The Long Road To Mandalay (via Hong Kong) Part 5
Thursday 29th Sep
It was an early trip on the Thursday morning to visit a rural social enterprise situated on the Ayeyawaddy River Delta. This was an area that was particularly devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008, which killed some 140,000 people and left almost 2.5 million homeless. This disaster was compounded by the fact that Myanmar’s isolation meant that initially no foreign aid or support could access the country. Local people and organisations tried valiantly to help, but undoubtedly this was still the worst natural disaster in the countries’ history.
Our bus driver was obviously experienced and skilled, but I eventually had to stop looking out the front window, as the road contained a diverse range of hazards – cows, cyclists teetering along carrying huge bundles, people walking and oncoming vehicles playing chicken on our side of the road.
We were being hosted by a SE, Proximity Designs who support rural communities; providing microfinance, providing farm advisory services and designing and selling farm equipment to improve growing conditions.
We were based in a township called Kyungyangone. It is mainly bamboo huts, surrounded by paddy fields. We spoke to one farmer who has seven acres of paddy, and who has received microfinance from Proximity to develop these fields. The microfinance is offered on a ‘group’ basis, where several smallholders come together to form a group. Although they borrow individual amounts, the group work together to ‘guarantee’ one another’s repayments. They have to attend regular meetings with Proximity, which teach them about farming methods and opportunities for development.
One of the particular farming innovations that people had adopted was to add salt to the water in the rice fields. This helped to kill pests and eliminate unproductive rice shoots. The salinity level was checked by placing an egg on the water – if it just floated, it was perfect.
Temperatures were soaring into the upper 30s, with high humidity and as we toured the paddy fields under the midday sun, I was sure I was about to keel over at any moment.
Villagers were so friendly and hospitable and welcomed us into their homes. I was struck in one of the houses by a picture of young boy in monk’s robes. Over 60% of all males will spend some time as a monk. I could tell that his parents were honoured that their son had taken up this calling, but also that they missed him so much. I could however see the benefits of sending my son to a monastery – occasionally.
This was in truth the closest I did actually get on my ‘Road to Mandalay’ – but maybe closer than Robbie Williams got? The return bus journey to Yangon was again ‘interesting’ – made even more so with a torrential downpour thrown in.
Friday 30th Sep
On the morning, we visited Phandeeyar in down town Yangon. It is an innovation lab who are trying to use technology to benefit society.
Technology is a nascent sector in Myanmar and most developers are self-taught. A smart phone costs on average $23, and data is 1kyat per MB (1,700 Kyats is £1). The result of this is that, even in the rural areas, mobile technology is advancing quickly, and while people don’t have a computer (so don’t use websites), they are more and more frequently using ‘apps’.
Phandeeyar have hosted a number of hackathons, including a highly successful ‘let’s vote’ hack challenge. 30 teams competed over two weeks, and the winning app, which was designed to provide unbiased information in the lead up to the general election had 200k downloads in 5 weeks – and it could be argued played a significant part in ensuring the countries first successful and fair election.
Phandeeyar have core funding from a number of sources but fundraise for individual projects. A recent accelerator programme attracted 80 applicants, and six successful candidates are working in the Phandeeyar office. They also provide co-working space for 30,000 kyat per month and have about 60 users of the space.
In the afternoon we participated in a SE Symposium that attracted delegates from the government and a wide range of national and international stakeholder organisations. This again gave fascinating insights into some of the challenges that SE faces, but also how it is so positively impacting in the redevelopment of Myanmar. There was a somewhat abrupt end to proceedings as we had overrun our time slot and wedding guests led by the very vocal and agitated groom, ‘invaded’ our conference room.
Saturday was our last day in Yangon and we had a tour around the famous Scott Market which is an incredible warren of stalls selling every product under the sun. Once again the temperature and humidity were oppressive and we decided to have a break at a small café. I ordered what was titled a ‘Strawberry Sherbet’ and was eagerly anticipating a long ice cold fruit drink to quench my thirst. A steaming bowl of hot sago soup, with spring onion and a large slice of submerged bread arrived. The owner hovered over me like a mother hen to ensure I finished every drop. Lost in Translation came to mind.
We then set off that evening on another marathon 24hr journey, back to Dundee.
It had been a wonderful, informative, emotional, tiring and inspirational trip and a few special mentions and thank yous: to Gerry, Johnny and Jo from CEIS who had organised it so wonderfully well. DSEN for giving me this fantastic opportunity. Those who organised and delivered the inspiring World Forum. All those who were involved in the life changing enterprises that we visited and to Tristan, Mae and Mimi and all their colleagues from the British Council who so expertly hosted and guided us in Myanmar. And of course to my fellow tour party colleagues from across the globe. A pleasure and a privilege to spend time with you all.
