Star spice in Vietnam's forests

Business training for farmers in Vietnam is adding spice to their harvest – and encouraging them to form producer organisations to make more from their crop.

Duncan Macqueen's picture
Insight by 
Duncan Macqueen
Duncan Macqueen is principal researcher in IIED's forest team with the Natural Resources Group.
05 August 2015
The star anise fruit resembles stars: the Thach Ngoa group has five hectares of Illicium verum trees ready for harvest (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The star anise fruit resembles stars: the Thach Ngoa group has five hectares of Illicium verum trees ready for harvest (Photo: Arria Belli, CC BY-SA 2.0)

For more than 3,500 years farmers have cultivated star anise as a unique, sweet, liquorice-flavoured spice. So 'Thach Ngoa' – a star anise growers' group in My Phuong commune in Northern Vietnam is building on a rich heritage.

It is one of several new Vietnamese forest farm producer organisations that are emerging from market analysis and development training courses funded by the Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) (PDF).

I have been meeting with star anise farmers in Vietnam, to learn how they have benefited from this type of participatory business training, which encourages forest farmers to make their own decisions about which business to develop and how.

Star anise is the fruit of a small tree (Illicium verum) – and the Thach Ngoa group has five hectares (ha) of trees now ready for harvest. The fruit is green and resemble stars, with an average of eight boat-shaped points.

These points are actually seed pods. Picked before it ripens, these pods are dried, turning a reddish brown. The emblematic star shapes can be used as a ground spice, or crushed for oil used in cooking, perfumery, soaps, toothpastes, mouthwashes, and skin creams.

Wishing on a star

Thach Ngoa is setting up a group business to sell star anise. They want to buy the kilns needed to process the fruit. Processing will increase income for members – and might attract neighbouring farmers who also plant star anise and might one day join the group. FFF offers competitive small grants to support such groups.

Like the other forest product business models supported by FFF (for timber, cinnamon, agroforestry), the star anise business will incentivise the restoration or maintenance of forest cover in and beyond Bac Kan province, which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. It will also help farmers to increase their incomes, and diversify their production system, in a way that will help them both mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Building locally-controlled forest business models of this type is a vision that FFF shares with the Viet Nam Farmers' Union (VNFU), its lead in-country partner. Established in 1930, VNFU is now quite some institution. It currently has 10 million members working in forest farms and fisheries around the country and nearly 15,000 staff organised from commune level through provincial and district level up to national level.

This gives VNFU a reach the few other organisations can match. But its interest and capacity to support forest-oriented business group development is a new venture, strengthened through its work with FFF. A new partnership is also developing with We-effect (formerly the Swedish Cooperative Centre) which is also seeking to build membership-based producer organisations.

Mainstreaming towards policy reform

Working with farmers unions to achieve forest ends is an innovative idea, but one that FFF is using successfully with other groups such as the Liberia Farmers Union Network (FUN) and the Zambian National Farmers Union (ZNFU).

Forest dependent people are invariably farmers – but farmers whose forest products often fall outside mainstream agricultural extension and business development support.

Mainstreaming support for forest business groups within farmers unions helps to address that deficit. But it also gives forest farmers access to the considerable political strength of broader agricultural producer organisations – which can help in pushing for useful policy reform.

Monitoring and learning is a core function of the FFF and, as a member of the management group, IIED has been tasked to monitor how well this innovative strategy is working. This role has given me the privilege of talking with the star anise farmers this week.

By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of this area of work, we can learn valuable lessons, allowing us to replicate and scale-up programmes that deliver both forest protection and poverty reduction.

An early target for presenting lessons from this work is the World Forestry Congress to be held in Durban in September. FFF hopes to see you there.

Duncan Macqueen ([email protected]) is principal researcher in IIED's forest team with the Natural Resources Group.