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Giving a voice to Vietnam's pandemic innovators who have lessons to teach the world

In the 12 months since the first COVID-19 case in Vietnam, the country has seen a spirit of open innovation flourish that has helped to alleviate the pain of the pandemic and lessened the spread of the virus. Now, through a King’s-funded research project, these innovators are being given a voice, to share their ideas and experiences with the rest of the world, who Dr Robyn Klinger-Vidra believes could learn much from their approach.

Vietnam made global headlines for its effective management of the first wave of COVID-19 when it effectively thwarted the spread of the virus, despite it being an emerging economy that shares a border with China, where the first COVID cases emerged. Although there have been subsequent waves, to date there have been only 2,524 cases and 35 deaths in this country of 97 million people

One reason for this was the government’s response that included localised, targeted and tough lockdowns, shutting all schools and the whole country in March last year, framing it as a ‘war’, using propaganda artists and the military to communicate regularly and effectively with citizens, plus learning from previous virus outbreaks.

However, according to research by Dr Robyn Klingler-Vidra, of King’s Department of International Development, and Dr Ba Linh Tran, of the University of Bath, there was another factor in the country’s successes – a spirit of innovative action that led to grassroots solutions and resources from local communities to help themselves and others.

These initiatives included affordable test kits, makeshift hand sanitiser dispensers for schools, ‘rice ATMs’ giving up to 3kg of free rice to those out of work, disinfection robots for hospitals and a ‘pink bakery’ movement, in which people turned unused dragon fruit into bread products. These innovations helped by providing sustenance to those most at risk or through helping to reduce infections.


Free rice

Essential innovators

Evidence of these innovations was collated for Voices from Vietnam: The role of innovation in Vietnam’s Covid-19 response and recovery, a research project funded by the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account at King’s. Based on its findings, the researchers have concluded that grassroots and small business entrepreneurs are essential innovators. They also noted how many of these innovators gave their intellectual property (IP) away for free, so that others could also help.

Too often, one’s conception – especially from the policymaker perspective – of an innovator is that of a high-growth startup or research institute. But in the context of Covid-19, crucial innovations – that benefitted society’s most vulnerable – came from the grassroots and small-scale entrepreneurs. Innovation came ‘of, by and for’ society. A key lesson to learn, then, is that we need to be more open to our conception of who can be an innovator, and find a way for state and society to empower these would-be innovators– Dr Robyn Klingler-Vidra

The project has recorded interviews with many of these innovators to make them publicly available, some of which you can view below.

Low cost COVID testing kits

Sunstar is a private pharmaceutical company in Hanoi that supported the development and production of a SARS-CoV-2 test kit. Initiated by an academic in a public university, it demonstrates private sector's dynamism and the importance of public-private partnerships.

Rice ATMs

Mr Hoang Tuan Anh is the CEO of Blue Universe, a distributor of electronic doorlocks in Saigon. He developed and built automatic rice dispensing machines, which he called rice ATMs, by combining technologies from his electronic doorlocks. The ATMs had dispensed 10 000 tonnes of rice by November 2020. Mr. Hoang also built facemask ATMs. His story highlights the dynamism and resourcefulness of private innovators, and the potential of asynchronous innovations.

One Egg a Day

One Egg a Day is a community-based charity in Hanoi, led by practicing doctors. It distributed meals and essentials for the homeless during nation-wide lockdowns, and assisted the marginalised in recovering from the pandemic. Their initiative highlights the importance of civil society, social media and expertise in charity work.

The Pink Bakery

Kao Sieu Luc, the founder of ABC Bakery, developed a recipe using dragon fruit to make bread and mooncakes, to help farmers who could not export their crops due to Vietnam’s strict travel restrictions.

When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Mr Luc made a trip south and noticed containers of dragon fruit that were rotting because they could not be exported, since global trade collapsed overnight. On his way back to Ho Chi Minh City, he stopped and spoke with farmers about the challenges they were facing. He was inspired to find a way to incorporate their produce into his recipes, especially for his bread. He spent three days iterating a recipe that would use dragon fruit, so he could serve as a customer for these farmers. His initiative created the “pink bakery movement” as many others followed suit, offering a lifeline for the farmers.

It is included in this video (at 11:40 mins) in which employees of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Vietnam talk about a range of innovations developed by Vietnamese people to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Main image: Alexander Schimmeck

In this story

Robyn Klingler-Vidra

Robyn Klingler-Vidra

Reader in Entrepreneurship & Sustainability

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