Two Decades Defying Expectations: Vinh Hoan’s Founder and Chairwoman Truong Thi Le Khanh
The seafood industry has been described as “women intensive but male dominated”, and despite around half of fisheries and aquaculture workers being women (and up to 90% of processing workers), the majority of senior positions in the industry are filled by men.
As with many other industries, it’s clear that more needs to be done to address this imbalance. All of ASC’s standards include social requirements that include fair treatment of all workers and the prohibition of any form of discrimination – and these requirements are checked by fully qualified social auditors. As with many challenges, gender equality will best be tackled by collaborative action across the industry.
International Women’s Day on 8 March is a timely opportunity to ask what it’s like for the women who have defied this gender imbalance in the industry. Last year we focused on our very own Van Roetert, ASC’s Head of Programme Assurance. This year we want to highlight the inspirational story of Truong Thi Le Khanh, the founder and chairwoman of Vietnamese pangasius producer Vinh Hoan.
When Madam Khanh founded Vinh Hoan in 1997, they operated out of a small leased factory with a daily output of 10 tons of fish and 70 employees. Today her company employs over 6,000 people in six processing factories.
Talking about her company’s success, Madam Khanh said: “We are lucky to live in the Mekong Delta, so we can benefit from the area’s strength, which is the fish here.” But of course there was more to it than that, and the challenges shouldn’t be overstated. “There are certain difficulties for women like us,” said Madam Khanh. “In order to succeed, women are expected to balance their work and life.”
Vinh Hoan sells pangasius around the world, and Madam Khanh has fond memories of the delicious fish, also known locally as ‘Basa’, from her childhood in Long Binh, situated near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. “We enjoyed many delicious Basa meals prepared by my mum,” she remembers. “Sweet and sour Basa soup, caramelized Basa or Basa braised in fish sauce with a variety of country vegetables. These were the meals I missed the most when I left home for further education.”
This further education took place in the Vietnamese capital Ho Chi Minh City to study at the University of Finance and Accounting. After graduating in 1984, Madam Khanh worked briefly in the finance area before moving into import and export, and eventually the seafood export business where she first started to learn about exporting pangasius. She ended up working with Nguyen Thanh Hung, the first person to export pangasius from Vietnam, from whom she learned a lot: “He gave me the belief and foresight to see the bright future for the Basa fish and igniting the sparks of start-up business opportunity within me,” she said.
The location of this start-up was to be Dong Thap, an area on the Mekong river with plenty of alluvial mudflats that are idea for farming pangasius. The first factory was leased in 1996, and the following year Vinh Hoan Limited was officially established. Around this time a new factory was also bought in Cao Lanh, the capital city of the Dong Thap province. Owning a factory outright was a big step for the company, and it also required a lot of renovation work. During this already busy period, Madam Khanh also found the time to get married to Le Viet Tien, and have her first child! But she certainly doesn’t look back on this time with anything other than fondness: “With the encouragement from this new life, I was determined to hunker down with my co-workers through many difficulties to renovate and upgrade the factory with joy and optimism in the future,” she recalls.
Over the following years Madam Khanh saw Vinh Hoan expand steadily while being careful not to grow too rapidly. And looking to the future she is keen to expand beyond traditional products, looking at new uses for pangasius.
But it’s clear that growth or sales aren’t as important to Madam Khanh as working with a good team and treating them well. ASC certification has helped with this aspect of things too. “ASC helps us to understand that it’s not just about fish farming, but about responsibility to the environment, to the community, and to our people,” she says. “ASC standards are also meaningful in terms of social community works. As farmers we understand that we cannot survive without our surrounding community. So we are always open-minded and develop sustainably, and as a result we have a better relationship with our community, and we give each other mutual benefits.”