“You don’t have to be Bill Gates to make a difference.”
Greig Craft, an American social entrepreneur based in Vietnam, is turning part of his helmet factory into an assembly line to make face masks and possibly gowns and ventilators. “We’re still basically in lockdown. People aren’t going to work or going out.,” said Craft, founder and president of the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIP Foundation), a nonprofit that produces about 800,000 to 1,000,000 motorcycle and bicycle helmets a year.
“The drop in business was almost immediate after Covid-19 hit. Orders were not coming in. So I thought, ‘ what can we do to help the world? What can we do to make use of this wonderful state of the art facility and our fairly large workforce ?’” Craft recalled, referring to a new factory that opened in January in Hanoi. “For a relatively small amount of money, we could set up production lines to assemble about three million masks a month.”
And jobs would be saved.
This is not the first time Craft was motivated by a global public health crisis.
Twenty years ago when traffic deaths and serious injuries were skyrocketing in Vietnam and other developing countries — many from head injuries after motorcycle crashes — Craft set up what he said was the world’s first nonprofit helmet making plant. (Its signature “Helmets for Kids” program — many crash victims were and are children — was launched by former President Bill Clinton. )
“We call it social enterprise,” Craft told Forbes in a phone interview from Hanoi, noting that about a third of his 150 workers are physically disabled. “The idea is it gives people with disabilities an opportunity to work, so they can feed and care for themselves and their families, and they can also do something good for society. All profits go back into the local community for road safety education, public awareness campaigns, advocacy and legislation.”
The foundation, which has showrooms and offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, has been a model for similar nonprofit helmet production and educational programs replicated in many countries.
To start researching, Craft went online and began talking to people, much as he had done with the helmet initiative twenty years earlier. And to gather information, contacts, and raise funds for the $250,000 machinery he needed, he posted several times on Facebook, including this initial post:
I am organizing to set up mask production in part of our (250,000 sq ft) Northern Vietnam factory as quickly as possible. We hope to begin shipping basic masks and N95 masks first to Italy, followed by to US hospitals within 60-90 days.
This is new for us so please share with friends, family and business contacts for ideas on who/how to contact end users (or distributors), and/or also financial contributions to purchase and donate masks. We do not yet have distribution networks set up in the US, but some of you may have ideas or connections to approach hospitals directly.
I have also reached out to US ventilator producers to see if we can help with production or assembly from Vietnam. I welcome ideas or suggestions for other rudimentary medical supply needs that we can help with.
“Within hours, I had 158 replies,” Craft said. He also reached out to investors, U.S. government officials and the Vietnamese ambassador in Washington. “It feels like a strange quirk of fate that Vietnam might be in a position to lend humanitarian assistance to the U.S.”
“I’ve lined up the machinery,” Craft said. “We’ve got the order ready to go and we’ve already laid out a basic plan for what we can do with the factory. We can get the equipment either from Taiwan or China, probably within three weeks, and it could be up and running in 30 to 45 days.”
Craft said Vietnam’s standards that cap medical supplies leaving the country could cause some delay in shipping surgical masks, but 100% cotton reusable masks are not impacted by the regulation and he may be able to obtain material to make 200,000 of them right away. “They would be a good stopgap measure,” he said. “Doctors, nurses and health care workers are even buying scarves to wrap around their faces.”
Craft said the work would be labor intensive, but it would not be an issue with his capable workforce. “Some of the workers are physically disabled, from traffic crashes or birth anomalies, but they are some of our best workers. They learn very quickly. They’re very, very adaptable to anything, even if they’re in a wheelchair. So, we won’t have any problem with manpower.”
“A lot of the replies I’ve been getting are saying ‘you know, 60 to 90 days is going to be too late.’ I still think that we’ll be able to help if we could start getting really good quality cotton masks shipped out very soon,” Craft said. “The material would be cut and sewed into masks. It would not require automated equipment, but we’d have to set up another production line. We could do this immediately. We would have a chance to at least begin manufacturing sooner than the 60 plus days we’re looking at now.”
“I don’t think the crisis we’re in is by any means short term, but even if it miraculously ended in six months or whatever, I think that we’re on to something that we can continue doing,” Craft said. “It’s just really a matter of being able to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and make it happen. Sometimes the simple ideas are the ones that are the most impactful. I hope that this will inspire people. You don’t have to have a ton of money, you know, just get out and do something. You don’t have to be Bill Gates to make a difference.”
(Craft’s responses were edited for length and clarity.)
To learn more about the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation, click here.
Author: Tanya Mohn
Tanya Mohn covers road safety and consumer travel issues for Forbes. She is a regular contributor to The New York Times, and has reported for the BBC, NBC News, ABC News, PBS, HBO and CNBC. She recently received an International Center for Journalists’ World Health Organization Safety Reporting Fellowship, and an award for her road safety reporting from the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT).