In a rare rags-to-riches story, Duong Thi Tuyet toiled for nearly a decade as one of Vietnam’s scrap metal collectors before securing a loan to own and operate her own bronze casting facility. Today, she is an entrepreneur who owns a three-story building and advises her former colleagues on how they can turn their labor into a successful business opportunity.
But Tuyet, 37, was barely able to make ends meet when she started out as a scrap dealer who had to leave school at the age of 14 to help earn money for her poor household in northern Vietnam’s Nam Dinh city.
Tuyet said that both her mother and grandmother before her worked as scrap buyers for their entire lives. At the age of 15, she was already following in their footsteps, carrying bamboo baskets to villages near and far to search for scrap.
“This trade has existed for a long time…. My village's trade was casting pots—pots for cooking rice. Bronze rice cookers were used a long time ago…. The scrap buyers were already around when I was very young. They were farmers who would stop dealing in scrap in time for planting and harvesting,” she said.
“All year round, they work in the fields. Some families plant several 360 square meter (430 square yard) plots, some plant a whole hectare (2.5 acres), but they still work as scrap buyers. Farming only takes one or two months a year. After that, they go to buy and sell scrap.”
After marrying and starting a family of her own with two children, she continued her work selling scrap, while her husband toiled at one of the city’s many bronze-casting facilities.
“I got married, but still had to work as a scrap iron dealer for several years, even after having two children. The job was too hard for me,” she said.
“Each day I could only earn enough to buy vegetables for my family. I had to ride my bike dozens of kilometers each day, but I still could not make enough, let alone have any money to save. I was sad and disappointed. My children were very small then.”
Tuyet knew her husband was skilled in bronze casting and dreamed they would one day own their own bronze-casting shop.
In 1998, she borrowed 500,000 dong (U.S. $24) from a liability financing institution to fund her scrap iron work, allowing her to expand her operation so that she could save money for her future.
In 2000, her parents borrowed 2 million dong (U.S. $96) from a bank, using their house as collateral, to help her start a bronze foundry and hire a worker.
Tuyet described the challenges she faced in launching her new business casting incense burners, flower vases, and statues as part of the local craft tradition.
“It was hard. Material back then was not as expensive as it is today—less than 100,000 (U.S. $5) for 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bronze,” Tuyet said.
“But I did not have many clients, and sales were low. I had to go to all the shops in the area to market my products,” she said.
“I didn’t make much capital, so it was not easy to conduct business. Sometimes I couldn’t sell my products and I had to borrow money from relatives and friends to keep my company going.”
After two years, Tuyet’s business started to grow. She learned how to cast bronze and began helping her husband. In 2004, she borrowed 10 million dong (U.S. $480) from the business and built a home and a new facility.
Today, Tuyet’s business and home make up a three-story building and she has hired eight full-time workers. During the peak business season, she has 10 workers on staff. Her monthly revenue ranges between 50 million and 70 million dong (U.S. $2,400 to $3,360), and her business nets a profit of more than 10 million dong (U.S. $480) per month.
In 2008, Tuyet was named Microfinance Entrepreneur of the Nation and in 2011 she was internationally recognized by France-based Planet Finance as an International Microfinance Entrepreneur, becoming the first Vietnamese woman to win the award. She received the prize at a ceremony in Paris last December.
“I was surprised to hear that I won the prize. I never thought I would receive such an honor. I was awarded one prize before—National Microfinance Entrepreneur—and I had thought that was the most I would ever receive.”
Philippe Tavernier, general director of Sogeti—a partner of Planet Finance—said Tuyet had set an example for other entrepreneurs seeking microfinance loans.
“With a small loan, this Vietnamese craftswoman has created wonderful products through her labor and love. What she did deserves to continue to develop in the future,” he said.
Tuyet said she hopes other scrap iron dealers will borrow microloans to start their own businesses so that they won’t have to toil as scrap iron dealers.
“If they can keep their business going and pass it on to their children, this will create a very stable lifestyle.”
Reported by Viet Ha for RFA’s Vietnamese service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.