Chanthavong – current leader of Mulberries, founder’s daughter.
Q1: What do you appreciate yourself in the business mainly for?
The organization started back in 1976, when my mum, Kommaly Chanthavong, was forced to migrate along with many other families from the northern part of Laos to Vientiane because of the Vietnamese-American war. In Vientiane there was no rice field and growing rice was one of the very few things those people knew how to do. Another one was weaving. That’s why she gathered a group of 10 women who could weave. Soon from un-formal group they changed into a cooperative, so known that in 1990 they were visited by the prime minister. Impressed by Kommaly’s work, he asked her to come back to her family area to help the people there, who suffered from massive poverty. And she came back to start the silk farm. She refuses to use chemicals although she learned it. She wanted to keep everything organic. Then we started thinking about bringing people here to see what we are doing and learn. We started to train people from various provinces. People would come and learn from here and then spread the know-how around to various villages. Now we have about 300 families which we supported directly and more than 2000 people who were trained in the farm.
Q2: What is the biggest challenge for you now?
The silk production process. If the worms die because they got some disease, all our hard work is gone. And they are very sensitive. They have 9 noses! You have to change your clothes before you enter the room where they raise. You need to be careful, treat them like human being. Every day they need to be fed three times. Leaves need to be freshly picked. One sheet of silk worm, A4 size, hosts about 20.000 eggs and they eat approximately 500-700 kg of leaves. If you multiply it, we raise minimum 6-8 sheets, sometimes 13 sheets… it’s a lot of work. Then we distribute some of the worms to the villages, where local people continue to raise them. Usually the all family is involved. When the worms are ready, we bring them back here for spinning and reeling, both requiring several actions. Then, we have villagers which make dyes for us. We use natural ingredients: leaves, flowers. We can do up to nearly 100 colors. Then, there are those who weave. And those who do fringe or other special elements separately. All together there are about 25 people involved in producing one scarf.
Q3: What advice do you have for yourself in this situation?
Producing one scarf is such a long process that we need to think about other ideas how to make this place sustainable. My stuff said they wanted a fish pond. I said ok, I do it for you but you need to take care of it. You need to look after the fish, feed them, make sure nobody steals them. Then they came and said let’s create a cafeteria. We want to develop this area, not only for foreigners but also for locals. We can make some organic market here. Families can bring their children to learn about organic growing. We need to plant flowers for them to take photos, build playground for children. We do it slowly, step by step. I think this will help to sustain this place, as just silk production is not enough.
Would you like to add something more?
We need time. You can’t replace mum just for another person. We need more of us to take her position. We don’t have the knowledge she has about all the parts of the work. She can go to any point of the production and offer her expertise. Find just one person like her is impossible, we need to build a team with different skills to replace her so we are able to support more families. The silk industry in Laos can support weaving market locally and internationally. I don’t see any other product than silk and handicraft we are able to compete with. You can’t compete with growing rice, it’s too small a country to compete with Thailand or Vietnam. The future of Laos is organic, because the land is still clean with chemicals compare to Thailand and Vietnam. We are still not developed with factories, there is not many. Thailand and Vietnam produce in mass and you can’t tell them to go organic. As we already do organic it’s easier to tell farmers keep that and work on improvement. We have a low level but developing up is easier. To people who are up it’s difficult to tell to come down, to come back to organic, which is much slower, less efficient.
The questions were asked on our behalf by Anna and Andrea from How to (ex) change the world.
Phonsavan, Laos, 27th October 2015