Hard at Work: Making Coal Blocks in Vietnam

"Ms. Lien Thị Doãn is only 28 years old, yet she still manages to look younger than her age. She has a 13 year old son and a 5 year old daughter, kind eyes and she smiles frequently. As the breadwinner for her family (her husband is not well), she works every day - weather permitting - making coal blocks.

The coal blocks Ms. Lien creates are called “Than”, which are often used in homes and restaurants to heat large pots of food. The Nam Ngan district where Ms. Lien lives is well known for coal production. The work requires plenty of sunshine so the weather directly affects her ability to earn a living.

Each morning at 7am, Ms. Lien takes a 10-minute walk to her workspace, a small yard next to a lake. She puts on her work uniform, which consists of rain boots, gloves, a bandana, hat and facemask.

Ms. Lien starts the “Than” making process by pouring several buckets of coal powder onto the ground. After spreading the powder into the shape of a large oval, Ms. Lien adds water and begins mixing the two components together. She explains that the process is similar to making cake mix. She gradually adds more water until the proper consistency is reached. Once the coal mixture is even, Ms. Lien begins forming 1000 large egg-shaped slabs.

By 8am, Ms. Lien is ready to start the most time consuming step in the “Than” making process, forming the cylinder shape of the finished coal block. Ms. Lien has hired an assistant to help her with this task. The two women carried the egg-shaped slabs to a coal-pressing machine. Ms. Lien demonstrated how she presses down on the machine lever to form the cylinder shape of each coal block. As I watched her work, I was impressed by her swift pace, which displayed her many years of practice.

After the cylinders are formed, a sprinkling of sawdust keeps the wet coal from sticking to each other. The finished coal blocks are placed on the ground to dry in the heat of the sun. On rainy days, the production stops because the coal cannot dry. If the sun is out, the blocks will completely dry within 24 hours and can be sold for 200 VND (2 cents USD) each.

Ms. Lien’s wide range of customers includes neighbors, small restaurant owners and large retailers. Neighbors will come directly to Ms. Lien’s house to make their purchases, while retailers will send trucks to the worksite to pick up the “Than”.

At 6pm, Ms. Lien is still hard at work. She only begins to close up shop as the sun begins to fade. Producing 1000 blocks of coal is all in a day’s work for this young entrepreneur.

Ms. Lien said that the extra income is used, first and foremost, to pay for her 2 children’s education. She spends 4,000,000 VND on education fees for the children each year. In addition, she has to spend money on school supplies and uniforms. After that, any extra income is used to re-invest in the business (saving for the next machine repair and a roof over her production area and purchasing raw materials).

Ms. Lien mentioned that she would like to build a roof over her workspace so that she can produce during the rainy season as well."

- Hanh Tran just recently completed her Kiva Fellowship with Fund for Thanh Hoa Poor Women (TCVM), in Vietnam.

About the author

Fiona Ramsey