Bo pen yang, sue sue, sok dee

After two straight days of traveling and three different planes, I arrived in the beautiful country of Laos. I did not know what to expect when I began this journey, and I have found that everyday brings unique challenges and surprises. I was fortunate to have a few days to explore my new home before going to work. During that time I caught a glimpse of everyday life in Vientiane, and I got to visit all the tourist sites. My first day working at Village Focus International (VFI) was the best day by far. This remarkable NGO embodies the best parts of development work, and I cannot express how blessed I feel to be a part of this organization. The next nine weeks are definitely going to be challenging: Lao is not an easy language to learn, we definitely do not blend in well, and I know I will never truly understand the lives of the people I am working with. However, the people I have met are genuine, kind, and passionate, and the work I have been assigned is incredibly meaningful.

Though I have only scratched the surface of the work I get to do this summer, I am eager to share an overview of what is in store! Fair trade is something I am extremely passionate about, and this summer I am lucky enough to get to channel that passion by working to create a marketing strategy for VFI’s social enterprise. At VFI’s Green Earth Center (GEC) and trafficking shelters, people are producing unique goods, and I get to create a plan to share their work with the world. We are starting with Mak Mao juice. Never heard of it? I hadn’t either. Mak mao berries, also known as black currants, thai blueberries, and a plethora of other names, are unique to Southeast Asia, but are incredibly delicious and can make juice, wine, jams, and jelly. We are hoping to start selling Green Earth’s Mak Mao juice in a regional fair-trade cafe chain. Once our brand is established, we hope to expand our sale of our other agricultural products as well as our handicraft items!

In addition to working on Mak Mao marketing, I am working to create a business plan to tranform the GEC into an agritourism destination. As of now, the GEC serves as a sustainable agriculture training center for previous trafficking victims, their families, and local farmers in southern Laos. Our goal is to expand the center and make it a destination for tourists to learn about agriculture in Laos, take part in mushroom harvesting, explore hiking trails, shop at a local farmers’ market, and more. The goal in creating this agritourism business is to make the GEC self-sustainable so it no longer relies on grants to operate. Agritourism has proved very successful in other parts of Southeast Asia, and I am hopeful that VFI will infiltrate this market soon!

I cannot wait to see what the next few weeks have in store! Hopefully I will know a lot more Lao by the end of it.