Fighting poverty in Hong Kong with a swipe of a card at a vending machine
NGO leaders awarded HK$1 million grant after coming up with best idea to help the poor in this year’s Operation Santa Claus campaign
Imagine a vending machine that sells basic necessities such as sugar and rice at an affordable price. That’s Matthew Lee Ping-fai and Deanie Chiu Fung-ha’s idea to help the poor in Hong Kong.
With a customised Octopus card, anyone living under the poverty line would be able to buy a set quota of essential items.
Now the idea will become reality as Lee and Chiu were awarded a HK$1 million grant for coming up with the best NGO proposal in this year’s Operation Santa Claus (OSC), the annual fundraiser organised by the South China Morning Post and RTHK.
Lee, founder of the non-profit Goods Co-share, and Chiu, financial controller of the Women’s Foundation, were selected from more than 20 other NGOs to received the funding, granted by financial services giant UBS and OSC.
Lee said vending machines could reduce the cost and work load for social service NGOs in doling out necessities. Bulk purchasing directly from suppliers would keep prices low.
“We are looking to serve 12,000 poor people with our machines,” Lee said. He was currently talking to six NGOs about installing machines in their respective communities.
“We are hoping to develop five to seven machines by the end of 2017,” Lee said. Areas in the northern and western New Territories such as Kwai Chung and Tin Shui Wai, where poverty rates were high, would be among the first districts to get the machines.
According to the Commission on Poverty, in 2014 some 1.3 million people in Hong Kong, almost a quarter of the population, were living under the poverty line. To be considered as living in poverty, a one-person household would have to make less than HK$3,500 a month.
Lee said 68 per cent of the grant would go into the development and distribution of the machines and the rest would be allocated for operation costs. He said the programme was sustainable because it could generate revenue.
According to Lee, a bottle of detergent marked at HK$30 in a supermarket could be bought for HK$3.
“With the vending machines, those in need can buy it for HK$8 and the profit of HK$5 will go into maintaining the machines.”
Lee and Chiu met at the nine-month OSC UBS NGO Leadership Programme, a scheme organised by the Chinese University of Hong Kong to provide management training for over two dozen NGO executives. By the end of the programme, Lee and Chiu presented their proposals before five adjudicators from the government and the organisers and won the HK$1 million grant.
Rob Stewart, chief communication officer Asia Pacific at UBS, said the simplicity of the proposal separated it from the other contenders.
“As soon as they presented, it’s got the loudest cheer of the day. It was very obvious straightaway that it was the proposal to beat,” he said.
Chiu said their proposal resonated with people because vending machines were a familiar technology.
“There are rice machines in Japan, fresh milk machines in mainland [China], sugar and beans machines in South America,” Chiu said, “We are just being innovative and using it to help relieve poverty.”