A recent visit to Japan sparked an entrepreneurial spirit in Phonepaserth Luangsivongsa, a college senior from Laos, inspiring plans to sell local specialty goods in a “one village, one product” style.
She observed various local industries and staple goods in Hachinohe and its surrounding area in Aomori Prefecture while hearing from female entrepreneurs in the region during her one-week stay in Japan.
“I do want to start my own business,” said the 22-year-old student at Rattana Business Administration College in Vientiane. “After seeing various local specialty goods sold in Aomori, I really feel like I will be able to sell local goods in Laos.”
Luangsivongsa is among 30 participants from Laos in the Japanese government’s JENESYS 2016 exchange program that connects the people of Japan with those in the Asia-Pacific region.
The 30 participants were all women, entrepreneurs as well as workers and students interested in starting businesses.
During their stay in Japan from Oct. 25 to Nov. 1, they visited the Nanbu municipal office to learn about local industries and tourism and observed the town-run market and shipment facilities of the local agricultural cooperative.
They also learned about folk crafts locally made in Nanbu — hishisashi, diamond-shaped embroideries, and sakiori, torn-and-woven textiles.
In the old days, cotton was so precious that cloth was never wasted, leading to the development of such techniques. Small leftover pieces were layered and quilted to make hishisashi, and ragged pieces of cloth were torn and rewoven to make sakiori.
Soukchay Khamsone, a 28-year-old woman running her own store selling woven silk products in Vientiane, said, “It was very good to learn about the folk crafts rooted deeply in the life of the region in Aomori.
“We have similar products,” she said. “In regional areas in Laos, women are becoming more involved in the workforce by running businesses selling woven products.”
The participants also attended a lecture by a female entrepreneur, had luncheon meetings with local businesspeople, and enjoyed a home stay for a few days to experience the life of a local, before returning to Tokyo to report their experience and lessons.
The Japan International Cooperation Center (JICE), which implemented the exchange program, selected the Hachinohe area as a main venue for the program partly because Hachinohe Gakuin University in the city has a business course and some female graduates from it have started businesses in the region. An opportunity to exchange with some of those female entrepreneurs was arranged for the participants from Laos.
“JICE hopes the participants compare the situation in Japan, which is now making efforts to support women’s activities, with the environments of their own workplaces and systems,” said JICE Youth Exchange Division’s Kenichi Yamana. “We hope this program will provide an opportunity to think about the importance of women’s point of view.”
The participants were invited to the exchange program at a time when Japan itself is struggling to promote women’s active participation in the workforce. Women are being encouraged to return to work as Japan’s labor force population declines amid a rapidly graying society.
As one of the pillars of Japan’s growth strategy, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for creating a “society in which all women shine,” seeking to raise the ratio of women in leadership positions to at least 30 percent by 2020.
The participants in the program said the roles of women in the Laotian workforce have been steadily becoming more important, with the ratio of women at important posts at government agencies and other organizations rising while the number of female entrepreneurs is also increasing.
Souphaphone Souannavong, a 31-year-old woman who serves as a business incubator as well as an investment and digital technology consultant, said that through the participation in the program, she learned about the importance of the Japanese way of working out detailed business plans, including the setting of targets for each process to minimize risk.
She also said she was impressed by the use of modern technology in various fields, including agriculture and tourism, and the creative and unique product development in Japan.
Although women’s participation in the Laotian economy is gradually advancing, Souannavong said, “The current situation is insufficient.
“It is very important for women in business to broaden their horizons by experiencing various things and introducing different ways of thinking,” she said. “We also have to make our management more systematic with technology, departing from a family business mindset.”