Innovate to preserve
Kon Tum youth disclose local secret
KON TUM, 2022 – At some point in our younger years, inspired by the world around us, the adventurous spirit in us might draw us to the idea of “the business start-up” to venture into. The core of the start-up idea must have been a no brainer for many – something different, something out of the ordinary. But a group of teachers and youths in Kon Tum that we recently met have shown us a different angle on business start-ups. Remarkable start-ups begin with something that is ordinary, that is close to our hearts. All we need is the knowledge, the skills and the community to support us.
The Central Highlands welcomed us with open arms as we landed and took a one-hour car ride to reach our destination. In sunny and breezy weather, we entered the Community College of Kon Tum to explore what social innovation and transferable skills meant to the school and its young people, guided by its dedicated teachers who had been introduced to UNICEF-supported training programs targeting colleges in the provinces of Kon Tum, Dong Thap, and Lao Cai. The schools provide vocational education learning opportunities to young people whose lives can be positively altered once provided with the essential skills.
We attended a social innovation club headed by teacher Nguyen Hong Phong, a man with great passion for community development, learning and life-changing opportunities. As he walked us through the session, we were able to observe and converse with participating students – girls and boys in their early 20s coming from various ethnic groups, Ba Na, Xe Dang, and Kinh.
Each shared their own ‘start-up’ experiences and how the club and its community had an impact on their lives, their dreams and ambitions. All agreed that, by being part of the social innovation club, their lives had changed for the better.
“It’s not like ‘if you have it in you, you have it,’” said teacher Phong, referring to his groups of students, who were a few years ago strangers to the concept of entrepreneurship and small business ownership. “It was the knowledge of transferable skills and social innovation that was critical in shifting the students’ mindset towards a “can-do” state.”
The club started out in 2020 with 13 students (including 10 girls) and four teachers. Each of the teachers brings particular life experiences and skills to the club – one specializing in accounting oversees and building financial plans, a female teacher takes the responsibility of marketing final products, one offers insights as to the cultural essence of each project, whilst Phong operates in a management role. Both the young people and the teachers supporting the club are inspired by frequently invited guests that share their experiences of establishing, managing, and growing successful local enterprises.
“A systematic approach and mobilization of financial and human resources were indispensable as we learned and practiced,” said 23-year-old Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong, who is on her last training year to become a nurse. “Transferable skills have equipped us with the capacity to think critically, communicate efficiently, be more tech savvy, innovate instead of taking the old path, and –importantly – advance in self-management.” As she was sharing, Phuong proudly presented to us her start-up project – dietetic herbal tea packaged in bamboo cylinders. The ingredients of the tea, in her words, were a combination of herbal specialties that can only be sourced locally – forest-grown ginseng roots, sweet grass, and panax pseudoginseng (tam thất), among other herbs. After being manually smoke-dried using the traditional Ba Na ethnic people’s oven, the tea retains its smoky fragrance and fresh taste for a long time. Phuong also engaged teachers who are pharmacists to create a healthy dose of ingredients for this superfood.
“After first using social media, we would like to market the products on popular shopping apps such as Lazada and Shopee,” said she. “At the beginning, we relied on friends and networks on Zalo to sell our products.”
“The secret for most of the successful ideas that went into projects is to rely on the local community – by understanding our own culture, our environment and its uniqueness, and, from there, innovate to refine and preserve what’s given to us by Mother Nature and generations of the local people,” shared teacher Phong. “When research shows us that an idea has the potential to succeed, we think of every possible way to mobilize resources from those around us.”
Also embarking on the preservation mission is Y Misa from Ba Na ethnic group. Fascinated with a local red book-listed orchid species (lan kim tuyến), Misa and her friends established a start-up model capitalizing on forest orchid plants. Their end products are two-way: fresh orchids for floral arrangements and dried orchids as herbal medicine.
“For business-minded young people, I believe that it’s important not to invest everything at once but gradually through learning by doing,” Misa said. “I came to the club as a shy person but remaining in it has helped me become as expressive and convincing as I now am. I was exposed daily to pitches and learned how to sell my ideas and how to bring people on board with it.” Her wish is to expand her business to the scale that she can employ local people and train them so that one day they can open their own businesses. That, in a way, she said would help generate income that is crucial for local economy. Hard work and the desire to give back earned her a top award in a prestigious local competition for new start-ups.
“We have always nourished the dream to change the lives of the local communities by leaving our imprint with small local businesses,” echoed teach Phong, “We look up to ethnic business communities in the world who have succeeded because they have great minds and people who are brave enough to take risks.” “No venture, no gain,” added he.
Noticeably to us, the club’s membership was mostly comprised of girls, including Phuong and Misa. In this platform, girls excel and show confident. They were daring and expressive. It was evident that once given the skills and equal chances – no matter what the area – girls perform at least as well as boys – across cultures and ethnicities. They are part of a changing generation in which gender stereotypes are being redefined.
According to deputy headmaster Nguyen Binh Dan, 80 per cent of the college’s over 1,300 students are from local ethnic minority communities of Ba Na, Xe Dang, and Gie Trieng. Roughly 80 per cent find a job after graduation. “Transforming education through education of transferable skills help us provide the right tools that help turn our students become employable and valuable assets for the local labor market,” stated teacher Dan. “There are investments for us to make to keep up with social demands, but this is a good track that brings good results.”
As our conversations were flowing, we ran into Nguyen Quang Hung, 23, student of engineering. He passionately talked about his 2,500 square metre -garden plan on which he aimed to cultivate tầm bóp (groundcherry) fruit. His vision was as grand as his trust for the success in exporting this ‘precious and nutritious’ fruit.
“I was over the moon when my project was evaluated sufficient for a start-up by the teachers and experts,” said he. “Now it’s time for me to embark on this adventure!”
These are just some of the compelling stories we heard during our visit. We will already look forward to returning soon to hear more of their stories – to know more about these young lives that have been forever changed for the positive through social innovation supported by UNICEF Viet Nam and its partners. – ENDS
 Zalo is the most common instant messaging platform in Viet Nam – an equivalent to WhatsApp.
UNICEF in action
With financial support from its partners, UNICEF Viet Nam is supporting the Ministry of Education and Training (MOET) and Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) in transferable skills development for children and adolescents, especially girls and those with ethnic minority background, through the promotion of child and adolescent participation in social innovation and entrepreneurship programmes in general education and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system. This approach aims to enhance skills of, create opportunities for, and empower children and adolescents to become a force for positive social and economic change.