Son tra, the miracle fruit behind the tea that will simultaneously save forests, raise the income of smallholder farmers in Northwestern Vietnam, transform their landscapes, and be healthy for you.
Son tra, aka the H’mong apple, taorung, maccam, or macsamcha depending on whether you are in Vietnam, India, Myanmar, or some southern provinces of China, is an indigenous fruit tree species growing naturally in forests around the Himalayas. It is especially abundant in areas populated by the H’mong people in Northwestern Vietnam, hence the local name “H’mong apple” (Docynia Indica). Listed as one of 50 specialty fruits by the Vietnam Records Organization, son tra was until recently still considered a non-timber forest product relegated to small-scale wild collection and local consumption at a district level.
This year son tra is successfully being introduced into the mainstream commercial sector as a processed product – son tra instant tea and son tra concentrated extract.
Largely testament to the growing value of the fruit to a bigger consumer base reaching as far as supermarkets in the capital Hanoi; research efforts to understand the nutritional properties and increase production by adding value to son tra have played a twofold role in its burgeoning presence. In 2012, when a research objective on value addition to agroforestry products commenced in Northwestern Vietnam, the sour, greenish yellow fruit was still in the early stages of domestication with the culturally diverse but extremely poor communities in the uplands who made their living off the surrounding forests.
Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the Southeast Asia region. National statistics indicate that of the 30 ethnic groups who reside in the Northwestern uplands, the Thai, Kinh, H’mong, Muong and Dao peoples are the poorest in the country with a proportion of poor households nearly three times as high as the national average. Remote and mountainous, forests occupy more than half of the 4.4 million hectares which are home to the 3.4 million people (4% of Vietnam’s population). But unsustainable shifting-cultivation practices and a fast growing population are encroaching dangerously on the forests, changing landscapes to barren hills with high erosion and poor soils, leaving communities with few livelihood options.
H’mong farmers around the forested areas of Son La, Dien Bien and Yen Bai were especially vulnerable. However they are also the closest to son tra sources in natural forests and government run reforestation plantations. For development finance partners like the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), this meant that supporting the promotion of son tra as a cash crop in these areas where opportunities are extremely limited was an optimal option.
“Research on adding value to son tra is a continuation of our work on availability, quality and production of tree germplasm in Northwest Vietnam. Around five years ago, one hundred households took up grafted son tra technologies that could quickly produce large fruit crops in two to three years”, says Delia Catacutan, Humidtropics Researcher, and Senior Social Scientist and Vietnam Country Representative at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).
Today, with approximately 500 trees on one hectare of land, a farmer can expect to earn an average of $1,000 USD per year, depending on yields and market price. The World Bank estimated Vietnamese gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than $2,000 USD per year for the period 2010-2014.
Farmers also have the option of planting their trees on Government land as part of the National Reforestation Scheme and receive entitlement certificates to protect and harvest the fruits.
“I never thought much of son tra”, said Giang Dung Vu, a farmer cooperator, “but after I started collecting and selling from the trees I planted, I could buy a motorcycle in one year!”. This was at around the end of 2013, beginning of 2014. This year, Giang Dung Vu is projected to earn 30 million Vietnamese Dong (VND), about $1,500 USD, simply by selling son tra to collectors and traders. He could afford four motorbikes if he so wished.
The son tra value chain development work is an important component of the Agroforestry for Livelihoods of Smallholder Farmers in Northwest Vietnam (AFLI) project, which is mapped onto Humidtropics and led by ICRAF. The project aims to promote the development of tree-based systems that have potential economic value to farmers. Understanding existing market value chains, and identifying the necessary interventions to improve the performance of son tra is critical to maintaining its usefulness to farmers. A team of researchers, extension workers and farmers had successfully concluded the necessary market value chain analysis between July and December, 2012, but they still had to cover the knowledge-gap on the phytochemical properties and nutritive values of son tra.
Son tra is traditionally believed to control cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, however there was very little scientific evidence to support the local beliefs. In 2013, Humidtropics/AFLI researchers from ICRAF teamed with the National Institute of Medicinal Material Hanoi (NIMM), to conduct an in-depth study of some bioactive substances of son tra fruit and its processed product development. Researchers identified the essential bioactive substances polyphenols, which are key human dietary antioxidants, and triterpene acids which have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumour promoting properties.
In 2014, the supply of son tra continued to grow with government reforestation plantations also producing son tra fruit alongside smallholder farms. Although this was a good outcome for the landscape, the increasing son tra supply, flooding even supermarkets in Hanoi, reduced prices from 35-40 VND per kg in 2013 to 25 VND in 2014. With the saturation of the market threatening farmers livelihoods, and Hanoi consumption patterns demanding more convenience foods, the local government of Northwest Vietnam supported the recommendation to develop the research results on processing techniques of ready to use products, such as son tra extract and instant tea.
Sour and acidic, son tra fruit is difficult to consume fresh and is traditionally processed by soaking in sugar to make a syrup; the fruit dry-sliced for tea; or the ripe fruit soaked in alcohol to add flavor to alcoholic beverages. Nonetheless it was beset by uneven quality and taste, high sugar content, and low food safety standards.
In 2015, scientists, policy makers, and farmers used an exploratory survey to identify an appropriate private sector partner to provide simple, low cost, low investment technologies for mass-producing standardised son tra products. Tay Bac Tea and Special Food Ltd., a tea processing company considered lead in producing and exporting tea in Vietnam, expressed interest due to the proximity of son tra sources to their major shan (oolong) tea – a local organic tea growing near son tra areas.
The company has just signed a ‘Research Findings Transfer Agreement’ with ICRAF and ACIAR, to develop and modify the research results for large scale commercial production. They will also diversify son tra processed products and test the production of concentrated son tra juice, son tra vinegar, son tra wine, and son tra candy.
From 2016 if you’re looking for a tea that simultaneously saves forests, raises the income of smallholder farmers in Northwestern Vietnam, transforms their landscapes; and is healthy for you, you would not go far wrong with son tra.
“The opportunities provided by the promotion and use of son tra in government reforestation programs; and son tra increasingly becoming recognized as an important source of income for smallholder farmers – fitting well into their agroforestry systems – was a naturally key theme for us to address. Our next job will be linking producers to potential retailers”, says Fergus Sinclair, Humidtropics Researcher and Systems Science Leader at ICRAF.
This research is funded by ACIAR, the CGIAR Fund Donors, the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry (FTA), and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH).
Blog by Lua Hoang Thi, AFLI Field Coordinator, ICRAF, and Ake E. Mamo, Liaison and Communication Officer, ICRAF. Blog edited by Valérie Poiré, Communication Officer, Humidtropics. Photos by ICRAF, Lua Hoang Thi/ICRAF, and Tony Bartlett/ACIAR.
Read Lua and Ake’s original blog on the ICRAF website.