Shreya Das, Alice Shaus, Philip Lopez, and Ayushi Trivedi are second-year International Development students who traveled to Vietnam this January, to better understand the market demand for affordable household filtration systems in the country. The team were working with iDE, an international non-profit organization dedicated to creating income and livelihood opportunities for the rural poor.

The IDEV Practicum allows students to work directly with public, private and non-governmental organizations as a capstone to their graduate studies. The IDEV Practicum Blog is a six-part series that chronicles the travels of IDEV students who take on client projects over winter break.

Our Work: Our visit to Vietnam was aimed at analyzing the demand for and usage of affordable household water filtration systems among low-income households. Through our research, we uncovered insights into the feasibility of building a market for low-cost filtration systems, such as ceramic filters, in northern Vietnam. As part of the field work, we conducted several focus group discussions and individual interviews with households and community members in rural villages in Tuyen Quang province, located in the north of Vietnam. During our interviews, we carried a ceramic filter developed by Hydrologic, a viable social enterprise started by iDE in Cambodia, to determine the desirability of the product in Vietnam. In addition, we conducted interviews with important stakeholders in the field, such as Vietnam’s Women’s Union, Unilever, and government agencies.

Our Observations: The interviews gave us a compelling insight into Vietnamese culture, habits, and the way we define "poor.” While most companies or individuals believe price to be the determining factor for selling a product to low-income households, our research indicated otherwise. The majority of the study population were extremely concerned about quality, even before price. The “poor” were well aware of higher-end products in the market, such as reverse osmosis filters, and some “poor” households had saved up to purchase them. We found that rural consumers in Vietnam are aspirational by nature and willing to explore products beyond those typically catering to their specific income levels.

Our Learnings: We learned several lessons during our field work. At the very outset, we sensed the tension arising from the fact that Vietnam’s international donor funding has rapidly declined as it has recently transitioned from a lower-middle income to a middle-income country.[1] While this presents itself as a challenge for many NGOs and international NGOs (INGOs), it could also be seen as a potential opportunity for private players to enter the development space. From our stakeholder interviews, it was surprising to see how well certain private companies understand the lower-income market segment and their needs better than reputed INGOs.  This understanding reflects the importance of partnering with organizations that have local field offices with established networks and an in-depth knowledge of local consumers and markets.

We also learned the importance of meeting the consumer where they are. During our interviews we got a better understanding how people in the province lived their lives and how a filter would fit into their daily routines. During our household interviews we recognized that every family served us hot tea, prompting us to ask more about water drinking preferences. We discovered that in the winter, consumers in province always want hot water on hand. That means whether they have a filter or not, boiling is common. This became a factor we had to consider for our value proposition.

As researchers in a country as highly regulated as Vietnam, one of the challenges we faced while in the field related to sampling. The sampling for all our research methods was undertaken by the local government authorities, and we realized that certain sections of the population were sometimes under-represented. Seeing the lessons from the SAIS Practical Research Methods class on validity issues come to life, our team tried to accommodate this shortcoming by altering our interview and focus group discussion guides on the go. Quick and creative thinking skills enabled us to extract information in the best way we could, given the resources we had.    


PHOTO CREDITS: Shreya Das, Alice Shaus, Philip Lopez, and Ayushi Trivedi