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Monday
Aug182014

1000 Words

 passengers doze off and chat on the circle train

On Yangon's circle train people chat, nap, and stare out the windows, barely noticing the constant flood of goods that comes on and off the wagons as people transport vegetables and fruits from rural fields to the city. At Proximity, our products flow in the opposite direction, from our Yangon factory to the hands of 95,000 rural customers nationwide. Getting our products to remote villages that are sometimes hours by boat or motorbike from the nearest town can be a challenge, but we count on the help of  1000+ village led organizations, 175 independent retail shops, 710 independent agents, and 180 Proximity staff to get our products to over 100 townships nationwide. So when we see a vendor pile his bananas across the wagon floor, we're filled with recognition of the effort that it takes to transport products to and from villages like Tha Min Oke in Myanmar's Dry Zone or Boe Yaung in deep in the Irrawaddy Delta. 

 

Friday
Aug082014

An Offering of Light

We’re big believers in the power of human imagination, and we constantly find that our customers’ ingenuity helps them put our products to good use in ways we’d never anticipated. 

Take, for instance, Than Than Oo, who lives in Pan Taw Kyi Village in the Dry Zone. For the past five years, she’s run a small shop out of her house to support her three children while her husband works in Malaysia. With her savings, she’s purchased six of our solar lighting products. “A solar light is a one time investment,” she explains, whereas batteries were an endless drain on her income.

Than Than Oo uses the solar lights for all sorts of expected uses: her children use them to study at night, and they also light up her shop. There’s one place in her home, however, where a solar light shines bright all night long.

"I'm donating light to Buddha."

She says this as she points to the S10 illuminating her family shrine. Than Than Oo is one of many Buddhists in Myanmar who include light among their religious offerings. 

For years, Than Than Oo used to light candles around her shrine, even though it was expensive and dangerous. Household fires are all too common in the Dry Zone, where the smallest spark can cause whole villages to go ablaze. She now sleeps soundly at night, having only to press a switch to make her daily offering. 

Pan Taw Kyi Village as a whole decided to switch over to solar for their village pagoda. During a novitiation ceremony, two families donated 6 lanterns for this purpose. There’s a twofold benefit to the new system: the lights are safer, and they also help the humble pagoda save essential funds it would otherwise use to purchase diesel. 

While we originally anticipated that our lights would help families increase their productivity and save money,  our customers are constantly finding countless ways to use them to improve their every day lives. We're filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation to see our products integrated into intimate aspects of Burmese culture, and into one of Burma's main religions. Who knew that solar lights were so well suited for off-grid worship?

Thursday
Jul312014

Credit, Technology, and the Rural Myanmar Dream

"There's no denying that access to credit can improve people's lives, and yet too much credit, or the wrong kind of credit, can put families in an unending cycle of debt." Renowned designer Jan Chipchase spoke these words Tuesday night during a presentation at Yangon gallery, TS1, where Proximity Designs, Studio D, and Visa unveiled the results of an 8-week project to design a culturally specific loan for rural Myanmar households. 

We knew going into the project that the challenge we’d chosen was rich in complexity. Indeed, developing mechanisms to help families break from the burden of debt cycles is by no means straightforward.

We started off by spending two months conducting over 200 interviews to gain an understanding of financial conditions in rural Myanmar, which has experienced five decades of near complete isolation and exclusion from formal banking services. We learned that a range of inventive, informal systems fill this void. Some, such as monastery lending groups, are convenient, culturally relevant, and help unite communities, but too often informal loans charge interests upwards of 10% a month. In the agriculture based rural economy, families often need money outside of harvest time, and the only way they can get it is by agreeing to these harsh interest rates (for the full report, download "Afford Two, Eat One").

Proximity Designs, Studio D, and Visa presented the rural loan Proximity will begin testing early 2015

This past Tuesday, more than 100 people packed into TS1 to engage in a conversation about rural finance in Myanmar. Jan Chipchase from Studio D and Su Mon from Proximity walked guests through our process and end product: a prototype loan that supports families where one or more members travel seasonally in search of work, because there are no jobs available locally in the villages. Helping alleviate rural debt by offering people a loan isn’t the most intuitive solution, but in contrast to high-interest informal loans, Proximity will offer affordable credit. The loan will also alleviate the stress on both the family members who stay behind and await remittances, and on the family members who must cover travel costs and living expenses while they search for work.

The space was opened for a conversation with fellow social enterprises, financial organizations, and the broader community on the feasibility of mobile money in Myanmar, how to build trust with rural customers, along with the potential for technology to bridge the infrastructural setbacks that rural households face. It was the kind of evening that sparks innovative ideas and that inspires us to continue thinking of new ways to financially empower our rural customers. 

