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    Thursday
    Apr302015

    Proximity Designs in this month's Harvard Business Review

    Read the article online: http://bit.ly/1DvGOu5

    Running a sustainable social enterprise is no easy undertaking. To survive in the long run, social enterprises have to generate significant social impact and meet financial constraints that ensure sustainability. What can upcoming social entrepreneurs do to increase their chances of success?

    Roger Martin and Sally Osberg from the Skoll Foundation address this question in the May edition of the Harvard Business Review. Looking at a broad range of successful social enterprises, they identified specific commonalities that underline them all. According to them, successful enterprises focus on “changing two features of an existing system—the economic actors involved and the enabling technology applied.”

    As they walk readers through the different ways in which various social enterprises do this, the authors point to Proximity as an example of an integrated approach that takes on everything from product design to policy work in order to improve the lives of rural families nationwide. They authors write, “Debbie Aung Din Taylor and Jim Taylor, of Proximity Designs, understood that transforming Myanmar’s smallholder agricultural sector required them to fire on multiple cylinders: They had to reduce costs traditionally associated with a start-up, pare down the operating costs of product design and development, cultivate customers, shift government’s role, and continually enhance their technology solutions.”

    To learn more about how Proximity approached these challenges and how other outstanding enterprises are tackling everything from child labor to landmines, read the full article here

     

    Tuesday
    Mar102015

    Hand in Hand

     

    This moment was captured on Saturday, February 28th. One of the hands belongs to U Win Saw, a farmer in Mawgyun Township whose land has been affected by saltwater intrusion for generations. Unlike other farmers who can grow two rice crops a year, he had to make do with the income from just one rice harvest.

    The other hand belongs to Ko San Aung Thu, a member of our Farm Advisory Services team. For the last seven months, he’s been working with U Win Saw to help him shift the traditional harvesting calendar and plant short-life varieties of rice. The aim is to help U Win Saw harvest two crops per year, saltwater and all.

    On Saturday, February 28th, months of hard labor came to a close. U Win Saw was about to put his second yearly harvest through the thresher, and only then would he know how much money he’d make for his first ever post-monsoon crop. The excitement was palpable, and as a group of laborers and farmers awaited the results, U Win Saw took Ko San Aung Thu’s hand. While it’s not uncommon in Myanmar for men to hold hands, in this moment, the trust that had grown between both men was clear.

    For a low-income farmer in rural Myanmar, changing farming techniques can theoretically endanger the brunt of a household’s yearly income. Understandably, a lot of farmers are hesitant to try something new, which is why building trust among farmers is the first and most crucial step in the work of Proximity’s Farm Advisory Services Team. When a farmer agrees, like U Win Saw did, to try double cropping, a member of FAS will visit the farm twice a month to make sure everything is going as planned. In addition to building long lasting relationships between FAS staff and local farmers, these visits ensure that we're up-to-date on the latest pest outbreaks and challenges farmers are facing nationwide. 

    This year, for the first time ever, U Win Saw was able to harvest 210 baskets of post-monsoon rice; that means an additional US $1,100 in income that will allow him to save, invest in his farm, and feel more secure about providing for his family year round.

     

    Thursday
    Feb262015

    What is it like to work at Proximity for 11 years?

    Ko Thein Soe is known at Proximity as ‘The Energizer Bunny.’ Even after eleven years with the organization, he’s still winning awards for his sales performance.  On a recent trip to the Upper Delta Region, we sat down with him to learn about his views on climate change, what keeps him motivated, and his sales secret.

    You’ve been at Proximity since we sold our first pump in late 2004. Can you tell us a little what life for farmers was like when you were getting started? 

    KTS: Before 2004, people in this region only grew vegetables seasonally, from May until November, while the rains lasted. Even though they knew it was possible to grow vegetables for longer, there was no easy access to water. Then, in 2004, another iNGO I can’t remember the name of it right now came to educate people about the benefits of tube wells. The tube wells together with Proximity's treadle pumps helped people access water for irrigation more easily. They could grow vegetables year round. 

