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Ride-Hailing Changed How We Commute. Can Ve Chai-Hailing Change How We Recycle?

Mentions of ve chai might evoke images of uncles and aunties pushing around their cart or perched on bicycles, ferrying a host of plastic bags and scrap metal, and occasionally calling out: “Đồng nát sắt vụn bán nào…” This familiar scene, no matter how nostalgic, might change soon.

In December last year, when VECA — Vietnam’s first application linking informal recyclers and Saigoneers — announced their relaunch after a drawn-out pause due to lockdown, I was eager to try the novel service. Prior to this, during the app’s trial period only in Phú Nhuận District in April 2021, my interaction with VECA was merely me placing a selling order and being informed that it was canceled, all because of the pandemic. When Saigon was battered by a massive wave of COVID-19 cases leading to a strict lockdown, the technological startup had to power down for five months.

To my surprise, the relaunch came with an expansion in the app’s operating zone to 10 metropolitan districts of Saigon (now 12), including the neighborhood where the Saigoneer office is. A made-in-Vietnam app by Vietnamese, one that’s not a localized version of a foreign tech giant, and one that’s seeking to tackle a crucial process in our recycling capacity — of course I was excited by it and had a lot of expectations.

A to-the-point UI and smooth usage

After filling in some information like address, contact number and preferred time, I was able to secure an “appointment” with a seller on a Monday. Available on both the Apple Store and Google Play Store, VECA has a simple interface compared to other service-hailing apps, with a color palette of white, green and blue.

VECA's index page.

In a recent interview with municipal TV channel HTV9, Minh Trang, the app’s co-founder, shared that her team was constantly making UI adjustments during the app’s first-year run because it initially was too complicated and not convenient for users.

In the current version, the key function for Saigoneers is the “book a sale” section. There are complementary sections that list an account’s accrued points and how to exchange them. Sellers can opt to receive their money via their Momo wallet, though the app does not incorporate a chat or phone contact function between buyers and sellers. The index screen is designed in an informational way, listing what kind of recyclable materials it accepts and at how much per kilogram they can be sold for. These include: newspaper, document paper, cartons, solid iron, scrap iron, corrugated iron, plastic bottles, aluminum, aluminum cans and Tetra Paks. Clicking on each category icon will reveal more detailed instructions and definitions.

VECA does not directly buy or sell ve chai, so there is some risk in managing what is sold and bought. It might be beneficial to users if the app included more information and caution on hazardous waste. At the time of writing, Việt Nam Tái Chế (Vietnam Recycle) is among a few services in Vietnam that specialize in handling materials like e-waste, with 10 collection points in Hanoi and Saigon.

Users are not totally in control of the booking time

Entering details to make a booking. 

Seeking to sell household scrap, Saigoneers might be disappointed to find out that the app only allows two options in terms of pickup time: weekdays or weekends, without specific time selections. There’s some obvious room for improvement here as VECA sets out to improve “flexibility and transparency” in the ve chai collection process. Still, it’s also important to add that once connected, collectors and users can arrange a time for pickup directly via other channels of communication.

Depending on the location, time, and amount to be sold, it might take a while to receive confirmation for the transaction. On a Friday, I placed my booking and chose the pickup time to be during the week. After over two days, my booking was confirmed by a collector, whom I only knew by a name. To be frank, as this was my first time selling ve chai online and the app confirmation was vague, I couldn’t help feeling a little unsure.

Tech-based ve chai collection, a new career path?

On the afternoon of the collection date, a young man arrived at our agreed meeting place with a huge basket strapped on the back of his bike. The “ve chai specialist” was 22-year-old Phong. He quickly sorted my scrap papers into categories, weighed them, and wrote down notes on his phone. Phong shared that he had been working for VECA for two months at the time, though I only noticed him thanks to that humongous basket. The app’s associates did not yet have uniforms or any other branding paraphernalia.

The ve chai collector was a young man on a bike, not a traditional vendor as we've known.

I’ve followed VECA’s Facebook fanpage since it first made the news and saw photos of smiling ladies and their carts with the VECA stickers, so I did anticipate seeing this demographic for my first sale. This would also be in line with what the app aims to achieve: helping traditional ve chai sellers collect scraps more efficiently. However, as Phong explained, young collectors like himself are not rare as one would expect. Some are even in for the long haul because of their tech-savviness.

I was immediately impressed with how well-organized he was in weighing, categorizing and storing my recyclable papers. I was paid in cash right away, though via an electronic wallet was also an option. The price is already set on the app’s front page, so the transaction happened quickly and smoothly.

For the entirety of the process, VECA acts as the middleman without charging any fee from the user or collector, though this means that collectors have to purchase their own equipment and figure out where to resell the scrap materials. To Phong, the output is not an immediate concern because he’s already done some research on collection points in the city, in addition to many leads passed down by senior collectors. “I still resold at a loss many times, because at the beginning I wasn’t really good at dealing at consignment yards, so they didn’t weigh correctly,” Phong recalled.

When asked his opinion on the trade’s stability, Phong was happy to share: “I treat this as my full-time job and not just an additional income. Every day I drive around the districts, there are quite a lot of orders. The income is pretty good now [...] Before, I did ride-hailing apps for a while, but it was so competitive I quit.”

After two months on the job, Phong is happy with how his career is going.

Phong also mentioned that the company set aside some subsidies for days when there are too few bookings due to the elements. Moreover, newcomers without any experience in scrap materials can join a short training course on material categorization and appraising. Seeing how dedicated Phong is at his job, I am glad that the app is able to contribute to the employment pool in Saigon, at least among young workers who have no trouble adapting to smart devices. As I did not experience the service from the perspective of collectors, I will not comment on the other side of the equation in this writing.

Be that as it may, I think VECA could be another app that young Saigoneers should introduce to their parents, as handling household ve chai has long been something older adults are familiar with. The app’s expansion to 12 districts even as the city undergoes an economic slump and unheard-of hardships was a considerable feat for its founders. Most recently, VECA’s creators became one of six winners in the Thành Phố Không Rác (City Without Trash) competition organized by Circular Economy Network and WasteAid, receiving EUR10,000.

Compared to other tech-based entities that have significantly shifted the way we travel and consume, VECA still has some big hurdles to overcome, like how to get more collectors and buyers to adopt the technology in their daily work, and, as a more lofty goal, how to encourage waste-sorting among urbanites to make selling ve chai more substantial and efficient. Perhaps, there will be a day when we stop saying "ve chai money," and switch to "VECA money," just like there are now fewer "call a xe ôm" suggestions compared to "call a Grab."

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