Resilient Throughout COVID-19: The Story of Xon Phao, a Small Disabled People’s Enterprise with Big Achievements in 2020

A story placing people at the center of 2020 Human Rights Day emphasizing the global theme of “Recover Better – Stand Up for Human Rights”

Micro and small enterprises (MSEs) make up more than 80% of enterprises in Lao PDR [1] and rely on daily sales to survive and support the household of the owner. During the COVID-19 pandemic, MSEs continue to face significant challenges, unable to access imported supplies and ongoing low demand and turn-over. The results of the survey led by UNDP Lao PDR in June 2020 showed that of the 350 MSEs across six Provinces, 95% were adversely affected by the early impacts of COVID-19, with sales dropping for 81% of businesses during the lockdown in April. [2]

As outlined in the UN Lao PDR COVID-19 Socio-Economic Response Plan, the UN is committed to supporting the Government of Lao PDR, Lao MSEs, and industry in building back better, creating a more inclusive labor force, and supporting those most exposed to external shocks develop more resilient and sustainable operations. The Xon Phao Disabled People’s Center is a great example of what an inclusive and participatory economy can look like for Lao PDR. Its efforts and achievements during the COVID-19 pandemic highlight how people from all abilities and backgrounds, when provided with skills and opportunities, can contribute to the wider community and have the knowledge to adapt and thrive even in the most difficult economic times.

The Xon Phao was created in 2017 by Phoutaly Vongsamai and four colleagues to provide a space where they could share their skills in textiles and design with others. Having grown up in a low-income earning family and living with a physical impairment, Phoutaly has overcome much hardship and stigma to complete high school and find a job. The Xon Phao became the platform where Phoutaly and other persons with disabilities from across Lao PDR can have opportunities to earn a living and give back to the community.

Throughout 2019, the Xon Phao gradually increased its product selection to include shopping bags, purses, clothes, home appliances, embroidery, and shoes- whilst maintaining a focus on learning new skills, handicrafts, and trades from both international and local experts. By selling their quality products at the Lao night markets, news spread quickly about the Center, and the increasing tourism trade in Vientiane enabled the Center to expand quickly. By the beginning of 2020, the Xon Phao was supporting more than 30 people, teaching vocational crafts, developing skills, and providing a modest income for people living with various types of disabilities, including polio survivors, the vision impaired, persons born with disabilities, and those living with disabilities following an accident.

Phoutaly believes “the success of the Xon Phao has come from the positivity that is created by the group. Everyone is here to learn from each other and comes with a strong work ethic. People with disabilities have always been creative, it is how we find our own way through challenges that are not always experienced by those able-bodied.” Phoutaly sees the Center as a place where each member is working to produce handicrafts that are unique, beautiful, high-quality, and with a design that is different from that of other local brands, and this is achieved through the diverse ideas that are shared across the team.

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Lao PDR in March and the country prepared for the April lockdown and subsequent border restrictions, like many small enterprises, the team at the Xon Phao was unsure how they would manage the uncertain times. Prior to the immediate lockdown, the Center had to let go of five of its members who returned home to their families as the income from sales had already reduced, and the Center could no longer access funding, materials, and the machines necessary to keep production moving forward.

With the closure of borders, the Xon Phao was unable to complete several orders for international clients, which had been a reliable income stream prior to the pandemic. Even the training programmes that had been established through international connections came to a standstill as the Xon Phao member, Porly elaborates, “we are still only able to produce shoes for women, as our partners helping the product development has not been able to return to teach us the male shoe design techniques, we hope that we can expand the shoe products soon for our male clients.”

The team at the Xon Phao realized that they had to adapt to the COVID-19 situation and diversify their products quickly to better cater to the demands of the Lao market during the pandemic. Starting with the production of reusable cotton face masks to sell in local shops, the Center has since ventured into more robust and simplified textiles and jewelry to make ends meet.

To keep the Center open, Phoutaly chose to resign from her primary employment and committed to working at the Xon Phao marketing full time, assisting in scaling up the production of the newly designed items. Fortunately, with the support of local businesses partners and past clients, the Xon Phao was able to join the many local handicraft fairs and expos in recent months, which has helped the Center recuperate some of the initial losses from earlier in the year.

The Xon Phao has been well supported by their neighbors, friends, and families, who have often donated materials and even brought food and essential items for the members boarding on site since the COVID-19 crisis. Phoutaly notes that “Without such generosity and understanding of what the Center has been doing, we would not have been able to maintain the membership that we still have here today. The Center supports persons with disabilities from many rural and remote communities that come here to learn the necessary skills to start businesses and ideas of their own. We are glad that so many have been able to remain in the programme with the support of the community.”

Phoutaly and the Xon Phao Center is now looking ahead to 2021 and hope that their achievements this year can serve as an example of how persons with disabilities, when given the opportunity and the skills, can play an active and positive role in the community and can independently overcome the challenges that disasters like COVID-19 can bring. The Xon Phao is currently moving to a larger workshop facility that will better accommodate the customized workstations and workspace needed for persons with mixed abilities to best perform in their chosen trades. The team says that COVID-19 taught them the importance of building more resilient businesses for the future. They are now looking to increase the use of local and sustainable materials, grow their client base in Lao PDR, and aim to establish a small farm and training center, raising chickens and growing vegetables for both consumption and sale.

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  • Follow Xon Phao Center on Facebook @Xonpao
  • For more information, please contact: Ms. Phoutaly Vongsamai, Xon Phao Center Director, xonpaolao@gmail.com

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[1] UN Lao PDR COVID-19 Socio-Economic Response Plan, September 2020. 

[2] UN Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID-19 on Lao PDR, September 2020.

UN entities involved in this initiative
RCO
United Nations Resident Coordinator Office