The Sai Gon Businessmen has had the privilege to interview Mr. Hien Van Nguyen, the Chairman of Chanh Viet Company and also the person who has introduced lemon in a different way.
Residing on Route N2, Ben Luc Long An, is the new factory under renovation to improve the lemon processing capacity. The factory happens to locate at the beginning of the zigzag road that is made of concrete, drivers giving workers a ride to the garden, then transport the necessities for lemon planting and then loading them back to the factory. Just with 150 hectares of land, Chanh Viet has succeeded in expanding its land to 7.000 hectares of Ben Luc District, making lemon trees as one of the most valuable plant in Mekong Delta.
* How did you start your business when you were just a farmer?
- Though my main profession is construction engineer, farming is still in the picture. Like everybody else, when I have savings, I decided to buy myself a land so that in the future I could do my own farming or building a pond so in the weekend my friends would have a place to hang out and relax. Since construction requires a lot of hard work, it is nice to have a nice place to chill.
But we saw that the purchased land was so waste if using for nothing, we had to do something with it but having no idea at all. We just wanted to do something. In the past, in Que Trung my home (Que Son District, Quang Nam Province), a plot just few quarters of acre had been treated as a big one, now standing before a vast land of South, it was so waste if we left it abandoned. After years of endeavour, now we have basic things as you see.
A corner of Chanh Viet’s land in Ben Luc District, Long An Province
* Why lemon?
- We have done a lot of research on a variety of plants but finally, we have concluded that this land is suitable for lemon planting. At that moment, I realized that there must be some kind of way to conduct the planting that is more effective than the farmers. We have sought other ways since there would be no use if we did the same way as the farmers.
Even when the lemon is planted, we have not thought about the processing stage. Gradually, step by step, we decide to get scientists on board. Since then we have identified organic lemongrass and have to attach to the export market to add value, so from the beginning, it has complied with the European production process.
* How did you form the processing line just from exporting lemons Europe?
- Not all the fruits grown by using organic method are evenly shaped, the 1st-grade fruit that are good enough to export to Europe only take up about 30 - 40% yield. If the rest is sold at low prices as a mass planting, then not only is it not profitable but it also means we would have to compete with farmers. Therefore, we are thinking of other solutions.
According to scientific information, the lemon essential oil contains more than 20 active anti-cancer substances, which means lemon is precious and has high value. Moreover, the oil contains mainly chemical phase and aroma. As a result, we discover that 10 kilograms of lemon fruit extracted only produce 10 milliliters of essential oil.
The pulp of the lemon is got rid of when the lemon's peel is used. When I was sick as a child, my parents would make me lemonade to make me feel better. Then I thought it would be a waste to take it for granted, and at that moment I studied how to make a machine for making lemonade. At first, I planned to give the machine as a gift to schools but it required a patent. So I had to ask the help of scientists. As a result, many products from lemon have been introduced to the exhibition: lemon essential oil, lemon powder, canned lemon juice, lime grass, dried lemon slice, etc.
There is a saying "Vat Chanh bo vo"(Vietnamese proverb indicates taking advantage of someone, then abandon him without any return), we do not leave anything in the lemon. The meat of the lemon can also make into candy, jam. The juice and the peel of lemons are given to Hoa Ca Crocodile Company for them to combine them with high doses of the crocodile bones to treat children with glass bones (a well-known international treatment). Moreover, lemons can be used as spices such as lemon pepper salt dipping sauce, lemon slice or lemon leaves which keep the green and nutritious food for cooking. Just do one by one.
*How did you increase the value of a lemon?
- Since lemon juice is the first product we exported to Japan, fortunately, it covered all of our expense. Even though we have exported the goods based on the European standards, they do not believe us so they personally check the ingredients, seeds and the planting method. Moreover, it takes us approximately a year to negotiate with Australian customers. They also tasted the sweetness, sourness, etc. Gladly they decided to order with huge numbers.
Luckily we are construction workers so we do have a little knowledge of machines and how they work. So we find equipment that matches our needs, and then come up with a formula that no one on the market has never thought of. We have scattered to places to find the suitable customers. As a result, we have formed a business bond with Taiwan and India. The two countries invest in seeds, buying lemons to get the juice and import them. Since our goal is to better the chain, if the farmers live well, the chain is improved.
* What is your point of view on the business as well as the profit out of this field?
- We have not put our thought much on the profit. When we first came here, we had to return to Ho Chi Minh City at four o'clock in the afternoon because of the mosquitoes and other insects. The first thing we did was that we brought electricity back to the village (2011) so the people could make a well and have clean water instead of river and rainwater.
