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Australian project trains new generation of Vietnamese farmers

Primary Industries

A leading Australian horticulturalist is helping to train a new generation of market gardeners to modernise the fruit and vegetable industry in Vietnam.

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Since March, more than 20 students from Vietnam have come to learn modern techniques in South Australian and Western Australian greenhouses with a few also studying at TAFE SA under the Australia-Vietnam Cooperation on Human Resource Development and Vocational Scholarship Program.

The partnership between vocational college TAFE SA and two universities in Vietnam, which is fully funded by industry in Vietnam, has been brokered by South Australian horticulturist Duy Ly.

The first student began his studies at TAFE SA earlier in the year with three more starting this month.

Ly came to South Australia from Vietnam with his family by boat as a nine-year-old in the mid-1980s and settled north of Adelaide in the market gardening region of Virginia.

His company 4 Ways Fresh Produce is now a major player in the Australian fruit and vegetable industry nationally. Its produce is sold through major retailers including Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, Foodland, IGA and Costco across five categories – cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.

4 Ways Fresh is rapidly expanding its own farms in Virginia, South Australia, and Geraldton, Western Australia, while also working with hundreds of growers nationally

Ly returned to Vietnam in 2015 to set up a trial farm after deciding that the food miles and cost of shipping fresh vegetables from South Australia to Asia was not justified.

“If we exported our vegetable lines over there I don’t think we could be competitive – people are willing to pay you a premium but not triple the price,” he said.

“In Asia people want safety and then price and then something that’s grown locally.

“So we believe that rather than shipping fruit from here to Asia, let’s go to Asia and grow.”

The 4 Ways Fresh brand is now registered in Asia and is becoming known among industry players in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brunei and Vietnam.

More trial plots are planned, including some in joint partnership with universities to share the knowledge about efficient and hygienic growing practices developed in Australia.

Vietnam’s population of 97 million is four times greater than Australia’s and coupled with its growing middle class presents a potentially huge customer base that Ly realises he could never hope to fully supply.

Ly, who now travels to Vietnam several times a year, said he wanted to establish more of his own greenhouses there and work with suppliers who had been trained in Australia and accredited by global retailers such as Costco.

He said he hoped the partnership between TAFE SA and the Vietnam Government would train hundreds of Vietnamese farmers in Australia and then shift to Vietnam to train thousands more.

Under the program, the students from Vietnam begin their training at TAFE in Adelaide while getting the opportunity to work 20 hours per week and be exposed to commercial scale production at Ly’s farms in Virginia and Geraldton.

“It does temporarily help ease our company’s ongoing shortages in skilled labour in hi-tech horticulture but we are trying to help growers become entrepreneurs and work with us. We are not training them to be our workers, we want them to be our future suppliers in Asia,” Ly said.

“Things have been falling into place in Vietnam and if we can get greenhouses on university land then we can open the whole thing up so local farmers can come and see how we grow things and compare our production and our varieties to theirs.

“So far the feedback has been pretty good. People say ‘the cucumbers are beautiful, they taste different and the tomatoes taste different and look different’ so it’s about getting people talking.”

Memorandums of Understanding were signed with Vinh University of the Nghe An Province and the University of Danang Campus at Kon Tum of the Kontum province in March 2018.

The students are enrolled in a TAFE SA Diploma of Horticulture where they are taught a variety of skills including how to manage plant health, conduct horticultural trials, collect data and prepare reports.

TAFE SA Business Development Executive Director Brett Mahoney said the number of Vietnamese students participating in the program was expected to gradually increase over the next few years.

He said the students who completed the Australian vocational qualification were required to return to Vietnam to work in industry or to pursue further studies in a Vietnamese higher education institution.

“The key driver of this program by the respective Vietnamese provincial governments was to increase the employability of its high school and higher education graduates by meeting local industry requirements and demand,” Mahoney said.

“This Australian Vocational Scholarship Program would not have materialised if not for the role and support provided by 4 Ways Fresh under the leadership of Duy Ly in nurturing the relationship and acting as a key facilitator for TAFE SA with the respective Vietnamese provincial governments and universities.”

Ly’s parents initially worked for local Greek and Italian migrants in South Australia and bought their own small plot in Virginia in 1990.

After completing a civil engineering degree and spending a couple of years in the workforce, Ly, now 42, returned to the family farm and started 4 Ways Fresh with his brother Tam in 2001.

“The idea was to set up 4 Ways just to sell our own product through other merchants at Pooraka (market) and we served our customers well and they kept buying more volume,” Ly said.

“By that time dad (Dong Ly) had a pretty sound knowledge and one of the reasons we succeeded is because we did a few things differently that were better than other people – growing techniques, hygienic farm management and stuff like that.

“We showed other growers how we did it and we worked together as a group and we grew.

“One phone call to a grower and all of a sudden I’m selling you the seed, buying the fruit once it’s grown and doing some consultation as an adviser and selling you packaging. So within that one relationship there were multiple products being traded.”

Ly hopes to set up a similar business model in Vietnam and plans to build up supply before engaging with the big local players.

He said he had already begun working with other suppliers in Vietnam to help them bring their quality up, open new markets, adopt joint branding and modernise packing practices.

“We hope to make a decent dent in the market over there within five years but at the same time the opportunity in Australia is still huge so I am dividing my focus between the two.

“In Asia we are not starting from scratch. The name is already there, the credibility is there and they are all saying ‘let’s do it’.

Duy Ly (left) with Vietnamese horticulture students Chunge Le, Anh Thai and An Trinh during a visit to Glenelg Beach in Adelaide.

“It took me 20 years here in Australia but I reckon in Asia we can do it in five years and it will be multiple times bigger than it is here.”

Ly said he had endured a lot of local criticism from the Vietnamese community in Australia who could not understand why he would go back and meet with the Vietnamese government, the same government his family had escaped from.

But he said was very proud because he felt it was his fate.

“I’ve done this loop on the boat from Vietnam to Malaysia then Australia where I studied for all these years and now 30 years or so later the loop has come back,” he said.

“I feel like I’m contributing to the Australian economy and I’m helping change lives in Vietnam so I do feel very good about it and I’m proud to tell my children.

“My father taught a lot of farmers here how to grow and he was criticised for teaching his competitors but then when we started this business 10 years later look at all the growers who supported it. The legacy came later and hopefully that will happen down the track in Vietnam for me.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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