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This Vietnamese Agriculture Startup Is Sparking A Food Safety Movement

When Mai Gautier (née Pham) was growing up in Hanoi, in post-war Vietnam, there was never any talk of food safety or the concept of transparency. It wasn’t until she met veterinarian and future husband Patrice Gautier that she grew deeply concerned for how the couple would raise their first child in a place where food sources and certifications were mostly suspect.
“When we had our first child, my husband and I started to really worry because we had the same problem with our food every week in Vietnam. It wasn’t fresh and we weren’t so sure about the source — so we wondered what was safe to give to our child,” she said.
That was back in 2005, but after this year’s water pollution crisis in central Vietnam where steel factory Formosa Plastics admitted to spilling toxic waste and causing the mass death of over a hundred tonnes of fish, food safety and transparency is now ever the hot topic in the country.
A vendor sells vegetables on the streets of Hanoi. Credit: AFP / HOANG DINH NAM / Getty
And as Vietnam has now shifted into the lower middle-income bracket, consumers are now spending more time at the supermarket and exercising heightened caution when it comes to assessing their food sources.
Enter Naturally Vietnam, a Hanoi-based agriculture startup co-founded by the Gautiers that provides traceable food products. Naturally Vietnam sources all their products from six farms in the city’s Soc Son district and has helped build the farms up from scratch by offering startup loans of over $2,000. The livestock farms are veterinarian-supervised, use chemical-free processes and any product sold in Naturally Vietnam’s shops are easily traceable in terms of food origins and processes.
Naturally Vietnam runs an online grocery shop where customers can comb through pages of produce, fresh fruit, meat and poultry, and select from over 300 products. Since Vietnam is primarily a cash-based society, Naturally Vietnam is unable to build in credit card payments into their platform but allows for direct bank transfer or cash-on-delivery. Groceries are delivered, in typical Vietnamese fashion, by motorbike and usually arrive within 24 hours of ordering.
Source: Naturally Vietnam website
Source: Naturally Vietnam website
Their mission, said Gautier, is to promote food transparency as much as they can. “The source of products, that is a question that no one can answer and that is the transparency problem in Vietnam. If you ask the seller at many shops: ‘Where did your product come from?’ Many shops cannot answer this and many times labels aren’t clear about food sources,” she said.
“For us, we really wanted to make it as clear as possible. We put the name of the farm on packaging and train our staff to understand about the products so they can answer any questions that customers may have. We also open our farms up for visiting so our customers can see where their products come from.”
A vendor sells vegetables at a market in Hanoi. Credit: AFP / HOANG DINH NAM / Getty
Unlike other shops in Vietnam that claim to be organic, Gautier admits that Naturally Vietnam is unable to fully reach the international standards for organic products because of air and water pollution in Hanoi.  
“We cannot do organics 100%, which is why we only say ‘free-range standard.’ The air and the water in Soc Son is not fully at organic standards — although it’s getting very close,” she said and notes that her team also helps educate local farmers on practices such as using organic fertilizer.
While some changes, in terms of farming practices, are afoot, Gautier said that there’s still a long way to go in Vietnam in terms of mindset shift.
“People still prefer to go to the market to buy live animals, such as chickens, and have it killed in front of them,” she said. “They feel like this is what food safety means, although they have no idea how the chicken is raised. It’s not easy to change their minds.”

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