Fargreen Journal Corner: On seeking for solutions

Trang Tran at Brigham Young University

By: Trang Tran

Hello August.

Thanks to the prolonged rain over the past week, hot summer days starts being dragged away, leaving the town a much cooler and more breathable air for both our team and our mushrooms. Every year since we started Fargreen, summer has never made it to a “fun” label as it’s often pictured on travel magazines. Instead, it's the combination of sweat, stress and sometimes depression over seeing hard work doesn't pay off in good results. Our cashflow got hurt so badly as not much coming in for there's not much to sell. The joy of seeing orders coming in now replaced by the worries and frustration. Never in my life I felt I could understand the word “struggle" so well. Running a startup is not a joke and running a social startup in agriculture is just simply brutally hard.

“When in stress, sweat!” is now my motto for these days. Running has become a natural comfort food to help fuel my energy to keep on moving. Sometimes the physical feeling of yourself breathing is all you need to remind yourself that you're still fine, alive and are moving forward… Thank you for hanging there with me. And the great news is just a couple days ago, our first crop of silky oyster mushrooms of this season started to fruit. Yay!

Bonus for this month: To make up for the missing blogs over the past couple months as I was too buried under work, I'm sharing with you of a keynote speech which I delivered at the Brigham Young University a few months ago at their Social Innovation Solution Case Competition where Fargreen had the honor to be featured and studied. This one shares the “problem theme" of my summer. You can watch my full talk here.

The journey on seeking for solutions.

I come from a small town in Northern Vietnam where no one in my family before me ever completed high school or ever dreamed of going to college. The year I was born was 1986 - it’s the year that our government decided to “doi moi” or reform and open up the economy that had long been stagnant as the result of the war and being closed up with the old malfunctioning system.

Growing up, I’ve seen the massive change happening everywhere in the country starting from my very own hometown corner. For some economic reasons, the local government decided to fill half of the beautiful river at the back of my parents’ home to get more residential land to sell to people.The beautiful river that my dad used to carry me on his back to swim across everyday and once the source of drinking water for all of us now turns into the undrinkable, unswimmable and sometimes unbreathable dark flow of water.

I’ve seen the air quality gets worse each day, the weather becomes more unpredictable and the surrounding farming communities are shrinking greatly as many farmers are leaving towns to search for jobs in big cities because farming alone can’t support them. I couldn’t wrap my head around the logic behind what people had done under the name of “development”. And that fueled my passion to engage in international development work with the hope of understanding more about the social and environmental problems and solutions, hoping one day I could do something helpful for the development of the community.

Throughout my career, I’ve got many chances to travel and work all over Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia. I had noticed from my experience that in most cases, those who solve the problems were not local people and the work of solving the problem itself was highly dependent on the taste of the donors and it can be interrupted at any time before it is sustainably solved. These had bothered me so much that I had decided to embark on a journey to learn about new and more sustainable ways of doing development work. And that led me to the concept of using business as a tool to solve social and environmental problems.

So, five and a half years ago I left Vietnam to the US to get my Masters in Business Administration with a concentration on global social and sustainable enterprises. I wasn’t an aspiring entrepreneur. In fact, I didn’t even know what an entrepreneur was. I never had any business background except all of those childhood years which I spent helping my parents with their little food stand in the local market. And I was even so reluctant to the idea of starting a business because I didn’t think that what a shy Asian girl like me would ever be able to do.

All that I brought with me to the MBA program was just the passion and the curiosity to learn.

The first day that I sat on the entrepreneurship class, my professor said: “the first step of becoming an entrepreneur is finding out what sucks.”

So I thought to myself, well I do know plenty of things that suck.

That problem of the open burning of the rice straw that I’d been seeing all over Vietnam and other rice producing countries really sucks. It’s damaging to the environment, the health of the community and it’s not just a small local problem native to a particular farming community. It’s the environmental problem embedded in a social behavior problem which was so complicated and so big and so overwhelming to me every time I tried to think of a good solution for it.

But I was in school and the reason I came was to learn if the business way of designing the solution to a social and environmental problem would really work so I’d better test it with a difficult enough problem then. School should be a safe place to try and fail. Isn’t that what learning supposed to be?

And that’s how I started to work on Fargreen. It’s the journey that starts with learning deeply about the problems, then trying different solutions to see how they work, then drawing lessons from those experiences and then using these new learnings to get a deeper understanding of the problem, so to come up with better solutions.

I can tell you, it’s the long, never ending learning process. And in fact, from my experience of building Fargreen so far, it’s all about understanding the problem. And when you can fully define it, the solution will present itself to you.

I’ll take an example for you. When I started my extensive research about the problem of the open burning of rice straw, I thought the problem was the burning act itself so whatever can stop this burning should be the solution.

Then we should follow the footstep of California or Japan to ban this open burning act completely. Well, turned out, some local governments in our country already tried but it was never successful because it’s not a technical problem - its a social problem that is driven by the complex rural environment. Plus, the magnitude of the problem that we’re facing in a major rice exporting country like Vietnam is very different from the similar one in a rice importing country.

