12 February 2016

Buffalo Q&A: How a Meal in Asia Can Change a Life

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Where you choose to eat dinner in Asia can be life-changing for the locals. We sat down with a Vietnam-based social enterprise to talk about how hospitality training are changing local lives for the better – and how you can help!

koto logo 2Since 1999, KOTO has trained countless disadvantaged Vietnamese youth in a bid to give them a brighter future. Through vocational and life-skills training, KOTO relies on a proven model of responsible tourism and social enterprise – and relies on travellers visiting their Vietnam-based training restaurants to make it a reality. We sat down with Luong Ngoc of the KOTO – Know One Teach One team to talk about how they’re changing lives through travel, and how you can help them do it.

What is KOTO, and how does the work that KOTO does help the social and economic development of Vietnam?

KOTO is a not-for-profit organisation helping at-risk and disadvantaged youth in Vietnam. We do this by providing English classes, life-skills training, hospitality training and connections to job opportunities in the hospitality industry. Our goal is to give youth in Vietnam the tools they need to become successful adults. Our graduates are such a shining example of the transformative power of social enterprise and community development – and how it can break the cycle of poverty.

Tell us a little bit about how KOTO got started.

The seed of KOTO was planted back in 1996, when Jimmy Pham, the founder of KOTO, visited Vietnam for the first time since he left as a child. The meeting between him and some street children changed his life – and later on, it would go on to change the lives of many Vietnamese disadvantaged youth.

He realized what these youth truly need is not money or food – but skills. These skills would provide these kids purpose and a stable income – which means a stable future, too.

Fast forward to three years later, and in 1999 the first manifestation of KOTO opened, as a sandwich shop in Hanoi with only 9 trainees. It was a small start to something that over 17 years would become much bigger. Now, KOTO has grown into international accredited hospitality programme, which successfully support more than 600 graduates.

KOTO responsible travel training restaurants
A Koto trainee in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo credit: KOTO

Why is KOTO’s work important in Vietnam  and Asia? 

Trainees gain practical skills working at KOTO restaurants. KOTO trainees graduate as confident, capable young adults who are able to take control of their own lives. Graduates are highly valued hospitality industry in Vietnam and internationally, because they are both skilled and self-motivated to become successful.

Graduates now work in 5 star hotels and restaurants in across Vietnam and worldwide – which means that Vietnam’s youth can finally tap into the enormous growth and success of the travel industry in Asia.

In what ways can the travel industry – and travellers – help locals in Vietnam?

The travel industry can help locals in Vietnam by being aware and supporting social enterprises such as KOTO.

KOTO is a social enterprise, which means that the money that has been donated either through sponsorship or dining at the KOTO restaurant. Obviously donations are extremely important to the continued success of the program, but the latter of which is where the travel industry and tourists come into play.

By having dinner at a KOTO restaurant, a traveller supports the operations of KOTO and the growth of its students. While supporting local economy through dining at locally-owned restaurants is also a great way to be a more responsible traveller, dinner at a KOTO restaurant is special – you are actively contributing to the success of Vietnam’s next generation!

This is a great way to make a small change in your travel plans that contributes to something bigger.

Why is it important for travellers to know about the work that KOTO does with locals in Vietnam?

Without the support of travellers visiting the KOTO restaurants both in Hanoi and Saigon, the KOTO trainees would have limited opportunities to train in the KOTO restaurants as well as have limited resources to learn. It is through this training that the KOTO trainees learn skills that will set them up for the rest of their life.

These skills are valued highly within the hospitality industry – not just in Vietnam, but also around the world. KOTO Enterprise is an important function of the KOTO structure as it generates revenue to sustain the training and welfare program. So, it is vital that travellers understand the work of KOTO in order to support our trainees. Simply put, it is such a fantastic way to make your travel dollars count toward something important.

Graduates from the Hanoi KOTO program. Photo credit: KOTO
Graduates from the Hanoi KOTO program. Photo credit: KOTO

Take us through a day in the life of a KOTO student. What skills are they learning? How will this benefit them down the road?

Part of the trainees’ curriculum is a series of life skill workshops. These workshops include healthy living, anger management, personal finance budgeting, sex education and communication. Alongside these life skill workshops they learn English, computer skills as well as a choice of Front of House training or Kitchen training.

During the last six months of the program, the trainees are put in job placements so that they have the proper experience that will prepare them for when they graduate.

Why is a project like KOTO a better project to support, as opposed to simply charity?

KOTO’s impact is simple: KOTO changes lives. KOTO does not operate merely as a project, but as a healthy, active family where each member who enters feels safe and cared for.

The model is based on meeting the basic human needs of a person such as belonging, a nurturing environment, physical well-being, order and meaning. This also includes opportunities to develop self esteem, be empowered with new skills, and give back to your community.

KOTO takes a young person on a journey from the chaos of poverty to a world of entitlements, eligibility and possibilities where they can to stand on his or her own two feet. They are supported in building a life with skills, dignity and pride and helped to find a positive place in the world.

In the future, how do you hope travellers and travel companies will help support vocational training in Vietnam and beyond?

The traditional charity model is not sustainable. KOTO prides itself on being positive, permanent change through the transformative power of social enterprise. KOTO stands for ‘Know One, Teach One’, where we believe skills and knowledge should be passed on and shared.

Here at KOTO, we give the skills for disadvantaged youth to not help themselves, but also help someone else. After all, if they know one, then they should teach one.

KOTO’s aim is to create sustainability, where the revenue generated from our restaurant can help us to stand on our own feet. Therefore, whenever the travellers purchase the food, drinks or any merchandise from our Dream Shop at our restaurant, you are also helping KOTO to become sustainable. These dollars support us in building better futures for disadvantaged youth. ]

KOTO on Van Mieu - the enterprise's Hanoi-based training restaurant. Photo credit: KOTO
KOTO on Van Mieu – the enterprise’s Hanoi-based training restaurant. Photo credit: KOTO

If a traveller is keen to continue supporting our efforts, they can also become a Dream Maker, which helps our trainees to make their dream come true through our trainee sponsorship programme – or they can simply become our volunteers!

Last but not least, which restaurants can travellers visit to support KOTO trainees?

You can visit us in Hanoi at KOTO Training Restaurant, at 59 Van Mieu, Hanoi.

If you’re heading to Ho Chi Minh City, you can visit us at KOTO Kumho, located on the 3rd floor rooftop at The Link within Kumho Asiana, 39 Le Duan, District 1, HCMC.

Connect with KOTO on Facebook or at their website. Buffalo Tours’ travel experts can help you build an itinerary in Vietnam that visits KOTO Training Restaurants and other social enterprises, for a journey that contributes toward something bigger. Request a free tour quote with us, and add that you’d like to visit KOTO Training Restaurants in the section “Anything else we should know”!

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