Emergency innovation key to COVID containment is central to recovery in Viet Nam’

by Caitlin Wiesen, UNDP Resident Representative in Viet Nam, Ida Uusikyla, UNDP Innovation Officer, and Phan Hoang Lan, UNDP Head of Exploration.

July 5, 2020

VIHELM group presents their powered air purifying respirator at the Inclusive Innovation workshop.

The underrated but critical role that fast-tracked ‘emergency innovation’ played in Viet Nam’s much heralded success in containment of COVID-19, is central to its aspirations to rapidly restore growth while co-existing with the pandemic.

The shared goal of overcoming COVID-19 has resulted in an avalanche of innovation of all shapes and sizes to respond to the impacts of the pandemic in Viet Nam from nationally produced test kits and masks during global stockouts to rice ATM’s and Zero Dong supermarkets. The pandemic has resulted in new dynamics between different actors from government, businesses and citizens, as well as new mechanisms for coordination and collaboration within the Government, which especially in the innovation policy space has been one of the longstanding challenges. These new mechanisms can be linked to both strong state capacity in agility and adaptiveness as well as the entrepreneurial nature of Vietnamese society.  However, from this experience, three questions arise: How can the newly surfaced mechanisms of governance and dynamics of rapid emergency innovation be sustained and help drive recovery in a co-existing with COVID reality? How do we make sure the recovery is not built around single-point solutions but a portfolio of interventions for systemic impact? And how to build forward better in ways that are inclusive and sustainable?

Following the regional UNDP-NESTA study Strategies for Supporting Inclusive Innovation, which highlights case studies from across ASEAN countries particularly Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Viet Nam, UNDP Viet Nam embarked on a journey to uncover what does inclusive innovation mean for the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy in Viet Nam. Moreover, the study on Viet Nam’s Inclusive Innovation Policy introduces a new understanding of the concept as “innovation of, by and for people as both producers/innovators and consumers/users for the purpose of both sustainable economic growth and social advancement.” This conceptualization aims to broaden the understanding of innovation and include more segments of the society in the innovation narrative and promote new growth drivers for sustainable growth that are based on new value creation and leaving no one behind.

These study findings were discussed in the Second Action-oriented workshop on inclusive innovation in Ha Noi 3 July co-organized with the Central Institute of Economic Management under the Ministry of Planning and Investment convening policymakers across the board and bringing together NGOs and business representatives to discuss how to promote inclusive innovation in Viet Nam. The workshop discussed how should inclusive innovation policy be further mainstreamed in the context of the Socio-Economic Development Strategy 2021-25 and the National Innovation Centre and what are the innovative supporting institutions needed? Furthermore, it uncovered how the entrepreneurship of the Government can also help innovators fast track pre-commercialization and commercialization of R&D results so that more truly made in Viet Nam innovative products will be available?

These questions are more timely than ever in the co-existing with COVID reality where moving from emergency to inclusive innovation is paramount. During the lockdown period, mutually shared mission on containing the spread of COVID-19 combined with entrepreneurial Vietnamese people resulted in three newly surfaced dynamics that have played a part in Viet Nam’s successful COVID-19 response. These are particularly exciting from the inclusive innovation lens:

  1. The Government has demonstrated breath-taking agility and innovation amidst the crisis through creating new partnerships and leveraging social networks. Furthermore, it demonstrates that the Government united by a shared mission and mandated to think outside of the box, can gather policymakers around the same table and unshackle the innovation and creativity of even the most rigid bureaucrats. It also emphasizes the importance of cross-ministerial collaboration, multiple partnerships, including between the Government and the private sector as well as academia, which have led to a successful response.

Government innovation and partnerships with private sector


Through collaboration between the government, research institutes and private sector, Viet Nam was able to design multiple test kits for the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). At least four different kits have been developed to date by different institutions using both RT-LAMP and RT-PCR technologies. The test kit development was combined with free targeted testing and rigorous contact tracing policy by the Government, which led to successful containment of the virus early on. 

One of the earliest developed kits was by the Institute of Military Medicine (IMM) that was manufactured in Viet Nam by Viet A was responsible for up to 80% of testing in Viet Nam during the global stock out and have received orders from 20 countries and territories and are already being exported to Europe.

NCOVI application

The Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Health gathered around the same table and produced the NCOVI application to update the latest and official information on Covid-19 cases in Vietnam and worldwide. This resulted in not only timely information about the outbreak but also can be seen resulting in increased trust of citizen in the Government.

GhenCovy song

The Ministry of Health orchestrated the famous, evidence based GhenCovy song bringing together Vietnamese artists and celebrity  singers to educate citizens on protect themselves from the virus inspiring viewers to dance and wash their hands. With more than 50 million views on the Vietnamese version and over 5 million views on the subsequent English version, the song has become a “phenomenon” and at the same time is educational.

2. Many businesses in Viet Nam shifted their business models to serve market demand during the lockdown. From textile to logistics companies, enterprises in Viet Nam have adapted to changed circumstances by trying to sustain their business. Attempting to avoid what seemed like an inevitable bust caused by change in global demand, many Vietnamese companies have been able to flip the coin to their advantage.

Business adaptation and innovation

Antibacterial masks

Amidst the coronavirus epidemic, many textile businesses in Viet Nam shifted to producing antibacterial masks to respond to the increased demand. Since early February, Vinatex and its members cut part of their clothing production lines to produce antibacterial masks. In the last weeks of February, they supplied more than 5.5 million products.

