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Since the legalisation of social enterprises in 2014, a number have started operating in Vietnam. Their goal? To solve social challenges with business practice. Diane Lee speaks to four social enterprises who are making a difference. Photos by Julie Vola




One cannot talk about social enterprises in Vietnam without acknowledging the pioneer in this field; the award-winning Jimmy Pham and KOTO. Under the Enterprise Law, KOTO was the first organisation to be awarded social enterprise status, at the end of 2016.


“Being recognised as a social enterprise was an emotional time,” said Jimmy. “We gained validation and credibility. It was important not just for KOTO, but for all social enterprises in Vietnam. There are more incentives, and economic benefits for the government.”


“Vietnam is now leading the charge in the social enterprise movement and we are in with the top 10 countries in the world, including Singapore, Korea, the United Kingdom, France and Australia. We now receive support and participation from the government that helps with KOTO’s sustainability.”


Starting life as a sandwich shop in Hanoi almost two decades ago, KOTO has set the standard in social entrepreneurship.


Its combination of training disadvantaged youth in hospitality, and equipping them with life skills and English, has spawned two restaurants — one in Ho Chi Minh City and one in Hanoi — that largely support the organisation’s training centres.


Housing close to 100 trainees at any one time, and supporting them through the programme, is not cheap. As well as employing staff to teach English, front-of-house and kitchen skills, ancillary staff are also required; house mother, cook and support services. The restaurants in Saigon and Hanoi are pivotal to KOTO’s operations; not only do they fund a large portion of running costs, they also provide real life work experience for front-of-house and kitchen trainees before their internships.


Jimmy has the following advice for other social entrepreneurs: “Don’t treat your social enterprise as an NGO. Apply business principles to the social mission. Donor-driven agendas are unsustainable.”


“Believe in your idea. Be unreasonable, hungry and completely insane. That’s how you change the world.”


Tea Talk


Tea Talk opened for business in April 2012, with the purpose of providing psychosocial and education services to the local community, and in particular, improving the well-being of young people. Recognising that mental health was a major issue for young Hanoians, Michael Ong, a social worker from Singapore and owner of the café, wanted to provide counselling and training services in a relaxed environment.


“Tea Talk has reached several thousand young people through our programmes and workshops,” said Michael. “Our flagship programme, Let’s Talk, is a para-counselling programme that has trained nearly 140 youths in basic peer counselling skills so they can help their friends in school or at work.”


Michael admits that good intentions aren’t enough to ensure the success of Tea Talk, and while he has a master’s degree in social work and is able to design social and psychological programmes, he knew nothing about running a café.


“Everyday, new challenges are thrown at me,” he said. “It could be management issues, human resource issues, funding issues or issues like the ceiling leaks or the toilet is blocked. The challenge is that you’ll never know what is going to come up. To overcome these challenges, you have to adopt an attitude that says ‘I love to look for solutions’.”


According to Michael, hiring good staff is one of the keys to success, and that means finding a balance of employing people with the right skills for the job, and finding people with the right heart. “I have learnt that I must build skills and captivate hearts.”


“Don't be afraid to start, because if you don't [start], you’ve already failed. But if you try, you never know. You may be very successful indeed.”


Donkey Bakery


Founded in 2009 by Marc Stenfert Kroese and Luyen Shell, Donkey Bakery provides vocational training, employment and support for people with disabilities, including those with hearing and sight impairments. Its aim is to prove that people with disabilities can be successful in a competitive business environment.


From its humble beginning selling doughnuts, Donkey Bakery now employs 100 people, of whom 80% have a disability, and has diversified into a café, catering, and school canteen service, as well as organic farming and handmade goods.


Mr Hoan, who has been with the business since 2010, said that working at Donkey Bakery proves that people with disabilities can support themselves. “We can work for our lives,” he said. “We aren’t a burden on others.”


In developing countries, people with disabilities are generally poor and have limited opportunities for participation in society, including work. Donkey Bakery’s main hiring criteria is that people want to change their lives. “We reprogramme them from ‘can’t’ to ‘can’,” said Marc.


While recruitment of staff is easy, teaching job skills can often be a challenge. Donkey Bakery employs 50 people with hearing impairments, three with vision impairments and 10 with physical disabilities. “Our staff go through a three-month training programme before they start work,” said Hoan. “Constant supervision is required, but it is worth the effort. Our staff are sincere and hard working.”


Financial sustainability is always a challenge for social enterprises, but both Marc and Hoan say the same thing: “Think about your customers, your services and your products. The money will come.”


The Will to Live Center/Imagtor


While the service industry is a natural fit for the social enterprise, people usually associate social entrepreneurship with hospitality and tourism, not IT. The Will to Live Center was established in 2003 and has provided IT training and employment for more than 800 people with disabilities. Boasting an 80% employment rate after graduating, the Center’s alumni are proudly independent, with some even financially supporting their families.


In 2016, the Will to Live Center established Imagtor — a photo editing service for the real estate sector — to secure a stable income source to support the Center’s activities. Mr Binh, one of Imagtor’s co-founders, wanted to avoid falling into the NGO or NPO trap of depending on fundraising or donations.


Binh established the social enterprise because of his own disability. “I was born into a family where two of the three children had serious disabilities. We needed personal assistance for everything in our life, and we were worried about our future. Who would take care of us when our parents passed away?”


“We wanted to create an equal environment and prove that people with disabilities can do jobs related to technology and high intellect. Providing a high-quality service for our customers is a way to change society’s attitude to people with disabilities.”


Offering services such as photo retouching, background removal, colour correction, panoramas and floor plans, one of the challenges for Imagtor is training editors — and ensuring a cohesive approach to the business. “We always have discussions, share ideas, and meet with each other to comprehend each other’s roles and responsibilities.”


Binh has advice for other social entrepreneurs: “Think carefully about what you want to do for yourself and for society. Answer all the questions in your head until you have covered everything. Then it will be time to start.”

Diane Lee

Diane Lee is a fifty-something Australian author who quit her secure government job in 2016 because she was dying of boredom and wanted an adventure. Taking a risk and a volunteering job, she escaped to Hanoi and hasn’t regretted it. At all. Diane now works part-time for a social enterprise, and as freelance writer and editor. One day she hopes to marry an Irish or Scottish man named Stan.


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