    So now that more farmers have their own tube wells and pumps, what are the main challenges that farmers in this region are facing? 

    KTS: There are two main challenges. The first is financing, because people here need about ten lakh (1 lakh= roughly US $100) to buy all the inputs for a rice harvest. If they can get a loan to buy seeds and fertilizers, farmers can't pay any of it back for at least four months. Otherwise, they will not have time to grow and sell the rice before their payments are due. The second challenge is a lack of ‘know-how.’ Even rich farmers can be adversely affected and lose money if they don’t know how to properly grow their crops, so that knowledge is very valuable. 

    What about climate change? Is that a big problem here? 

    KTS: The effects of climate change are felt in the area, and unseasonal rains are becoming more common. It’s difficult for farmers to recover, but it’s not disastrous. Most often, if rains come at the wrong time, then we have to dry the rice twice. It will make it break more often, so we’ll get lower prices for it at the market. Farmers also face more pest outbreaks, but the problem is not too overwhelming in the Upper Delta, at least not yet.  

    You’re a farmer yourself, right? 

    KTS: Yes. I own 20 acres. I grow beans, pulses and rice. 

    How do you manage to run a farm and work as a sales rep for Proximity?

    KTS: Before I worked at Proximity I was solely a farmer. Now my wife manages the farm. She’s very happy with my job, because now she makes an important contribution to our family’s income.  We’ve also been able to open up a small grocery shop in our house thanks to savings from my job.

    You’ve been with Proximity for over a decade, and still, every year, you’re winning awards for your strong sales performance. What keeps you motivated?

    KTS: As a sales rep, you have to have a genuine will to help people. When you feel reluctant to go into a new village, you need to tap into that [desire to help]. If you adopt a mindset of trying to help people, then you don’t see just your personal goals or sales targets. You see that the work you are doing is helping to build up communities and is building networks between different people and villages. 

    How does your work build networks?

    KTS: As a sales rep, I have to travel and talk to a lot of farmers. I have to learn about the different varieties of vegetables that they’re growing, and how those varieties are doing [in order to advise them on Proximity’s products]. I learn what varieties [of vegetables] do best in this region, so I get to help local communities by spreading the knowledge I gain from visiting so many farms. In my village, I am considered ‘someone who knows,’ and this makes me feel proud. They also joke around that now I am a ‘rich farmer.’

    What are some of the things that your family has been able to enjoy, now that you and your wife earn revenue from so many different sources?

    KTS: I have two sons, one in 1st grade and one in 8th grade. I’m proud that both of them have smart phones, because it will be easier for them to learn about computers later on if they’re already familiar with technology. 

    Do you have a smartphone?

    KTS: No (laughs).

    And what are your hopes for your children’s lives? Do you want them to be farmers like you?

    KTS: I want them to be outstanding human beings, who also work to give back to their communities. In my village, there are people who have university degrees, but no proper jobs. For me, it’s more important that my children are able to use whatever they learn and apply it in their daily life. My younger son is always winning prizes at school. The elder one behaves more like a teenager, but I hope they will both be successful.

    What’s your advice for other sales reps?

    KTS: This job is not about the money. Whenever you don’t make a sale, don’t take it personally. Remember this job is about helping people. 

     

    Thursday
    Feb192015

    Daw Win Thein is not a Proximity Customer, here’s why

     

    Daw Win Thein, 54, and her husband, U Sein Thaung, have some of the greenest thumbs we’ve come across. From a chili bush hidden amid the rows of betel plants, to the majestic pineapple plants that line the edge of their 1.5-acre plot, there’s something growing in every nook and cranny. The bounty of it is impressive, especially when Daw Win Thein explains that the long gourds, betel nuts and fruits are all for household consumption. For income, the pair grows chrysanthemums and betel leaves, which they irrigate with the help of an engine pump. 

