Changing the World with Children’s Drawings

A-MAP Meets a Vietnamese Social Enterprise: Tohe

Goo Sujeong 2021-04-20

Tohe, the social enterprise that supports children with drawings


Children have fun drawing and the social enterprise makes money?


Tohe is a social enterprise founded in 2009. They opened a drawing class for socially and economically disadvantaged children such as orphans and those with disabilities. A-MAP uses children’s drawings as designs for fashion items and makes profits. They reinvest half of the profits in the children’s program; they run painting classes, pay children the royalties for their painting, offer scholarship, support educational material, and hold an art camp.


Through an interview with Pham Thi Ngan, the vice-president of Tohe, I opened a drawing book of the story of people who want to help children draw their happiness with crayons.


▲ Tohe diaries with children’s drawings printed. They are made of recycled paper.

Discovering the ‘beautiful drawings’ that can both entertain and feed children


Tohe is nestled on the roof of a 5-story building in an ordinary residential area. Behind the people greeting us, there were children’s drawings brightly shining. Whichever items my eyes fell on–the bags, notebooks, aprons, slippers, wallets and many other products—I found children’s drawings and couldn’t stop smiling at them. Children’s innocent laughter and sweetness were depicted in each item.


Goo Sujeong (Sujeong): Wow! All of these products are made with children’s drawings. It is more impressive to see them with my own eyes. Did children draw all these themselves?


Pam Ti Unggun (Unggun): Yes. They are all done by children. We scanned their drawings and put them into the products. Don’t you feel the purity of childhood?


Sujeong: The name of the enterprise is Tohe. What does it mean?


Unggun: Tohe is a traditional toy that every Vietnamese person knows. It’s a small doll made of rice flour on a stick. Children can play with it and eat as well. I thought our project was similar to Tohe. As Tohe is both children’s toy and food, we named our project after Tohe with the hope that we could also provide children with both pleasure and benefits. 


Sujeong: It seems a very unique and original idea to combine children’s drawings and a social enterprise. I guess you had a special motive to establish Tohe.


Unggun: My husband, another friend, and I founded Tohe in 2009. Before that, we worked at a media advertising company. At that time, we used to organize drawing classes for children in need in collaboration with other NGOs. That’s how we got to know these children.


But after we had been engaged with the project for more years, we saw its limitations. When we didn’t have enough funding, we had to stop the project and the children’s drawings also had to go waste. Is there any other sustainable way to help children? We thought over how to continue to help children with their drawings, and that’s how we started the social enterprise ‘Tohe’.


▲ Tohe co-founder and vice president, Pam Ti Unggun & Tohe’s booth in an exhibition of social enterprises’ products

I heard Tohe was inspired by Picasso. What is the story behind that?


Unggun: Once, we had a chance to travel to Barcelona and we visited the Picasso Museum. There we came across his remark on children’s drawings: “When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them.” His saying struck us, as we had been feeling some spirits we had lost whenever we look at the children’s drawings. I almost felt like I could see the drawings of the ‘little Picassos.’


When we were looking at the T-shirts with Picasso’s paintings printed on them at the museum shop, my husband shouted out, “Yes, this is it!” That’s where we got the idea how to use the most beautiful drawings in the world by utilizing them as the product designs.


Sujeong: You really should thank Picasso. (Laughter.) But tell me, what kind of relationship did you have with social enterprises?


Unggun: We even didn’t know there was such a thing. We simply thought we would make a profit with the children’s drawings and help them by giving back the benefits. We thought it would be better to operate the profit structure independently, unlike NGOs. In the meantime, one of our friends introduced us to the CSIP (Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion), and we thought the idea of a social enterprise was fitting with our vision. That’s how we founded Tohe.   


Young Picassos’ passion for drawings, the stories within


Sujeong: I heard you organize drawing classes for children.


Unggun: We organize the drawing classes in disadvantaged schools in remote areas and in institutions for orphans or children with disabilities. There are many participants like teachers and volunteers.


Art education in Vietnam is generally uniform and taught by rote. Children only copy what teachers tell them to draw. But in the Tohe drawing classes, children can be as creative as they want and draw anything they want.


There are usually about 20 children in a class and there have been about 1,000 participants so far. The children who didn’t have any chance to draw and had never drawn before can really surprise us with their beautiful and pure masterpieces.


▲ Tohe’s Eco-bag made of 100% natural fabric

There must be some special stories behind each drawing, like the inside story?


Unggun: We mostly work with the children with disabilities. In the beginning we only encouraged those children who were physically able to draw because we thought the other children with more serious difficulties might have psychological burdens. But they also wanted to participate after watching other kids drawing. The kids who don’t have arms or feet tried to draw something with all parts of their bodies. It was such a touching scene.  


The children with disabilities usually draw cars, motorbikes and airplanes. Their yearning for the outside world is expressed through their drawings. (While showing one drawing:) Could you guess what it is? It looks like a bird or an insect but it is an airplane. This child drew an airplane that will take him away one day. This child uses only few specific colours and has his own style. It is easy to distinguish his drawing among other drawings. What do you think? Isn’t he like a professional painter? (Laughter) 


Sujeong: After listening to that story, the drawings feel more special. Do you have more stories?


