• The machines provide a 3.3-pound bag of rice and operate 24 hours a day.
  • Tuan Anh is the director of an electronic lock company in Ho Chi Minh City
  • Each machine cost about $425 to manufacture and can hold up to 1,100 pounds of rice


As a government-imposed lockdown in Vietnam put hundreds of thousands of the country’s poor out of work during the coronavirus crisis, a local entrepreneur has come up with an ingenious way to feed people in need.

Hoang Tuan Anh of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) invented an automatic dispensing machine that provides free rice. The machine provides a 3.3-pound bag of rice from a small silo and operates 24 hours a day.

"I refer to this machine as a 'rice ATM' because people can withdraw rice from it, assured that there are still good people out there who want to give them a second chance," Tuan Anh said.

Such "rice ATMs" will also be established in the cities of Hanoi, Hue and Da Nang.

Residents need not provide any identification when obtaining the rice, but must write their names down (in order to prevent abuse of the program) and maintain social distancing rules while standing in line.

Tuan Anh is the director of an electronic lock company in Ho Chi Minh City who noticed that the distribution of free food to the poor could increase the risk of virus transmission since such activities were conducted in person and attracted big crowds.

“The crowd could also jostle each other,” he said.

Thus, using his technical expertise and the equipment available in his company's warehouse, Tuan Anh and his assistants constructed the first rice dispenser in only one day.

“It’s quite urgent, we didn’t have time to have it tailor-made, so I removed the motor in one of the lock testing machines in our company and turned it into this rice dispenser,” Tuan Anh said.

Each machine cost about $425 to manufacture and can hold up to 1,100 pounds of rice.

“I just want to make sure one [person] gets enough proportion [of rice] for the day and there’re enough left for others,” Tuan Anh said.

Vietnam has reported relatively few cases of coronavirus -- 262 and no deaths so far in a nation of 96 million people. But the two-week lockdown – scheduled to expire on Wednesday – has placed a burden on the poor who need to work every day to eat.

"This rice ATM has been helpful. With this one bag of rice, we can have enough for one day," said Nguyen Thi Ly, 34-year-old mother of three children whose husband lost his job. "Now, we only need other food. Our neighbors sometimes gave us some leftover food, or we have instant noodles."

Ly and her family need this kid of aid since an $1.16 billion stimulus package introduced by the government last month has yet to reach people living on the margins like her.

"I read about this rice ATM on the Internet. I came to check it out, and couldn't believe it [was] for real. I really hope the sponsors would keep doing this until the end of the pandemic," added Ly.

In the central city of Hue, volunteers from local colleges set up a rice ATM at the Phu Xuan private college that dispenses 4.4 pounds of rice in bags. ATMs have also appeared in other parts of the city in order to prevent large crowds at any one site. The rice was obtained from donors

The Da Nang City Young Businessmen Association also said it will initially set up two free ‘rice ATMs’ to help feed poor people, then establish a few more.

The association has so far collected 40 tons of rice from donors in the city.

The chairman of the association Ha Duc Hung said the free rice ATMs will operate through the end of June.

Tuan Anh said he has received a huge amount of rice from donors.

“I’m going to do this until the COVID-19 pandemic ends. I’m also planning to make another 100 rice dispensers to help those in need,” Tuan Anh said. “Vietnam is facing a shortage of rice in the middle of COVID-19 time. Thus, hopefully, the community will join hands and help me with the incoming project.”