This fall, 3rd Creek Foundation (3CF) member Sara Cannon and I traveled to Vietnam to visit program sites of 3CF and our partner Thriive.
On September 25, we visited Nam Thang Long (NTL) in the rural outskirts of Hanoi. NTL is a company that manufactures backpacks that also function as life-jackets for school children; it’s also 3CF’s first impact investment (See earlier post). Our first stop was a primary school near a river, which a quarter of the students commute across each day. Their daily journey includes a bicycle ride from home to a small tin boat, which ferries them across the river and then another bicycle ride to this school on the other side of the river. A tragic reality is that often enough, children fall in the river and drown, generally due to flooding and poorly constructed boats. This is the problem NTL’s backpacks solve, by combining a life-jacket with the backpack that all the school children use everyday.
During our visit, Sara and I watched the end of school routine, where the school children made their way to the ferry, and after squeezing as many kids onto the boat as possible, they made the journey across the river. Almost every child from this school was wearing his or her NTL backpack. To a westerner with my ideas of safety, this crossing appeared risky enough to warrant the vests, but I later learned that this was actually one of the shorter and safer journeys that many such students must undertake on a daily basis. Mrs. Nga, NTL founder and CEO, commented that the tin boat we saw was much safer than the ferries that children in even more rural areas must use. It is not uncommon for children to commute on bamboo boats without railings or side walls through rivers with extreme rapids. Mrs. Nga recounted a particularly dreadful story of an accident in the region, when 17 children perished while commuting on one of these bamboo boats. By providing life-jacket backpacks, NTL helps prevents such horrible outcomes.
After leaving the school, we visited the NTL factory where all the life-jacket backpacks are made. Here we learned more about the motivation behind manufacturing the backpacks. Thousands of children die every year on their way to or from school due to drowning accidents. And according to NTL, only 10% of at-risk children receive life vests. And the story is not that different in many other developing countries.
The NTL factory is an impressive establishment in itself, providing full time employment to 50 individuals, of which 46 are women. Approximately half of the employees have disabilities, and the other half are from dire financial situations where they are the sole breadwinners for their households. We saw that Mrs. Nga is not only trying to help school children who make these dangerous journeys every day, but also really cares about improving the lives of all of her employees. Despite having a product that provides high value and has a strong local demand, she is still faced with government bureaucracy like hard to get approval to build additional floors in the factory to increase production and create more jobs. She also mentioned that her biggest business challenge is expanding into additional markets for retail and to mitigate this challenge, she is currently expanding into e-commerce by opening an account on Alibaba.
Finally, we suggested that Mrs. Nga register with donor crowd funding websites as a way to access more funding. We explained the concept of crowd funding and the possibility that entire schools with students vulnerable to drowning can make donor requests to fund their backpack purchases through these websites.
NTL’s program is an example of how investing in a social enterprise can generate multiple layers of positive impact. Preventing childhood death from drowning, leading to better educated future generations, while at the same time creating jobs in a poverty-stricken region are key reasons why we are proud to invest in NTL.
Harris joined the 3rd Creek Foundation board in 2015, and has been with 3rd Creek Investments and 3rd Creek Accounting since 2010. He is a investment advisor and a staff accountant. Harris graduated from the University of Denver with a B.A. in Finance and a double minor in Economics and International Studies. He serves on the board of 3rd Creek Medical Ventures, and as Chief Financial Officer of Spinal Surgical Solutions.