Next World Social Enterprise Forum is in Christchurch in 2017.
Thank You 谢谢 多謝
ကျေးဇူးတင်ပါတယ် Tapadh leat
The Long Road To Mandalay (via Hong Kong) Part 4
Tues 27th Sep 2016
Flight to Myanmar was thankfully uneventful after the excitement at Hong Kong Airport, other than witnessing the most spectacular lightning storm further north over Cambodia – which we fortunately kept well away from.
Although the drive from the airport to the hotel in Yangon (formerly called Rangoon) was at night we could see that it was quite different from the highly developed metropolis that we had experienced in Hong Kong, with areas of trees, greenery, and ‘normal’ scale buildings.
Wednesday 28th Sept 2016
The following morning looked out of the hotel window to see a quite different city scape, still busy with some modern developments but also with dilapidated buildings, overgrown areas and a general run down appearance.
We had a welcome meeting at the British Embassy, which was hosted by the British Council. Tristan gave us a really helpful run through of the turbulent history that the country had experienced in the last 70 years. It had just come out of some 50 odd years of military rule, appointing its first democratic government since the 2nd World War. During this time it had largely been cut off from the rest of the world and in fact Western countries had imposed trade embargoes which had had further hampered Myanmar’s development. This was now changing and western countries were becoming more actively involved in the country.
Myanmar sits in a pivotal location, between China and India, both of whom have had long associations with the country. The Chinese in particular have been investing huge sums of money in the country, including funding large scale infrastructure and transport projects – whilst encouraging growth within Myanmar this of course also meets Chinese needs and will allow them to open up the western inland area of China, which has thus far lagged well behind the economic development of their eastern coast. India has also looked to develop in underdeveloped east by investing in Myanmar and it will be fascinating to watch how these two rising giant powers vie for supremacy in the area.
We also got a really informative insight into the local economic and political landscape and how this offers advantages, but also barriers to the development of social enterprise. The British Council has been supporting the development of social enterprises by running a specific development programme in Myanmar and other Asian countries.
We then visited a number of social enterprises in Yangon.
Flame Tree Sewing and Helping Hands operate on the same site. Flame Tree Sewing trains disadvantaged women in embroidery and sewing, making beautifully ornate cushion covers, bags, purses, children’s clothing and jewellery. The women are trained centrally, but can then be given a machine so that they can work at home and look after their families for much of the time, coming together with others regularly to check quality etc. Helping Hands (top image) restores old teak furniture. Skilled craftsmen work alongside children who were previously living on the streets to train them to work with the wood, restoring furniture and making new kitchen equipment such as bread-boards, spoons and salad servers. The children are also given a basic education.
We had lunch at LinkAge, which is a small restaurant on the first floor. LinkAge trains street children to be waiters and chefs and the children sleep on a mezzanine floor within the restaurant. The food was really tasty and the enthusiasm and friendliness of the young staff was just a delight. As we entered the building I looked just above my head to see the fuse box, which was an absolute jumble of wires – this seemed to be a common feature of Yangon, with elements that looked modern and of decent quality, mixed with the most rudimentary and basic amenities and services.
In the afternoon, we took a heritage walk around some of the sights of Yangon with the Yangon Heritage Trust. Yangon still boasts some of the best examples of colonial architecture in the world, but most are in urgent need of major renovation. The fear is that much of that heritage may be lost with the drive to modernise and upgrade the city.
There were very real signs of poverty, e.g. small wooden shacks selling single cigarettes or street food, which also served as people’s homes. There was also examples of real ingenuity, where people overcame the lack of affordable office space and were running their offices from the back of a car – using old typewriters rather than lap tops.
In the evening, we visited the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which is one the country’s most important Buddhist sites. Buddhism plays a huge part in daily life, with over 85% of the country being active followers. At one time the main ornate pagoda structure, was said to incorporate more gold leaf and plate than was housed in the vaults of the Bank of England.
I stopped and gave a small offering to one of the monks and he asked if I wanted to take a ‘selfie’ with him. He worked in a rural health centre and raised funds for the centre by giving organisational lectures and workshops. He was obviously skilled in promoting his work and offered me a coloured flyer detailing his services, including associated costs – social enterprise with a spiritual slant.
We rounded off a really full day with a visit to another restaurant, Shwe Sa Bwe, restaurant. They take young people from rural areas and train them to be chefs and waiters in the expanding 5* tourism market. There is a significant skills shortage in these industries and huge opportunities for young people. Once again we received high quality food and very friendly service.
Till the next blog!
See part five, The Finale HERE!
Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don’t represent those of the Dundee Social Enterprise Network organisation,