    Daw Win looks apologetic as she explains that she has nothing against Proximity’s products; her husband first purchased a pump in 2004, and both their daughters use treadle pumps that have been working since 2006. But now that the family has a diesel engine, she only needs her treadle pump as a safe guard in case the engine is broken or to draw water for household use.

    Daw Win has nothing to apologize for. The fact that she’s been able to upgrade is a sign that Proximity’s products are working. Before the family first purchased the pump in 2006, they barely found enough time to tend to the betel plants, and the hand pump she was using made Daw Win’s chest hurt. Over the years, Daw Win doubled the number of betel plants that her family harvested, and she started growing chrysanthemums to supplement their income. It was this additional income that allowed the family to purchase a diesel engine. 

    In essence, what Daw Win’s story tells us is that Proximity’s products are helping households throughout Myanmar save, improve their farms, and access machinery that was previously out of reach. But what does her story mean for our business model? After all, as a social enterprise we rely on business principles to generate social impact, so what happens now that Daw Win has outgrown our treadle pumps?

    It means we go back to the drawing board. It means we look at recent growth in the diesel engine market as a design challenge. We learn everything we can about these engines and their benefits, to see how we can help smallholder farmers in Myanmar access solutions that are even more affordable and sustainable. Proximity’s design team is nearing the end of a two-year project to create a solar-powered irrigation product that will help farmers like Daw Win upgrade once again, from a diesel engine that relies on costly fossil fuels to a clean energy solution that’s durable and cost-saving. Looking back on the past decade, this upcoming product is the natural continuation of a process that began with Daw Win's first treadle pump back in 2004.  

    Tuesday
    Feb102015

    A Proximity Love Story

     

    Maung Kyaw Win Naing admits that he’s not your average seventeen year-old. While many of his peers want to move away and work in nearby cities, he’s been begging to take charge of the family’s farm for years. “I like what I’m doing,” he says, “I like that I can plant something and see it grow, see all the young green leaves sprouting everywhere.” Life, however, takes funny turns, and just when Maung Kyaw finally got his wish, love happened.

    Even though the two of them grew up together in the village of Tha Yat Oak in the upper Delta region of Myanmar, they only started seeing each other shortly before she left to attend university in Hinthada, an hour away. Now in her second year, Maung Kyaw would slip away at any available chance to see her. As love blossomed, the family’s betel plants wilted.  

    Watering the family’s one-acre betel plot took Maung Kyaw and two hired workers five to seven hours every morning. Afterwards, Maung Kyaw managed the family’s blacksmithing and welding business. His father would grow angry if he neglected any of his responsibilities, and his girlfriend would be disappointed if Maung Kyaw couldn’t see her, but he simply had no time to spare. “Until last year, he was really immersed in the farm, but this year, his mind is elsewhere,” remarked Maung Kyaw’s father, as he remembers the tense period for the family.

    Just when it looked like nothing was going to give and no one was willing to budge, a Proximity agent visited the village. The family thought it sounded to good to be true, but Maung Kyaw convinced them to test drip irrigation. The difference was immediate. Using drip, Maung Kyaw spent only one hour a day watering the betel plants. By 7:30 am, he could set off for Hinthada to visit his girlfriend. What’s more, he could do the work by himself, so every month the family saves US $70 on labor and $60 on the diesel that would have otherwise gone to keeping their engine on for five to seven hours a day. Additionally, the family noticed fewer pests and diseases on their land. One and a half months after the purchase, the drip has more than paid for itself.

    These days, Maung Kyaw exudes the same enthusiasm he once had for taking on the family’s business. He’s speaking of planting an additional acre of betel in May, since he could manage the land by himself and still have plenty of time for social commitments. He’s also looking to expand their welding business, and dreams of someday starting a fully equipped workshop. His family is relieved at his renewed commitment; after all, they say, weddings these days can be quite expensive.