Mr. Chanthavy Thongmanichanh was all smiles when he greeted us at the entrance of their rice mill. He was wearing a gray pullover and a white hard hat when he ushered us into their small business empire. “I just finished work, sorry,” he said shyly as he brushed some dirt off his shirt.
The place has obviously just been renovated. There is a visible glow and gloss on the surface of the walls, and the place smelled faintly of fresh paint. A few more men greeted us on our way to the processing facility, and near the doorway was a small room serving as the management office. Inside was a woman in bright pink polo shirt, her back facing us. Mr. Chanthavy called her over. She turned. “Hi, I am Vanida,” she answered, smiling.
Vanida Rice Mill (VRM) started out as a small and humble business. A tiny lot, a roof, and tons of dedication was all it took for the mill to start operating. Managed by the members of Mr. Phetsamone’s own family, little by little the rice mill started to gain more and more customers—they began needing more and more rice farmers to supply raw materials, and after a while they found themselves exporting to nearby Asian countries, Thailand and Vietnam. After marrying Ms. Vanida, Mr. Chanthavy—an architect by profession—got involved in the family business as well.
Now more than two decades later, their rice milling facility already attained its Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certificate in hopes of expanding their business further, thanks to the help of Mekong Institute (MI).
Three years ago, VRM decided to join the Regional and Local Economic Development – East West Economic Corridor (RLED-EWEC) Project of MI, with three goals in mind: to improve production, the quality of their products, and their work efficiency. During those three years, the RLED-EWEC Project assisted VRM in accessing higher-value markets, and three years after, it stands as one of the most successful cases of the project in Khammoaune, Lao PDR.
RLED-EWEC has opened many windows of opportunity for farmers and rice mill owners like Vanida to build their business from the ground up. The project has encouraged VRM to produce organic and Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)-certified rice, equipped them with the knowledge on GMP requirements, helped explore export markets and spearheaded the foundation of a rice miller cooperative.
Through the RLED-EWEC Project, VRM was likewise introduced to a host of other learning and development opportunities from MI. One of these is the course on Food Safety Management Tools organized by the Agricultural Development and Commercialization (ADC) Department of MI, under the New Zealand Aid Programme (NZAP)-funded Food Safety Project (FSP).
FSP and the Road to GMP
On November 7, 2016, following the success of the Regional Consultation Workshop on Promoting Food Safety in CLMV held October 2016, MI kicked off its first-ever training workshop under the FSP. Coincidentally, the regional training workshop focused on Food Safety Management Tools in Food Manufacturing—a perfect opportunity for Mr. Chanthavy, Manager of Vanida Rice Mill, to learn more about GMP and all the tools he needs to finally get that coveted certificate.
His attendance to the workshop indeed bore fruit. On January 23, 2017, almost three months after the workshop, an MI pair went to visit VRM to monitor their progress in getting their rice-milling facility GMP-certified—a commitment they made with ADC when they signed up for the FSP training workshop. The team was not disappointed; VRM was on track towards becoming the first-ever rice processing facility in Lao PDR to get a GMP certificate through the assistance of MI.
A first glance at the area said it all—the vicinity of the processing facility was clean, all workers were wearing proper uniforms, and hazard areas were properly and adequately labeled. But these are all just external; the changes made since the end of the Training Workshop on Food Safety Manufacturing Tools organized by ADC under the FSP were much more impressive.
During the brief facility tour, Mr. Chanthavy pointed out all the changes in the layout of the rice milling facility following the FSP workshop at MI. Some of the changes include the addition of transparent plastic curtains in the main entrance; the addition of a narrow space between the wall and the stacks of rice (to enable staff to inspect the surroundings of the rice stacks); the relocation of office and packaging rooms (office moved to front and packaging room moved to the back); the enclosure of the ceiling window (to prevent insects and birds from coming inside); and the repainting of the whole building.
A changing room located at the entrance of the packaging room, as well as a staff area outside the processing premises, were likewise built following MI’s training. The whole revamp of the processing facility, he proudly stated, were based from the knowledge and suggestions he garnered during the FSP workshop. “We’re positive in getting our GMP certificate around two months from now (March),” he said confidently. And indeed, the certificate was theirs come summer.
With a GMP certificate at hand, VRM is now gearing towards exporting their products to China and Brunei.
Apart from opportunities to export, VRM is also looking forward to achieving a zero-waste system of rice processing. Mr. Chanthavy explained that the system will make use of rice hulls to power the drying machine. The rice hulls, when burned using the technology, will generate heat needed for drying—a process not only practical, but also sustainable.
When asked what made VRM a huge success, Mr. Phetsamone’s answer was simple—“We had a vision.” The vision has always been clear from the beginning—to not only produce for local consumption, but to break borders and export products to markets never before penetrated by local, Khammouane-produced rice grains.
Powered by this strong vision, and a substantial amount of support from MI, Vanida Rice Mill—the first-ever RLED-EWEC and FSP project beneficiary in Lao PDR to attain a GMP-certified status—is surely looking forward to greater, better things ahead.