Keomouangluang’s journey: From migrant domestic worker to mushroom entrepreneur

Date: Monday, June 21, 2021

Author: Augustus Anonuevo

 Photo: Sungkey Chalernkhu
Douang Keomouangluang stands in front of her mushroom farm. Photo: Sungkey Chalernkhu

After working in Thailand for almost two years as a migrant domestic worker, Douang Keomouangluang returned to her home in Nong Kae Village in the southern province of Salavan in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) in September 2020. She wanted to be with her husband and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, but admits she had no clear plan of what to do for work. “I did not prepare to set up a business,” she said. “I just wanted to be back home. With the THB 50,000 (USD 1,500) that I saved, I built a house and bought appliances and a motorbike.”

Keomouangluang heard about mushroom-production training provided by Village Focus International (VFI), a non-profit organization economically empowering communities and leaders in Lao PDR, and took the course on 27-29 October 2020. She learned how to prepare the materials, and make the mushroom pots and spawn bags. She also acquired basic knowledge of how to market mushrooms.

Keomouangluang received a grant of 600,000 LAK from VFI and used it to set up her mushroom business. In January and February 2021, she built the storehouse, made the spawn bags and carried out the other preparations for production.

In mid-March, Keomouangluang took part in a training for returned migrants called Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) conducted by VFI and Atikha Overseas Workers and Communities Initiative, a non-governmental organization that provides economic and social services to migrant workers and their families.

The training was part of an economic empowerment programme for returned women migrant workers in Cambodia, Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Myanmar, implemented by Atikha in partnership with UN Women. The programme includes building capacity of local non-governmental organizations such as VFI to provide reintegration support for returned women migrant workers. Specifically, it teaches local groups how to provide entrepreneurship skills training, business mentoring, and reintegration counseling, referral and information to start or scale up businesses. This initiative was implemented under the PROMISE Project in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Myanmar, which is supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC).

So far, 179 returned women migrants in the three countries of implementation have participated in the trainings during October 2020 to April 2021, and 31 of those have been able to either start or scale up their businesses amidst the economic downturn resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The (SIYB) training helped me to run my business effectively especially the lessons on business planning, capital and profit calculation and shared family responsibility,” Keomouangluang said. “It taught me how to calculate the estimated business income and expense, and profit.”

VFI also helped her develop and implement a business plan, including the financial aspects, and mentored her to make sure the business stayed on track.

“Keomouangluang’s story shows that if migrant returnees are enthusiastic, hardworking and willing to learn, they can maximize the livelihood opportunities available in the area,” said Kongseng Piengpanya, the VFI programme coordinator. Other factors that increase the odds of success are sharing the duties of the household and of the new business between partners and even generations, as well as migrants saving money before returning, she said.

Keomouangluang is already enjoying the early fruits of her labour. “My business is doing well,” she said. “After only three months of operation from March to May 2021, I have already produced around 1,200 mushroom spawn bags and earned a profit of more than two million LAK (USD 212).”

“There is a great demand for mushrooms and only a few producers. There are days that customers pick up mushrooms at home so I do not need to sell in the market.”

Encouraged by the SIYB training, she was able to get help from her parents and husband, she said, “especially in building the mushroom house and doing other heavy work.”

“Now my family and I have more income. In the past, we depended on cassava planting and other seasonal work, and the money that I earned from my overseas work. Now, we can earn more than our family needs from growing and selling mushrooms.”

Keomouangluang’s grit and enthusiasm have been essential to her successful journey from a migrant domestic worker to mushroom entrepreneur, alongside the targeted training.

“Entrepreneurship skills trainings, mentoring, linkages to financial and private sector institutions, and other assistance are vital to enhance the livelihoods and economic well-being of women migrants upon their return to their countries,” said Nansiri Iamsuk, Migration Programme Specialist at the UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific. “These strengthen the self-esteem of women migrants and make them feel valued for being able to establish livelihood security for themselves as well as for their families.”