Building schools

Cargill’s ambitious school-building effort fits with one of the strongest beliefs of the people of Vietnam

March 2010 — Sitting on child-sized chairs arranged in a circle on a gleaming tile floor, a group of 20 Vietnamese kindergarteners sing a song about a duck. Sunlight shines through the classroom windows and ceiling fans slowly rotate overhead as the children— with gentle coaching from their teachers—make movements with their hands to go along with their song.

Outside is a shaded veranda that leads to a paved courtyard full of tropical plants native to the Mekong Delta. The scene, enhanced by the young voices raised in song, seems close to idyllic—a stark contrast to the situation at the school just three years earlier. The previous kindergarten was a crude wooden shack topped by a rusty corrugated steel roof and surrounded by mud and weeds.

School children of Giao Hoa.
The school children of Giao Hoa, dressed in their uniforms, sing songs with their teacher.

The children of Giao Hoa, dressed in uniforms made for $1 each at local tailor shops, look very clean and neat—an image that masks the poverty of their backgrounds. “This school is famous in the province because it was built by the private sector and it is known for its high standards,” Nguyen Thi Tim, principal of the Giao Hoa kindergarten, explains in her office.

Tim had been a kindergarten teacher for 24 years when the government assigned her to the Giao Hoa school as principal. She remembers feeling very depressed. “When I came here, the school was in such bad condition that it was in danger of collapsing,” she says. “We had to use a house next door as our third classroom.” Luckily, just one year later, I was principal of the greatest school in the whole province!”

Cargill’s school projects typically take one year from project approval to completion. The Cargill Cares team – consisting of Cargill employees located in Vietnam – works with architects and applies for licenses, gets construction bids, supervises construction and conducts an annual inspection of the schools.

“We hold employees accountable to build schools,” says Stoney Su, general manager of Cargill Animal Nutrition (CAN) in Vietnam. “We measure school building like we measure the tons of feed we sell.”

Last year, Thanh Nguyen headed the Vietnam Cargill Cares effort, spending about 30 percent of his time building eight schools—a new record. “We raised the budget this year despite the financial crisis,” says Thanh, who manages Cargill’s cocoa business.

Ngan Vu, Cargill animal nutrition branding manager, works on all the school projects as part of her duties—a sign of how school construction has become part of Cargill’s brand in Vietnam. She is currently working on a project near the Cambodian border—a remote area that requires her to travel by ferry, boat and motorbike.

“It is worth the effort,” she says. “Not many children go to this school because the location is subject to flooding, and the old building could collapse at any time. We are moving the new school to a safe location.”

Ngan’s favorite part of the job is organizing the opening ceremonies at the new schools. “You can see the happiness in the eyes of the people,” she says. “There is always singing, laughing and talking. You cannot help but see how Cargill is transforming lives.”

Community involvement has been part of Cargill Vietnam since its start in the mid-1990s. “Our first community project was to raise $1,000 to build a playground for handicapped children,” recalls Chanh Truong, country representative for Cargill. “In the last few years, we have been raising more than $100,000 every year. From the start, we have made employees, suppliers and customers part of our community work.”