Interview date: 6 April 2020
COVID-19 has rapidly spread around the world impacting economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges that it poses are real and consequential. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector, CAPS’ Chief Executive Ruth Shapiro and Director of Research Mehvesh Mumtaz Ahmed (virtually) sat down with M.L. Dispanadda (Duke) Diskul, CEO of Thailand’s Mae Fah Luang Foundation under Royal Patronage (MFLF) on 6 April, 2020. MFLF is a private, non‐profit organization working to catalyze the growth of sustainable economic, social, cultural and environmental development through their flagship social enterprise, the Doi Tung Development Project, and many area-based programs within Thailand and Southeast Asia. Duke shared the challenges that the foundation is grappling with, the strategies they are employing to contain fallout and his take on the future of the social sector.
CAPS: Khun Duke, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. The impact of COVID-19 is being felt across the region and by the social sector in particular. How has the outbreak affected MFLF, and how are you responding to it?
Duke: At times like this, the most important thing to do is to make sure of the safety and health of our employees. In the wake of the outbreak we have encouraged all 200 employees in our Bangkok office to work from home. We have also put measures in place to protect the health of essential staff who do have to come in. As for the remaining 1,500 workers at our project site in Chaing Rai in the north of Thailand, the measures are less strict. COVID-19 hit us hard as a country. Our financial performance will suffer quite significantly, but as we are a social enterprise we must take extra care of our employees who are mostly local villagers. We are committed to ensuring their job security during this time.
The outbreak has impacted our production and sales, so we have shifted our focus from production to re-training and re-organizing within our 5 business units. We are putting in place processes and productivity measures to prepare for a post-COVID world. For example, the foundation manages an Arts and Culture Park which we are in process of redesigning. For those employed in our DoiTung Café, we are conducting online barista training courses. We are also updating our marketing materials and management processes for our tourist facilities. It is important for us to keep our employees engaged during this time.
CAPS: You are involved in Thailand’s social enterprise landscape and are a national board member of Thailand Social Enterprise Promotion Office and Chairperson of Social Enterprise Thailand (SE Thailand). How do you think social enterprises are managing in the current environment?
Duke: We have surveyed social enterprises in Thailand and preliminary findings show that many of them will struggle financially and may not survive past the next 3-4 months. SE Thailand is reaching out to banks to see if short term, low-interest rate loans can be made available to these social enterprises to help them weather the storm. These social enterprises are supporting the Thai community, and if they can’t survive, the repercussions will be felt by society.
An interesting finding is that size or maturity of social enterprises has not made some more resilient than others. It’s about their exposure. COVID-19 is an unplanned event and social enterprises that expanded in the last year have been impacted more.
CAPS: Given your work across the donor, social enterprise and business spaces, what are some examples of resilience or innovation that stand out to you?
Duke: In the social entrepreneurship world, social enterprises that are able to pivot effectively are proving more resilient. We are observing three types of nimble organizations.
One, those that have not changed their business model but are incorporating crisis response in their services, such as telemental health service. Crowdfunding platforms such as SocialGiver and Taejai that are contributing by raising funds to buy masks and PPE suits are another example.
Two, those who have extended their normal operation to directly tackle challenges from COVID-19. Such as Food for Fighters, a project from a social enterprise that has been working with restaurant networks to pool raw food material from the private sector, and hire those unemployed due to the crisis to cook and deliver food for medical service personnel. Another example is Buddy Homecare, a care service that employs marginalized ethnic minorities to deliver homecare for elderly that has now extended their operations to deliver survival kits for the most vulnerable elderly.
Three, those who have changed part of their business model to survive the crisis such as tourism social enterprises shifting to food delivery at the moment.
In the corporate world, the most innovative companies at the moment are those in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and engineering. They are leaping ahead and utilizing their knowledge and know how to address current issues. For example, one firm has built robots to help monitor and deliver medicines to COVID-19 patients, reducing nurses’ risk of exposure and saving on protective gowns and gear. Large pharmaceutical companies are also coming together to produce test kits and conduct drug trials.
CAPS: Are people worried about the economic impact of the outbreak? Is job security a concern?
Duke: People are extremely worried. There are 6-7 million who are currently unemployed in Thailand. The country’s tourism sector has been hit the hardest, followed by the export sector. Thailand is also suffering through a very bad drought this year which has put an added burden on the agriculture sector.
To do our part, MFLF is trying to tie our development programs to mitigating unemployment and helping people going back to rural areas in the wake of Covid-19 . We already work in rural parts of the country and are now trying to build a local network of markets where goods can be bought and sold.
CAPS: Who is the general public turning to for help right now?
Duke: Thai people have always been self-sufficient. We saw this in the aftermath of MERS and the 2004 tsunami. Recently there has been a rise in community-based initiatives to provide people with masks and meals to those who are unemployed.
CAPS: When the dust settles, what do you think Thailand’s social sector will look like?
Duke: I believe that life will be drastically different for at least the next 18-24 months. At an organization level, MFLF cannot overlook the possibility of moving certain operations online, such as sales. We were not prepared for this and have to adapt. The outbreak has also changed the nature of work and has shown us that work from home is a feasible option.
As we come out of this, I think the social sector will struggle as donors and philanthropists focus their efforts internally and on their own organizations. This will force the sector to adapt to a changing funding landscape.