It is hot, although it is still very early in the morning, and a group of ethnic minority women are already at work, picking tender tea leaves on a mountainside in the northern province of Lai Chau.

The Dao Do (Red Dao) women of Tam Duong district are dressed in their colourful traditional clothes, and their nimble fingers and hand movements seem to split the sunbeams slanting through mist as they keep putting handfuls of tea leaves into the papoose they carry on their backs.

Lifting up the papoose and wiping the sweat on her face as she takes a break under a tree on the tea plantation, Phan Thi Mui said she and other growers always harvested the tea leaves early in the morning. When the sun is up high in the sky, it is blazing hot and they cannot do anything, she said.

Mui, who is married and has two children, lives in Ban Bo commune. She said her family previously grew maize and cassava, but this did not go smoothly and they were often faced with the prospect of going hungry.

In 2009, Mui's family began growing tea in 2009 with financial support from provincial authorities and the Lai Chau Tea Joint Stock Company. She said that without the support, her family's life would not have been as stable as it was now, and her children would not have been able to continue their schooling.

"My family earned 70 million VND (3,200 USD) last year, nearly half of it from tea. We now have some savings for the future."

While her family's income is not high compared to urban areas in the country, it is a significant sum in Tam Duong District, where the average annual household income is 17 million VND (790 USD).

Mui's family is one of many who have benefited from the schemes carried about by the local tea company.

Located in a valley surrounded by many mountains, the company's Tam Duong factory is now seen as the heart of the tea business in Ban Bo commune.

The factory, the second one opened by the company, began operations last June. It imparts tea cultivation knowhow to local residents, buys their produce and processes them for domestic and export markets.

In the past, more than 320 farmers from Ban Bo commune sold their tea leaves to small processing facilities at low prices and in small volumes.

Today, the new factory on the spot allows for fresh tea leaves supplied by small producers to be processed very soon after harvest, helping the growers save significantly on transportation costs.

"In the past, the transportation cost was subtracted from tea leaves' prices. Now, that cost is fully credited to farmers. The local farmers harvested 558 tonnes of fresh leaves last year. They are estimated to have earned 1,500 VND (0.07 USD) extra per kilogramme from this," said Director of Lai Chau Tea Joint Stock Company Nguyen Thi Loan.

Loan said local tea production had developed strongly since it began receiving technical support from HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation in Vietnam. HELVETAS works in the field of development cooperation, helping disadvantaged people and communities in developing countries improve their living conditions.

"HELVETAS has helped us increase linkages between tea farmers and buyers of finished products, improve the quality of tea production at both the farm and processing levels, and supported us in building an environment that enables sustainable tea value chain development."

Until 2011, when HELVETAS began supporting the company and farmers, residents were growing tea in a very unprofessional way, and lacked the knowledge to produce and harvest quality leaves.

"It was difficult. It took a really long time for us to persuade the ethnic minority people, who were most used to shifting cultivation, to develop tea gardens," said Loan.

She said two factors decided the quality of tea, the way it was harvested and how it was processed.

"It sounds so simple, the technique of pick one bud and two leaves, but we had to spend about half a year to persuade the growers to follow it. If they picked more than two, they would have more in quantity, but it would not meet our quality needs," she added.

Nguyen Hong Son, deputy head of Tam Duong district's Agriculture Division, said Lai Chau province had 2,500 hectares of tea plantations, and 60 percent of these were managed by the Tam Duong tea factory.

In Tam Duong District, 1,025 households grow tea and earn an average annual income from 5-10 million VND (230-460 USD) each, the highest one earning 50 million VND (2,340 USD).

Son said the district had identified tea as a key crop for poverty reduction and sustainable development. The district administration and the Lai Chau Tea JSC had canvassed households to try the new value chain model and guided them in implementing it.

"To kick start development, the district has provided money to growers to buy tea varieties and the Lai Chau Tea JSC has transferred knowhow and lent fertiliser and plant protection chemicals. The farmers have contributed their land and labour," Son said.

Loan said her company had been providing the farmers with fertiliser and plant protection chemicals for several years, but was yet to recoup its investment.

Lai Chau is located in the tropical zone and in a mountainous region endowed with a temperate climate "characterised by a strong monsoon influence, a considerable amount of sunny days, and with a high rate of rainfall and humidity."

Tea plantations have changed the landscape of Tam Duong District, replacing haphazard cultivation of various crops with one that benefits farmers and provides good quality produce to the company, serving the administration's poverty reduction target.

Looking out at the lush green plantations from atop a small hill, Loan said she had a dream. She hoped that this area would not only become the cradle of tea cultivation in the northern region, but also a popular tourist destination.-VNA