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NFC: Selling Duckweed

This 10-year-old St. Paul, Minn. firm has found exporting success 
with a system which uses an aquatic plant that helps clean up the 
environment. We select our export success stories, not because we 
endorse any particular firm or its business plan and activities, but 
because we believe their experiences will instruct other companies to 
improve their export performance. We welcome your export success story. 
Write or call: Business America, Room 3414, U.S. Department of Commerce, 
Washington, D.C. 20230; tel. (202) 482-3251. 
Duckweed might seem an unlikely item to export, but the Lemna 
Corporation of St. Paul, Minn., has turned it into a lively business 
that is also helping clean up the environment not only in this country, 
but all around the world. 
     The Lemna Corporation is a 30-employee company which uses duckweed, 
an aquatic ``Lemnaceae plant'' that floats on the surface of water 
forming a dense mat. The plants are capable of absorbing nutrients 
normally found in wastewater, such as nitrogen and phosphorus. The mats, 
which grow through floating plastic grids, prevent the growth of oxygen- 
producing organisms, including algae. The result is an anaerobicÄor 
oxygen-freeÄenvironment, which is efficient at breaking down organic 
     Founded by its President and Director of International Sales, Viet 
Ngo, 10 years ago, Lemna Corporation developed its first installation 
in Devil's Lake, N.D. in 1987. The company began exporting its 
product/service in 1991. In just three years, its exports sales 
grew to 30 percent, and this year, exports are expected to reach 

50 percent of sales. 
     Maren Christenson, International Sales Manager for Lemna 
Corporation, says, ``In our experience, there are four things that 
are crucial to success in any international business: (1) a dependable 
and experienced foreign partner whom you trust; (2) access to reliable 
information (about everything from markets to transportation to import 
regulations); (3) realistic expectations; and (4) a healthy sense of 
your own ignorance about how things are done in any given country.'' 
     The Lemna system minimizes electrical requirements commonly 
associated with conventional types of wastewater treatment processes. 
Additionally, the system does not require ongoing sludge handling and 
disposal, which can significantly contribute to the costs of operating a 
conventional treatment facility. Occasional harvesting is necessary, and 
the plants, similar in makeup to grass clippings, yield a nutrient-rich 
compost material that can also be applied directly to fields as a soil 
amendment. The use of these plants results in the safe treatment of raw 
sewage into an effluent that is safe to discharge into nearby rivers 
and lakes. 
    ``This year, exports are 
       expected to reach 50 
        percent of sales.'' 
     Christenson notes that a number of government agencies and services 
have helped the company on its road to export success, including the 
Minnesota Trade Office and the Commerce Department's National Trade 
Data Bank for market research; Exim Bank, for financial assistance; 
and U.S.-AEP and the Commerce Department's Gold Key Service and US&FCS 
for finding leads. 
     There were some obstacles on the way to a smooth export operation, 
Christenson says, and a major challenge for the company was finding 
partners that were both technically competent and good in sales and 
marketing. Further, Christenson said that the firm deals directly with 
towns and municipalities which are often unaccustomed to working with 
U.S. companies. But in spite of that, Lemna Corporation now has 13 
projects in full operation in Poland, another eight under design or 
awaiting contract there, as well, and numerous projects in Slovakia, 
Russia, Belgium, Mexico, Sweden, and Italy. ``One should have a 
realistic expectation about the investment of time and resources 
one is willing to make in order to develop overseas markets,'' says 
Christenson. Future marketing plans for the Lemna Corporation include 
visits to China, Hungary, and Latin America. 

Robert Rice
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