Similarly, Veritas Shoes, an entrepreneur in Viet Nam has made sustainable PPE products such as facemasks made with coffee fiber, which have been well received by both the domestic market as well as foreign buyers, for example from Europe and Japan.

Food delivery

Many logistics companies, for example Ivivu, shifted their service to food delivery in order to survive during the social distancing period.

Digital services

Many businesses quickly realized the market opportunity in digital services, when the schools closed, and offices entered into work-from-home arrangements. These included large IT corporates such as VNPT ( VNPT e-learning, VNPT meeting, VNPT e-payment), FPT (free online courses when customers purchase a computer from them).

A Facebook group called Vietnam Remote Workforce (VRW)  was created during COVID social distancing time to share expert knowledge and digital products and services essential for teleworking among Vietnamese businesses. The group has currently over 8000 members.

3. Finally, the COVID-19 outbreak has unleashed the creativity of people, spurring new types of grassroots and social innovations. This highlights the inventiveness and resilience of the people of Viet Nam thriving in the face of adversities. It emphasizes the need for whole-of-society approaches in emergencies and has demonstrated how the creativity of people can be harnessed to address commonly shared societal challenges.

Grassroots and Social Innovation

Agricultural product rescue

In response to the call by the Ministry of Industry and Trade (MOIT), both businesses and citizen joined the effort to rescue agricultural products that were stuck at the border to China during the lockdown. These included mostly watermelon and dragon fruit. Many supermarkets procured these products with fair prices for farmers. Consumers also increased their purchasing of these products by 3 to 10 times just in a few days.

Some innovative solutions emerged such as using dragon fruits to make dragon fruit “banh mi (Vietnamese baguette). One entrepreneur created this baking method and made it open source for anyone/business to adopt. This then created a new trend of baking “pink food” in the country, from KFC dragon fruit buns, to dragon fruit pizza bases.

Rice ATMs

In April 2020, a Ho Chi Minh City-based entrepreneur, Hoang Tuan Anh, set up the first “Rice ATM”, which provides free rice for Vietnamese people out of work, in a grassroots effort to ease the economic impact of unemployment as a result of Covid-19. The ATM provides 1.5 kilograms of rice to each person in the queue, once their smart phone order is processed. The first location is reported to have dispensed 5 tons of rice in its first two days of operation and had over 1000 people waiting in the queue. Since its creation, other entrepreneurs and charities across the country established similar rice ATMs across the country.

Open source PPE

Local makers and engineers community has been working on creating a platform for providing 3D printed PPE from open source designs to respond to immediate needs of hospitals, clinics and quarantine centres.

Home sharing group

Nghien nha, Facebook group for people to share their homes during social distancing. This helps people feel better while staying at home. The group now has over 900,000 members.

Hand-washing machine

Three doctors Han Huy Dung, Duong Tuan Hung and Nguyen Huu Phuoc Nguyen have collaborated to invent a hand-washing machine with a quite compact design, using automatic sensory technology. Users just need to put their hands in, the nozzle will immediately release disinfectant solution that meets WHO standards. In addition, the price of this hand-washing machine is only one third of the price of imported products.


A 16 -year-old high-school student has created an air purifying respirator, which has been patented and financially invested in from the stage of concept development, design and the first prototype product launched.

The helmet can be used in all cases of infectious diseases and is efficient, easy and comfortable to use, affordable and mass producible. It utilizes the Glovebox concept to fulfill user’s needs, for example: scratching face itches, wiping off sweat, sneezing, cleaning helmet’s visor, which are crucial for frontline workers to ensure comfort and endurance. The user is also able to eat with the helmet on, which adds to the user comfort.

These are examples of ‘emergency innovations’ of the Government, Businesses and the People that have been catalyzed by the COVID-19 response providing a shared goal and unleashing the country’s mass entrepreneurial nature. However, now the same leadership and innovation that has helped Viet Nam so successfully contain the pandemic, will be needed to re-stimulate the economy allowing the creative forces of the people to happen in a way that ensures decades of development won’t be backtracked and those most vulnerable are not being left behind.

Similarly, to the findings of the study, the workshop participants highlighted the need for stronger implementation and less cumbersome government processes asking for new mechanisms for policymaking in the new reality. Therefore, some key recommendations from the report and workshop discussion include the need for:

  1. Assessing the mechanisms of the ‘entrepreneurial emergency State’ that overcame bottlenecks in implementation and existing regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate inclusive innovation among the above highlighted three groups in the recovery phase;
  2. Creating exploratory environments and geographical areas for testing new policies and regulations as well as exploring de-regulation to facilitate Triple A Governance’ that is Anticipatory, Adaptive and Agile to manage new volumes of uncertainty;
  3. Establishing Inclusive innovation intermediaries - institutions which could help to encourage collaboration, and knowledge transfer, across innovation ecosystem players such as the government, large enterprises, research institutes, grassroots innovators and SMEs as the drivers of inclusive recovery.

This highlights the crucial role of UNDP in continuing supporting the Government in strengthening these key capacities in addressing complex development challenges in the recovery phase. Now that the acute crisis is passing in Viet Nam and the role of ‘emergency innovation’ is less salient, the Government needs to find ways to see beyond the ‘pressures of the present’ and find ways to anticipate future risks and  bridge innovation and resilience in building back better. The newly surfaced dynamics outlined above need to be sustained through the recovery and firmly rooted in the ‘co-existing with COVID -reality’.

Leave No One Behind (LNOB)