Vietnam a gateway to SE Asia
for Māori tech entrepreneurs

Five Māori entrepreneurs visited Vietnam recently to learn about the country’s rapidly growing tech scene, make industry connections and explore opportunities. The Asia New Zealand Foundation partnered with Kōkiri, a business accelerator for Māori entrepreneurs, to make the programme happen.
The entrepreneurs chatting round a restaurant table

The trip not only provided the entrepreneurs insights into Vietnam's start-up scene but also gave them a chance to learn about each others start-up journeys

When you think of tech startups perhaps Vietnam isn’t the first place to spring to mind, but the country has been steadily developing its tech scene and start-up environment and is now considered one of the hottest paces for innovation in Southeast Asia.

The Foundation’s leadership and entrepreneurship programme manager Adam McConnochie, who led the Accelerate Vietnam trip, says Vietnam was chosen as a destination because it is known for its youthful and entrepreneurial population with a government supportive of start-ups.

“Vietnam is booming. The country has one of the fastest growing economies in Southeast Asia, and Ho Chi Minh City is increasingly gaining a reputation as an international tech hub. These factors make Vietnam a great place for Kiwi businesses to make their first foray into SE Asia."

Four of the five entrepreneurs who took part in the Vietnam visit are CEOs and founders of their companies, which range from a design and animation tech company to a company developing a virtual game for teaching sign language. 

It was a whirlwind visit for the group who kicked off their time in Vietnam by exploring Vietnam's capital Ho Chi Minh city on scooters, getting a geography and history lesson from their guide as they went. From there on it was down to business – meeting key industry figures, getting briefed by New Zealand officials (including Ambassador Wendy Mathews and Trade Commissioner Karlene Davis) and attending networking events.

With three of the entrepreneurs developing education tools, a key theme of the visit was education technologies.
Adele Hauwai, CEO and Founder of Seecom LTD, which is developing an interactive game for learning sign language, says being part of the tech visit allowed her to get an understanding of Vietnam’s education technology environment and get inspiration from the way things are done there.

“The demand for edu-tech is growing rapidly. The different company presentations gave some excellent insights in terms of opportunities, platforms and networks to help scale our sign language business, both in New Zealand and also in Southeast Asia. Hearing about raising capital in our industry was also gold!”

While in Vietnam, Adele met with people working with the deaf community and learned about how Vietnam caters to their needs.

“I met connections all across the motu (country) really, not only in relation to sign language, but also in different tech spaces. I met up with Vietnamese deaf networks and discovered statistics such as there are 2.7 million deaf people in Vietnam but only about 10 sign language interpreters; that's golden research that I've needed big time for our digital sign language projects.”

                                                               Adele Hauwai describes her Vietnam experience

The busy schedule for the Ho Chi Minh-city-leg of the trip included meeting Foundation honorary adviser Mitchell Pham at the Kiwi Connection tech hub.

Pham established Kiwi Connection to help the growing number of New Zealand tech businesses looking to get a foothold in the country to invest and conduct business.

Visiting a country to learn about how business is done there before embarking on a business venture is a must, Pham says.

“It’s vital that Kiwi businesses do their market research and engage in rigorous on-the-ground validation of their target customers in the region,” he says.

Nikora Ngaropo thanks CricketOne founder Bicky Nguyen who hosted the group in Ho Chi Minh City

Nikora Ngaropo thanks CricketOne founder Bicky Nguyen who hosted the group in Ho Chi Minh City

 From Ho Chi Minh city it was on to the coastal city of Da Nang at the mouth of the Han River to attend  Vietnam's leading tech expo, Techfest.

Hosted by Vietnam’s Ministry of Science and Technology, Techfest attracted thousands of delegates from Vietnam and across the region eager to learn about the latest innovations and hopefully attract investors. The theme of the expo was ‘From here to global’.

“This was an excellent way to get a better sense of the trends in the tech space and connect with many of the leading entrepreneurs in the region,” McConnochie says.

Kōkiri programme director Ian Musson says initiatives like these open entrepreneurs eyes to the opportunities that Asia offers.

“Exposure to how different cultures in different parts of the world lead and conduct business, and where, as an entrepreneur from Aotearoa, we can add value [is the greatest value of such experiences], while at the same time providing even greater value through introductions to local counterparts that can support entry into these international markets.

“We often inadvertently aim to serve a national market of 4.5 million because we don’t understand or appreciate the scale of opportunity overseas." 

The Southeast Asia Centre of Asia-Pacific Excellence (CAPE) provided the funding to make this opportunity possible.

Since 2012, the ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative has brought 80 entrepreneurs and business leaders from Southeast Asia to New Zealand, building business connections and facilitating trade links. The initiative also sends New Zealand entrepreneurs to participate in sector-specific programmes in Southeast Asia.