Laos lies at the heart of the Indochinese Peninsula in SE Asia. A socialist republic governed by a single communist party, it is a landlocked country where poverty is widespread. The rural areas of the nation are extremely poor, with the majority of villagers toiling in subsistence agriculture, mostly growing rice. The capital city is Vientiane. But the old capital, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site, is in many ways more alluring. Luang Prabang is comprised of a fascinating sprawl of French colonial buildings, interspersed with Buddhist temples and Laotian houses, nestling on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. In the past twenty years, impressive economic progress has halved the country’s poverty rate. It has also, however, widened the gap with the rural poor.

It was the blight of rural poverty that attracted a Scot to Laos. In a small jungle plot near Luang Prabang can be found an extraordinary team led by a former fisherman called Andrew Hepburn, from the Broch in Aberdeenshire. Andrew was the skipper of a prawn trawler – ‘The Saltire (BF34)’ - in Fraserburgh. He also part-owned a small prawn processing plant in Macduff. In previous years a keen golfer who liked to travel, he found himself one day in the Philippines, playing over neatly manicured greens on a new course built next to slums. He recounts how he stared in horror at the poverty and deprivation of the people living on the other side of the high security fence that surrounded the new golf course. The yawning gap between rich and poor was horribly apparent. It was the starting point of a life-changing decision which led him to Laos, to help the poor to help themselves through education and enterprise.

Andrew, as a fisherman, was motivated by the old adage: “If you give a man a fish, he can feed his family for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he can feed his family for a lifetime.” In 2009 he sold his trawler and his share in the fish factory and moved 9,000 miles from Macduff to the Mekong. Andrew was determined to set up an aquaculture hatchery to help increase income and improve food security through raising millions of tilapia, a popular and highly palatable freshwater fish, rich in protein and nutrients. Tilapia grows rapidly, making it the perfect species for the tropical fish-farming sector, so he sought training at the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok which had partnered with the aquaculture department of Stirling University. 

He then established a rural tilapia hatchery, which he runs as a social enterprise, rearing the fish from spawn to fingerling size and distributing them at barely more than cost price to local villagers. He employs 13 staff, half of which are women, paying them good salaries. The fingerlings are in huge demand, as much of the protein in a villager’s diet comes from fish. The local Laotians buy Andrew’s tilapia fingerlings then rear them to maturity, in the multitude of ponds and creeks that litter the lush landscape of Northern Laos. 

Together with his wife Naomi, Andrew went on to set up a UK charity called Empathy International in 2013, which focuses on income generating micro-projects as a way of sustainably combating both poverty and hunger. Naomi is from Cornwall and has a PhD doctorate in agricultural science from Aberdeen University. During their fifteen years in Laos, Andrew and Naomi have branched out, creating another project called ‘Dignity’ which supplies sewing machines to more than 100 rural village women each year, teaching them how to start their own seamstress businesses so they can take their newfound skills back to their communities. Fundraising events in Scotland are helping to raise much needed funds for Empathy International to lift these rural women out of poverty.

Andrew was recently invited to be a training partner with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and with an education licence from the Lao government, created the Mekong Vocational Center (MVC) in Luang Prabang which serves hundreds of rural families across Northern Laos. The Center provides life-changing skills by supporting disadvantaged young people who learn how to start their own businesses in agriculture and trades, providing training and equipment for sewing and clothes design, mushroom production, motorbike mechanics, fish hatchery expertise, learning English, rearing jungle honeybees, kitchen garden production and a Piggy Bank Project which produces high quality piglets for the poor. 

In January this year, Andrew welcomed an Aberdeen electrician who came to set up a new programme for teaching domestic electrical skills, and also three tradesmen from Falkirk and Cornwall who constructed a new workshop. Andrew, Naomi, and their team are passionate about a new ‘Pads in Bags’ project, which sews and makes reusable sanitary pads to gift to rural disadvantaged high school students and young women who are too poor to buy such products, so often stop their education. The project currently helps over 100 new women every month and is life changing.

Andrew says his fantastic Lao team has been greatly encouraged in their work following a series of recent high-level visits from Ambassadors and dignitaries from Germany, the EU, Canada and many nations, with the latest being the UK Ambassador Mel Barlow in January 2024. Andrew and his team feel very privileged helping rural families in Laos and love their work. He says: “What drives us on is breaking poverty. I hate poverty as it robs people of dignity and potential. Often those trying hard to break free from poverty are given the scraps of life, but we think ‘Why shouldn’t they be given the best and a hand up in life’? So, we are aiming to provide top level village skills and equipment to improve their food security and income which filters down to better health, money to go to school and a buffer for when times are tough”.

There is a famous proverb in Laos that perhaps best sums up the invaluable work undertaken by Andrew Hepburn and his team as they tackle grassroots poverty: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody”.