When a company from one of the world’s biggest rice exporting nations comes to Vietnam to pay a man who used to be a motorbike taxi driver to breed a new strain of rice, it seems incredible but it is true
Mekong Delta’s King Of Rice Seeds
By Vu Tam
Nguyen Thien Tam poses in his experimental paddy field in Tri Ton District, An Giang Province When a company from one of the world’s biggest rice exporting nations comes to Vietnam to pay a man who used to be a motorbike taxi driver to breed a new strain of rice, it seems incredible but it is true
Born in Thot Not, Can Tho City, Nguyen Thien Tam made up his mind to settle down in Ta Danh Commune, Tri Ton District, An Giang Province. Tam is thin and dark-skinned, and few people who meet him for the first time would guess that he owns two companies – Binh Minh Seed Research-Production Services Co. and Nui Vui Organic Fertilizer Production Co.
Tam, a Vietnamese billionaire, is always dressed modestly, wearing a pair of rubber sandals. Though busy with his company, Tam pops out to the paddy fields whenever he has spare time. “I have a bit of luck today thanks to my love for paddy fields. I got rich thanks to rice fields. They are so much a part of my life that I just cannot get rid of them,” said Tam.
Born to a big family, his parents were often away as they were active in the revolution. Tam had a childhood full of hardship, working in the paddy fields to support his family. He did not have a chance to study until he was 16 when he started to attend informal courses for adults.
In 1989, after graduation from senior high school in Can Tho, he was offered a job in the public sector. However, he refused and went to Long Xuyen Quadrangle to reclaim land for rice farming, realizing his dream of recovering fallow land there. He was just married at that time. With the financial support of relatives from both families, he collected enough funds to buy 12 hectares of land for rice cultivation. Long Xuyen Quadrangle was then covered with cajuput trees, tall weeds, and had red alum soil. He was able to get the land dirt-cheap as any rice seed sown there would surely die.
Rice growers in Long Xuyen had to work hard to fight against alum and weeds. The unfavorable conditions stunted the rice plants’ growth and every harvest incurred a loss for many years. There were times that Tam’s family did not have enough rice to eat and had to borrow from other families. However, with his love for paddy fields and his strong determination to overcome difficulties, he came up with an idea.
He went to Can Tho City to earn a living by working as a motorbike taxi driver for four years. He spent all the money earned on agriculture text books. On quiet days, he dropped in at bookstores in Can Tho to have a “free” read of books on agriculture, particularly seeds. Unable to satiate his hunger for knowledge, he even went to the Mekong Delta Rice Research Institute and Can Tho University to borrow books and sometimes went on reading until midnight. He occasionally met helpful people there who offered him valuable advice.
After that, he created alum- and weed-resistant rice varieties with high yields. While many despondent farmers left the dead Long Xuyen land in search of another job, Tam and his wife treated the alum in the soil and their efforts eventually bore fruit. They were able to raise at least one crop a year, sometimes even three.
The king of rice seeds
When soil has a lot alum as it does in Long Xuyen, the farmer has to sow a lot of seeds for enough to strike. This was a problem for Tam as it was hard to buy seeds locally. Rice growers had to go as far as Kien Giang or Dong Thap provinces to look for seeds. That is why Tam opened a seed production company in 2006.
The new company in the impoverished area near the border had only one staff. “My largest capital was the confidence I had from learning how to breed seeds,” Tam said. He produced seeds and took time to attend courses on breeding and hybridizing seeds at institutes and universities in Can Tho and HCM City. Thanks to his studies, he could develop high-yield varieties.
The company name “Binh Minh” meaning “daybreak” implies a new rice variety that can germinate as strongly as a rising sun. The first year of production provided only a few hundred kilograms. His output grew quickly over the following years but not quickly enough to meet the demand of local farmers. This prompted Tam to expand his rice farms to over 50 hectares and his business grew.
Tam also collected high-quality rice seeds from local farmers to sell to his clients, collected money and returned the cash to farmers. This way of doing business proved to be very successful. In 2008, he collaborated with farmers all over the Mekong Delta to develop rice seeds. He ensured a stable seed purchase for farmers at the end of their crop and increased each crop’s acreage to 300 hectares.
Tam sent out his company’s technical advisors to assist farmers. He committed to buying their products at the end of the crop at a price higher than the market price, for VND1,000-1,200 per kilogram, so farmers could expect 30-40% profit from each crop.
Binh Minh Co. has become a prestigious brand name with a large market share and an annual turnover of approximately VND20 billion. Each year, the company provides 4,000 tons of rice seeds, equal to that of the Mekong Delta Rice Research Institute, to the market that stretches across the Mekong Delta and the central provinces of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan. It also exports to Cambodia over 300 tons of seeds per annum.
Binh Minh Co. currently has five scientists, one Ph.D. holder and four masters, two engineers, dozens of staff and a network of 50 farming households producing seeds all over the Mekong Delta. Recently, a company in Thailand signed a VND750 million deal for Tam to help them with the breeding of seeds from Thailand. This has drawn much admiration for Tam from many in the agricultural sector.
Tam said, “I have no secret for my success. The main thing is to have an idea and to put it into action. If you fail, don’t spend time crying over the spilt milk but find a way to stand up and continue with your plan.”
Tam has also come up with another successful innovation in seed storage. He explained: “The conventional method of seed storage is to keep them in bags in the house and wait until the beginning of the crop to soak them. It is hard to protect the seeds from mold, insect damage and moisture absorption. Rice seeds kept in water have a stable temperature, avoid damage and have a high level of germination. The most difficult thing is to prevent the seeds from absorbing water.”
He thought about putting seeds in sealed, airtight plastic bag containers, adding another outside thick, waterproof layer of plastic, and storing the bags on the river bed. Seed storage in river water for an extended period of over 24 months yields 95-99% germination. This method of seed storage saves storage facilities and proves to be more effective.