An initiative to help farmers improve income, health by drying fruits and vegetables with solar dryers

Vietnam has a deep love affair with fruit. Everywhere you go—city or countryside—you are overwhelmed by the sheer variety. From the more common mango and coconut, to the (relatively) exotic longan, lychee and dragonfruit. The tropical weather, and fertile soil has always ensured a plentiful bounty.

And the Vietnamese tuck in—eating 11kg of fruit per person every year. And there seems to be a million ways to consume it. Fresh pineapple or mango sliced on the street as a refreshing, tasty snack or berries and yogurt blended in one of Ho Chi Minh’s every-increasing smoothie shops. Or in more traditional desserts like che chuoi (chopped bananas, served with tapioca pearls and a hot coconut soup) or a banh xoai (mango cake). Indeed, in a recent survey of Vietnamese consumers, fruit was revealed to be the nation’s favorite snack, and the quantity of choice on the streets clearly reflects that.

There are limitless ways to get your fruit hit in Vietnam, but one of my favorites (packets of which I stuff my suitcase with when I travel to the UK) is dried fruit. Sweet and delicious mango. Soft and succulent apricot. It tastes so much better than the packets I buy in London, and is a far healthier alternative to crisps and fried snacks.

If you wander through the markets you will see stalls piled high with all kinds of dried fruits and vegetables. Many of the crops that Vietnam produces are fruits that produce a seasonal glut—like plums and apricots— and farmers have long used drying slowly in the sun as the main method of preserving fruit throughout the rest of the year. Traditionally, the fruits were left spread out in the sun to gently lose their moisture before being packaged and often sold to provide additional income, or used by families.

The technique of drying the fruit hasn’t altered in thousands of years in many villages, but that could all be about to change thanks to a lucky encounter. “I saw the Evergreen Social Ventures office by chance and walked in to ask what they were doing, and when I heard about their work I asked for a job,” says Alison Kwan, who is driving a project to bring cheap and efficient solar-powered dryers to the rural communities of Vietnam. “Farmers are already sun drying and selling their produce. The solar dryers just improve this process by reducing drying times and improving quality.” One of the problems of traditional sun drying is that the fruit is more susceptible to contamination by fungus or airborne pollutants, and the levels of wastage tend to be higher.

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Evergreen Social Ventures (ESV) is a Vietnam-based social enterprise that develops practical, innovative and profitable solutions to many of the challenges facing Southeast Asia. After months of talking to farmers, local communities and testing prototype dryers Alison hopes to have the first solar dryers up and running in September, “The farmers I’ve worked with are excited about the power of the dryer to dry things faster, but they are understandably reluctant to invest in the technology right away because they are unfamiliar with it, and want to see the machines for themselves.” ESV plan to open a showcase farm where farmers can see the machines first-hand, and Alison and her team can calculate the direct benefits for the farmers and the environment as a case study.

She is convinced that the ability to raise quality will have a positive impact on farmers’ lives, “With higher value products to sell (like teas and herbs, in addition to fruit), farmers have greater opportunities to improve their livelihoods and support themselves through entrepreneurship.”

There is certainly a market for high quality dried produce, and an increasingly savvy consumer is driving demand for healthy and sustainable foods. Half of all Vietnamese consumers say that sustainability is important to them when choosing foods, and that trend is only likely to grow.

Shops like La Petite Epicerie in Ho Chi Minh City are already specializing in high-end dried fruits and teas, and ESV run their own shop and online business called Healthyfarm, supplying locally grown produce. “I think the key to this project will be providing farmers with direct market links to Healthyfarm and other off takers because it will ensure that they can sell their first products and begin to measure their increase in income,” says Alison. There is also the potential to export to surrounding countries—30 percent of all Vietnam’s fruit exports currently go to China—and other more established solar-drying projects in Northern Pakistan now export to the US, UK and Europe.

ESV plan to create a simple package that provides farmers with the technology, funding, training and access to market in one place—making the process far easier and more affordable. Alison then aims to keep spreading the word, “I am hopeful that with a showcase example of what the  dryer can do, I can scale the project across the whole region.”

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So next time you’re sat in a little café picking at a plum O Mai, washing it down with a cup of lotus tea, remember that you might just be enjoying the fruits of Alison and the farmers labors.

Images Provided by Alison Kwan