Maize Powers the Future
“Now that we have electricity at home, I can get a lot of work done in the evening. I sew and weave, and earn money from this. My children are also pleased – they can now study after dark” Aunty Toun, Ban Tha Khor
In Ban Tha Khor, an idyllic looking village on the banks of the Xe Bang Fai River in Khammouane Province in central Laos, a mother of two has started something of an agricultural revolution that has changed the lives of her family, and may help the rest of the village.
Three years ago ‘Aunty’ Thoun began planting maize on her strip of land next to the river, the first person in the village to grow the crop on a commercial basis. Encouraged to take this step by staff from the Nam Theun 2 Power Company (NTPC), by early 2011 Thoun had made enough money from maize to pay for her house to be connected to the newly-arrived power lines in the village. Her home is now one of the few in Tha Khor with an electricity connection.
Villages along this stretch of the Xe Bang Fai have seen changes in the river since the Nam Theun 2 hydropower station began operating in March 2010. Average water levels have increased, notably during the dry season, and this means people are having to make adjustments to their livelihoods activities. NTPC has been running a “Downstream Program” with villagers in the area since 2005 to help them prepare for any potential changes, and some of this work is starting to pay off.
Aunty Thoun was offered maize seeds by NTPC as part of efforts to promote additional income sources in downstream villages. She admits that at first she was worried by the risk of wasting time and effort, but that now she is more than satisfied with how the venture has turned out. Starting in 2008 with just 2 kg of maize seed, on which she made a profit of around US$100, Thoun has since gradually expanded her plantation. This year she will plant 10 kg of the seed, which she now buys herself.
NTPC continues to provide assistance, linking Thoun up with local companies that sell the seed and buy the maize harvest, and also offers advice on land preparation and growing techniques. Thoun went on a study tour to Thailand to meet commercial maize growers there, and is now confident that she can manage this business by herself. “At the moment I only grow maize in the wet season,” she says, “but I could borrow money from the village fund to buy a pump and then use the river water to crop in the dry season as well”.
The village fund is another innovation backed by NTPC in villages along the river, where the company has also installed clean water supply through deep boreholes and pumps, and improved sanitation through new toilets. Aunty Thoun has already borrowed from the fund once, to buy a tractor for the family paddy fields, and she says the low interest rates make it easy to pay the fund back.
“Other villagers now come to me for advice,” Thoun grins. “They have seen that you can use the situation set up by NTPC to make improvements. My family has invested our new profits in electricity and we now have more opportunities. Life is still good here.”