Since the late 2000’s, Vietnam has become a hub for entrepreneurship, especially in the Information Communication and Technology (ICT) sector. The growth in ICT entrepreneurship can be attributed to two key factors. One, the country has a very young and tech-savvy population. According to World Bank 2013 data, Vietnam has 43.9 Internet users for every 100 people. Mobile cellular subscriptions in the country reached 131 per 100 people in the same year. Most notably, 36 percent of Vietnam’s population, or 33 million people, owns a smart phone, making the country the second largest smart phone market in Southeast Asia, just after Indonesia. Two, tech entrepreneurism in Vietnam has been fueled by the fast growing ecosystem. By 2014, Vietnam had six investment funds, ten incubators as well as numerous online communities and networks focusing solely on tech startups. This conducive ecosystem has churned out several success stories from the startup community in Vietnam such as VNG (an entertainment and social network platform), Vat Gia (a listing website) and VC Corp (a media company), just to name a few.
Compared with the momentous tech startup community, Vietnam’s Social Enterprise market is at a nascent stage. While there have been pockets of initiatives aiming to bridge technology and social impact recently, we have yet to see the two sectors marry to create a scalable model. Socially minded platforms such as www.charity-map.org (a website that allows users to browse charitable projects and subsequently make informed donations) and One World For All (an upcoming app that enables users to map out locations with disability facilities) are often purely nonprofit. For-profit tech companies who create impact primarily target the well-to-do part of the population, rather than take an inclusive approach. One case in point is www.dichung.vn, a carpool platform that aims at addressing the pollution issues while saving costs for commuters. While the environmental and social impacts to the public are high, directing such impacts to an underserved group is not a part of the business model.
Having said that, one of the more established Social Enterprises in the country is Medical Technology and Technical Services (MTTS), which designs and manufactures affordable neonatal intensive care equipment. MTTS, which is riding the upcoming trend of tech apps aimed at providing healthcare advice to low-income communities, paints a promising picture for the synergy of technology and impact in Vietnam.
To move forward with technology based Social Enterprises in an inclusive way, some new ecosystem initiatives have started in Vietnam. For instance, in 2013, mLab (Mobile Applications Laboratory), an initiative by infoDev of the World Bank – collaborated with UNICEF Vietnam and Nokia to organize the first socially minded hackathon in the country, one that focused on innovations for children. Over the course of 36 hours, participating teams had to address two social challenges: (1) improving healthcare and nutrition for women during pregnancy up until her baby is two years old and (2) creating a socially responsible tourism marketplace that would benefit children. The winning product, www.cuccung.vn, is still in operation and growing today. Initiatives like this have raised awareness of the need for innovation in the social sector among the tech community and might have ripple effects for other tech movements in the future. As seen in other sectors and markets, technology can sow, scale and sustain disruptive change. Thus more cross-sector collaborations and awareness raising on the synergies between tech-social enterprise initiatives could foster lasting social and environmental impact in the years to come.
By Huong Holly Pham
Research and Programs, Shujog