Unggun: Once we visited Van Nhin district, Khanh Hoa province in the center of Vietnam. It took us a half-day by boat to get there. There were no schools and only rich kids could go to school on the mainland. Most of the kids had never been to school. We asked them to draw and all of them drew a well.


But when I had a close look, I saw that the wells were all dried up. In the island where the water is scarce, the wells are very crucial. Moreover, the well areas were their only playgrounds as well. To the grown-ups’ eyes, children’s drawings can just look like scribbles. But the children express things that are meaningful and precious to them through drawing.


Carefully protected copyrights of the young painters


Sujeong: Tohe is using the children’s drawings as designs for products; do you also protect the copyrights of the children?


Unggun: When we scan the drawings, we record all the details like when, where, and by whom the drawing was done. We also make a contract with the pertinent centers, the schools, or the parents. The contract is about how we use children’s drawings as designs for products. We calculate the exact number of photocopies and return the benefit accordingly to the children in the form of scholarships. So far we’ve offered about 300 scholarships. We’ve helped the centers and schools with educational materials and installation of air-conditioning. Organizing an art camp for children is also one of our projects. For those who are outstanding in drawing, we support them separately. 


▲ Tohe’s Eco-bag, a drawing of an airplane by ‘Luong’

Sujeong: It looks like all of these products are made with the same fabric. 


Unggun: This fabric is not made of synthetic fiber but of 100% natural fiber. It is made of cotton produced in Vietnam. Usually cotton is processed with bleaching and dyeing. During this process, polluting the environment is inevitable. As they don’t go through such a process, our products are not as white as the processed ones. Instead you can see the natural color. In the northern mountain region, there are people with disabilities from a small ethnic minority group who make this fabric. They supply some of the fabrics we use. It is not a great amount but we keep getting goods from them to support their work.


Sujeong: That’s a touching story. But as an enterprise, the profit structure is also crucial. How do you manage sales and marketing? Do you operate any shops?


Unggun: We don’t have a shop yet. We have a business plan to open shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but we can’t push forward the plan due to financial problems. Right now we only operate an office and a small factory with a few sewing machines. The sales are usually done through exhibitions. 


The marketing is organized through other social enterprises and the NGO network. Other than that, we don’t particularly advertise our products. I used to work at an advertising company before but now I am against the idea of advertising the Tohe products. I may lack in business mindset but I would prefer to advertise the products through natural methods like word-of-mouth and social recognition.


Support from the CSIP (Centre for Social Initiatives Promotion) gives strength


Sujeong: What’s the most difficult part about managing Tohe?


Unggun: We are often considered to have a very creative product and a lot of potential. We are also quite confident about it as well. But the management is different. We always suffer from lack of funds and it is difficult to stabilize operations since our sales depend on exhibitions and events. It also makes it difficult to open shops. I think the biggest problem is that we don’t have enough experience and know-how in management. We made about 30,000 US dollars in the first year of 2010 and this year we are targeting 35,000. But it’s not a lot considering operating and business expenses, and the labor cost of 3 managers, 10 employees and part-time employees including designers. 


Sujeong: I heard Tohe has been supported by the CSIP. What are the effects of that?


Unggun: When we just started Tohe in 2009, the CSIP supported us with 5,000 US dollars. It wasn’t a lot but we were encouraged that our business plan was socially recognized. In particular, we have received lots of help with networking. We have been able to build up a network with many national and international social enterprises and NGOs. This helped a lot in sales.


But there was more. We also got assistance in management, marketing, technical support and advice from specialists. Recently the CSIP introduced us to a well-known social enterprise consultant from Hong Kong. For the last year, this person has been in charge of management analysis for Tohe and it has been a great help in restructuring the enterprise. Now we are preparing to request the CSIP for another support.


Sujeong: I believe there will be more and more supporters of Tohe. A-MAP also would like to be part of it. Finally, I would like to hear about aspirations for Tohe’s future.


Unggun: Most of us seem to lose our dreams and hopes in the midst of our busy and tiring daily life. Through drawing classes, I felt the pure and innocent souls of children. Tohe hopes that our contemporaries can regain their lost dreams and the innocence of childhood. We don’t have enough capacity yet, but in a long run we would like to discover and train talented children with disabilities and give them opportunities to work in Tohe. In order to do so, we should make a proper working environment for people with disabilities.


Recorded by: Kwon Hyun-woo (A-MAP marketing team leader), Truong Cong Anh Vu (A-MAP marketing team member)


*Editor’s Note: A-MAP is a social enterprise that connects Korea with Vietnam through fair travel and fair trade. Its office is located in Vietnam and both Korean and Vietnamese people work together. A-MAP has been introducing Vietnamese history, culture and the stories of people to travellers. Through this series, A-MAP presents various social enterprises and groups that work for the local communities. The writer, Goo Sujeong, is the country director of A-MAP Vietnam.


+ Telephone no.: 070-7552-5670 (Vietnam office)


By Goo Sujeong

Published: April 15, 2013

Translated by Gayoung Yoon


* Original article:

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