Ryan Mai ’21 Starts Nonprofit Organization DURI.AN to Combat Poverty in Vietnam

T. Wei/The Phillipian

Ryan Mai ’21 and his sister, Madeleine Mai, are the founders of DURI.AN, a nonprofit organization that provides cheap meals for children living in rural areas in Vietnam. The pair decided to start the organization in the summer of 2018 after learning about another affordable school lunch program in Vietnam that provided meals for a dollar per day. Although it aimed to help children, it was too expensive for many Vietnamese families.

Mai said in an interview with The Phillipian, “I grew up around a lot of Vietnamese food and just access to food in general, and my family has always sort of been foodies, so it goes without saying that we appreciate a good meal. It’s different when you understand that not everyone in the world has access to a good meal, or has access to food in general, so for me that’s how I really got into wanting for everyone to have access to food.”

Mai and his team started raising money in November 2018 and kicked off operations last December. As of today, DURI.AN has served over 7225 meals to students and has built six water wells in different Vietnamese villages, partnering with different organizations such as the Center for Sustainable Development Studies (CSDS).

“I went to Vietnam a couple years ago in 2015, and on the road we saw this girl carrying a bucket of water. And she was probably only eight years old at the time. There are families that have to walk a couple miles just to get access to clean water, whereas I can go anywhere and know that I will have access to water no matter where I am, so that was something that was really eye-opening for my family and myself,” said Mai.

According to DURI.AN’s website, the organization is run entirely by volunteers, most of whom are still in high school. Its goal is to empower young people to make a difference by undertaking small projects with big impacts. Mai and his sister started DURI.AN entirely on their own, using Google search to help them with different tasks such as filling out government forms.

“We never knew anything before the internet, [but] we have access to information at our fingertips. In that sense, we don’t really need a degree or certain qualifications in order to do something, it all started with having access to the internet,” said Mai.

Mai decided on the name DURI.AN because it was a clever combination of the organization’s motto, and the Vietnamese word meaning ‘to eat.’ Coincidentally, “durian” is also the name of a fruit popular in southeast Asia.

“Durian is this stinky, controversial fruit that either you love or you hate, and it was just kind of a fun name. Our tagline is ‘durable eats,’ so duri is like durable, and ǎn in Vietnamese actually means ‘to eat.’ Again, when we started out we focused a lot on nutrition and water, so that’s where it came from, ‘durable eats,'” said Mai.

In the future, DURI.AN plans to continue expanding its water and food programs, eventually hoping to install a water filtration system in a Vietnamese community. Mai also hopes to build a school library that would provide young Vietnamese children with access to books and other educational resources.

“Another organization [the CSDS] did this, and basically what they learned is since these children don’t have access to the internet… instead of going out for recess to the playground, they actually went into the library to read, because this is the only time they have access to books and this is the only time they have access to information… [the library is] something that they really love, and that’s something that if we build this thing, it’s really going to fulfill our message of equality for education,” said Mai.

On April 21, Mai gave a presentation about DURI.AN at Southeast Asian Festival. One of Mai’s friends that attended the presentation, Koki Kapoor ’21, appreciated that DURI.AN was focused on a country other than the United States.

“I thought it was really cool because I don’t know of anyone my age who has the initiative to do something that big. I thought it was pretty cool. He’s not centering his project just to the United States. Most people when they start a nonprofit they tend to focus on their country, but he’s going back to Vietnam where his parents are from and his family is,” said Kapoor.

Isa Escobar ’21, another friend of Mai, added, “Ryan is super dedicated to everything that he does, and he puts in a lot of hard work. He does his class work and his clubs, but then he also puts in so much time and love into DURI.AN… he really cares about what happens to these kids and he’s a really inspirational person to be friends with because of it.”