A team of 12 students from NUS Science’s Food Science and Technology (FST) Programme embarked on the FST Society’s first Overseas Service Learning Project (OSL) to Paksong, Laos from 11 to 23 May under Project Meraki, a newly-formed Youth Expedition Project. The team engaged with 20 local farmers in an effort to add value to their farms by showing them how to process unsold raw produce into new products. Throughout the 13 days, the students conducted chili and pineapple jam-making workshops for the farmers, and participated in farm visits and a cultural exchange with the Laotian farmers.
After months of hard work — including recce trips by the committee, brainstorming, research, and experimentation by members on products for the workshop — the team arrived in Paksong with nervousness.
They faced many challenges during the trip, with alterations being made to the itinerary almost daily. “There were constant changes that we could not anticipate, such as the cancellation of the homestay with the farmers and the complete change of food product for my group [from mango to pineapple jam],” recalled Year 1 FST student Dickson Tan. But the team did their best to keep their morale high, motivating each other to press on when facing each obstacle.
The farmers in Paksong do not earn very much from farming despite their fertile land and high yield, due to the small market size. The farmers thus end up disposing of unsold raw produce and resort to taking on other jobs to sustain their livelihood. The Project Meraki team had initially planned to teach the farmers to make jam with their excess produce, but quickly realised that the farmers were familiar with this process. Instead, the team shifted their emphasis to sharing the practices and principles behind sanitation, as well as teaching them techniques such as sterilisation and fermentation to improve the shelf life of their products.
The farm visits provided an opportunity for the students to put themselves in the shoes of the farmers by helping out with tasks like weeding, discarding dead leaves and weaving ropes. They recalled getting drenched and muddy planting seedlings in the rain, which is optimum weather for the task as it helps loosen the soil. They also tried their hand at roasting tea leaves. Despite what could be perceived to be laborious work, the farmers remained jovial and determined in carrying out their daily tasks.
The students were also very humbled by the generosity and contentment of the farmers. Recounting a visit to a seven-hectare pineapple farm that is owned and maintained by a pair of brothers who each earn about $830 a year, Year 1 FST student Eamon Lo said, “The farmer gave us five pineapples as a gift for visiting the farm and refused to accept any payment. This small act of kindness was really remarkable and definitely the highlight of the trip.”
For most of the team members, it was their first time travelling to Laos, and the language barrier proved to be a stumbling block when interacting with the Laotians. From purchasing fresh food at the wet markets to communicating with farmers during the workshops, they had to resort to using translation apps or sign language when their limited Lao vocabulary ran out. However, the students remained unfazed and continued to brush up on their Lao throughout the trip and by the end of their stay in Paksong, the members were able to overcome this barrier and connect with the farmers.
While the team went to Paksong with the intention to share their knowledge in Food Science and Technology with the farmers, many of them left feeling like the farmers taught them more. Year 2 FST student and Welfare Head of Project Meraki Yu Jingying said, “This trip made me realise that we can actually be this carefree and that any challenges in life can be overcome. It also taught me how we can adapt, and that we should not fear challenges, but accept them with open arms. We should not let obstacles challenge us; we should challenge the obstacles.”
While one trip might be insufficient to result in a significant change, the team believes that Project Meraki holds great potential in aiding the farming community in the years to come. Year 2 FST student Amelia Chew reflected, “Even if our impact is small-scale or only specific to a few farmers, I believe in the ripple effect in influencing the mindset and behaviour of other farmers in the region.”
By Sandy Bong, Year 2 NUS Food Science and Technology student