If you want to make it through a muddy road, you have to make concrete roads to get around, therefore the motorbikes can get into the garden easily. When we start the construction with the basic, the state decides to invest more in infrastructure and cars in the hamlet. From 150 hectares at the beginning and now it expands nearly 7,000 hectares.
* It is extremely difficult to make a statement for an agricultural product I might say.
- We are not in a hurry, and we must prepare everything ready for the Chavi brand of Chanh Viet. The market is very large. The big corporations are willing to make their products according to their brand, but we do not choose that way. Or where to get the brand name Chanh Viet but require increased storage time.
So there must be additives. But I do not think I am in the position where I have "To put one's pride in one's pocket for the sake of one's end", as in there will be beneficial but it only lasts in the short term but no more in the long run. If we do exactly what they did, this will not define the core values of Chanh Viet. The hardest things have been done, so just keep doing it. They include both coffee and tea in each room in hospitality, maybe tomorrow there are packages of pure lemon powder? Since the market trend towards the clean products so the opportunity is always there.
* When will there be Chavi products in domestic market?
- Currently, I know the cost of sales channels in the country is quite high. Not to mention the duration for debt is up to 45 days, while our capacity is not enough to export for foreign customers. The target of Chanh Viet is to focus on making good products for export. To be honest, we have a local business plan, which is prepared for sale on the online channels but has to go slowly, until the new capacity expansion plant expands.
* What do you think of Vietnamese agricultural products in the lemon fruit series that Chanh Viet is doing?
- If farming without manufacturing, the value is very low. Every month we export about 20 tons of lemon to Europe, cost about 1USD / kg. The price is not high compared to buying in the market or supermarket, sometimes 30,000 VND / kg. But farmers do not enjoy such good and stable prices, because they have to go through several intermediate levels to come to the market.
Large-scale cultivation needs proper planning. We must know what the plants need through science, not just by feeling. In order to have a large organic farming area, we need to study the soil, water, fertilizer, care, and productivity indicators. We have to seek help from universities and they are willing to extend a hand..
When I brought my first products to Xuan (Prof. Dr. Vo Tong Xuan), hestrongly supported and encouraged. Every year, some schools in the United States send students to visit Vietnam Farm and also sent oil experts to help us. Chanh Viet has also signed, studied with the Chapman University of America and University Putra of Malaysia.
Chapman University, USA visit Chanh Viet’s farm
* How about the sustainability?
- As our ancestors said, "Comfort is better than pride". Developing a product chain from an agricultural or industrial crop following a sustainable farming and deep-processing trend will be of great value, but it must be done step by step, farmers and academics must work together. You can learn to put the chain together, not all by yourself.
If the farmers find our method is beneficial, they will follow. As a result, it will better their life and the chain of new products will be durable. I am sure that when working properly, profit will come and our plan will be able to expand. As they see organic lemon cultivation, Japanese partners have ordered papaya, banana plantations. Many Taiwanese partners order lemons. They are willing to make a deal as long as the products are clean. A Singaporean company orders the gac fruit and have it pre-processed to make the finished product. And you cannot do it all alone, can you?
* What is your definition of success?
- Right from the starting point, we were not ambitious. Everything comes naturally and you do the basics to keep going further. Since we bought the land with our own savings, there is no pressure. Born in the Central, I remember the scene of parents working hard to make ends meet.
The first thing we did when we got back from school was cutting trees since I wanted to earn some extra money. Unfortunately, when I already had savings, my dad was not there to see it. That moment has followed me ever since. That is why agriculture has become a crucial part of my life since I develop a personal perspective for it. Moreover, the opportunities in the business are a lot, we just have to work hard to earn them.
Working in the city is the best way to earn income. Since our initial goal is not about making the profit, we decided to come up with a product that bears the value of the country's agriculture. And that is how Chanh Viet is born.
The value has to bear the Vietnamese people's brand. Thai buys the fruits from Vietnam at a very cheap price, have them processed in Malaysia, Singapore and then export them to Vietnam at a very high price. It is said that Thai fruits are better in quality than Vietnamese but I can assure you that it is not true since now Thai cannot compete with the products made by Chanh Viet.
*Since the Research Center of Chanh Viet is opening, what is your plan?
- The office in Ho Chi Minh City is convenient for research that focuses on agricultural products which are undoubtedly a massive advantage for Vietnam. There will be calculations on the planting elements and capacity so that we can help the farmers.
Chanh Viet has become successful thanks to the help of our devoted scientists from different universities. There are masters who do their own research on Chanh Viet's farm and when it is completed the research is put into application. And since they find their passion at Chanh Viet, they decide to stay and work with us. Chanh Viet is a perfect place for them to get the products to reach a higher level.
* Thank you for your time!