So the problem is not the burning act. How about the one that performs this act- the farmers - perhaps we should blame them and we should find a way to fix them? Maybe it’s because of their limited knowledge on the consequences of this burning on their health and the surrounding environment? Well, our team interviewed the farmers and found out that they were not that dumb like what we thought. They were all well aware of the fact that the air was not clean and breathable when they burn the straw and they all wear masks to protect themselves from breathing the smoke. So no more awareness campaigns needed here.

So what is the problem here? As we talked more to the farmers, it turned out that we are the one whose view and knowledge was limited.

Of course, the farmers had to burn the straw because it’s the quickest, cheapest and most convenient way to get rid of this waste so that they can start another crop to get more money to support their family. Farming is hard and they have to work harder to make ends meet. Taking care of themselves and their family should be a reasonable priority. We all do the same right?

So instead of asking “what to make the farmers not to burn the straws”, we changed it into “what’s in it for them to not burn these straw?”. So that question really sums up the way that we define that problem at Fargreen. What’s in it for the farmers to not doing the damaging burning act? What’s in it for them to end it sustainably? What’s in it for them to work with Fargreen?

Does it sound strange? No. At least not at business school. When we start a deal with a new partner, we always have to ask that question so that we can create an attractive proposal to them so that we can start a partnership. Right?

The key thing here is the word “partner”. It’s different from the word “beneficiary”. And when we move from the mindset of “granting something to someone" to the more balanced mindset of “proposing something to someone", we can invite the other party in the process of figuring out what works.

So for Fargreen, we need to propose some solutions to the farmers of turning their waste into something valuable which no one would want to turn away and go back to the old days of burning it.

There are many ways that rice straws can be used: for making furniture, animal foods, generating power and so on. These are all great ideas but for me, they are either too expensive to start small and test or too boring to do for the next 100 years.

So as we researched, we stumbled upon a paper about growing mushrooms on rice straws and the most exciting thing for me at the time was that not only that we would get delicious food (I’m a foodie by the way) but also the leftover after growing mushroom can be returned back to the soil as bio-fertilizer. No more waste. Sustainably!

So did I find the perfect solution for the problem and the search for the solution should stop here? Not really. What you heard was just an idea and if you call an idea a solution, you are dead wrong. And I have learned many lessons for mistaking an idea with a solution for the problem.

So let me tell you more. In the beginning when we piloted Fargreen for the first time in Vietnam, we taught the farmers to grow mushrooms on rice straws on their own and we would buy these mushrooms from them and then sell to market.

You would say: of course, what’s wrong with that? Well, there were actually several problems in this model.

First, growing mushroom in traditional way is labor intensive. There are very few farmers who could be fulltime rice farmers and fulltime mushroom farmers at the same time.

Second, it’s not that easy. The existing mushroom farmers in the country are already struggling with pests, fail crops, and so on.

Third, it’s very hard for Fargreen to control the quality of the mushrooms to sell to the customers and there is no way to prevent farmers from side selling the products to the market.

What’s more? The cheap and convenient way of growing mushrooms that people often do and also the way we used in this pilot is to pack the straw and the spores in hundreds of plastic bags and after you’re done with the crop, you throw these bags away. So, I had to face the hard realization that if I scaled this solution, I would add another and maybe bigger problem to the environment.

So, this learning really helped us to understand the problem that we’re trying to solve at deeper level of the system where it exists. We have learned that in order to craft a good solution, we need not just focus on the input or the output but also the process and the existing system in between.

We all know it’s very hard to change the system and if we are not careful, we might create another problem out of our very good intention.  

It surprises me everyday that how limited my yesterday’s understanding about the problem was. I’ve realized that it’s really hard to understand the problem fully in order to draw a perfect solution to it, even if you are the one who experiences it everyday.  

Looking back at a few of the things I’ve learned during my few years working with Fargreen, I would say that the following have been critical to help move Fargreen from an idea to where it is now [which is still not yet in a smooth path]:

1) A realization that these challenges are complex and have emerged as a result of many interrelated factors. Spending time understanding the problem, doing research and peeling the onion, was important in coming up with innovative and realistic solutions.

2) Being surrounded by people who share your vision and passion but at the same time they are also the ones that hold your feet to the fire and give you critical feedback that help improve your idea, your solution and the way you run your company.  While praises and awards are nice - they don’t help you develop. What really helps is critical, thoughtful questioning and feedbacks.

Finally, realizing that success is a process - not a brilliant spark of insight. It is an emotional roller coaster and you have to have the commitment and the persistence to stay on the path till the end.

Like people often say: where there's a will, there's a way. I believe that if our will is to make the world a better place, there will always be a way for us to do so if we’re willing to take the time, the effort and the patience to really get down to the journey of fully understanding the problem, which in another word, to show that we really care about it, enough that we can solve it with all our heart.

Thank you.