If you attended the event, here is a condensed version of Tuesday night's slides.

 

Monday
Jul212014

Where a project lives and breathes

Pop-up studio in Kalaw. Photo courtesy of Jan Chipchase 

It’s hard to be inspired in an uninspiring setting. Which is why, when seeking to do to top-notch research and design work with the folks at Studio D, we set up a pop-up studio to enable the creative juices to flow.

A what? Think about it: a dynamic, varied workspace tailored exclusively for a particular project. Instead of retreating into some sterile hotel every night, imagine working in a cabin up in the hills of Kalaw or in a family home in North Dagon. Pop-up studios are set up in places that are rich in personality and that allow teams to be closer to the the people whose lives they are trying to affect.

The aim is to tailor a space so that it lends itself to creative work, one with lots of natural light and varied work settings both indoors and outdoors.  No wall is taboo at a pop-up studio, and by using the space itself for ideation and brainstorming, teams can come up with dynamic solutions while remaining aware of what each member is working on. Because every day's data is synthesized into short insights on the walls, teams get just the right amount of exposure to promote creativity, without getting bogged down under massive amounts of notes. On a tour of our most recent pop-up studio, set up with Studio D to develop financial inclusion services for rural Myanmar, visitors are able to follow the trail of diagrams and notes throughout the two-story house and physically see the thinking processes that led the team to the final prototype service we’ll be developing in the coming months.

Essentially, a pop-up studio is the place where a project lives and breathes. Everything in that space is about the project. Too often, inspiration can’t be confined to the hours between 9 and 5, so one of the main benefits of a pop-up studio is establishing a space where inspiration is welcomed 24/7. It naturally lends itself to informal meetings and to a casual community living atmosphere that makes work processes enjoyable and playful.

Our team de-briefs in Kalaw. Photo courtesy of Jan Chipchase

With the advent of open offices, we’ve seen companies gain ever more awareness of how the space in which people work affects the quality and creativity of that work. The pop-up studio brings the dynamism of the most successful open offices to any place in the world. It’s a cost-effective way to spark creativity and to help a team live and breathe a project for its duration, which might, we admit, get intense at times, unless the projects are also motivating. In the words of Studio D's Lauren Serota

“the work we’re doing is really fun, so it’s good to be living in it.”

We’ll readily admit we’re a little geeky at Proximity (and we think our partners at Studio D agree), because we’ve totally embraced this opportunity to live amidst the ideas we’ve been cooking up for the past 6 weeks. 

If you want to find out what they are, join us on July 29th at TS1 in Yangon for an open studio event about our most recent service design work with Studio D.

And to read more about pop-up studios, check out  Jan Chipchase’s booklet on the subject. 

 

Studio D members brainstorming in North Dagon. Photo by Claudia Sofia Sosa

 

Tuesday
Jul152014

A Match Made in... Myanmar

 

In the eye of the brain-storm. Photo courtesy of the Stanford d.school.

These days, our design lab is filled with the sounds of running water and the clacking of robots testing pumps as our d-team puts the finishing touches on a breakthrough irrigation product we’ll be launching in September.  We’re working with Stanford’s Institute of Design on this project, and will soon be joined by two graduates for the summer. Andreas and Evram are the latest in a long list of talented individuals who’ve joined the Proximity Design team as the result of an ongoing, eight year long partnership with Stanford’s d.school. 

In 2005, the Stanford d.school began offering a course called “Design for Extreme Affordability,” that challenged graduate students to develop well-designed products and services for the world’s most disadvantaged people. We embraced the course early on as one of its first ‘clients.’ At the time, foot-pumps were available in India and parts of Africa for over $100, and we needed to drastically reduce this price tag if our products were going to be affordable for Myanmar’s farmers. The first challenge we posed to a Stanford team was to create a pump for $25. The rest, as they say, is history.

The entrance to the d.school and all things design-related. Photo courtesy of the Stanford d.school

Over the course of eight years, Stanford teams have been instrumental in developing key products. It was a Stanford team that first drew inspiration from kiddy pools and suggested we design a freestanding water storage basket, which six years later became our “Sturdy Boy” water tank. It was a Stanford team that proposed the award-winning tri-pod frame structure that we ended up using in our HB4 pump, which in addition to completely re-thinking the structure of existing treadle pumps, also reduced its price to $25. Not only does Stanford have fast prototyping abilities that allow teams to make a lot of progress very quickly, the creativity of their students is constantly motivating us to push the envelope. Human-centered design is now at the core of what we do, due in part to the contagious innovative thinking of the d.school folks.

Luckily for us, the love is mutual. David Beach, co-instructor of the “Design for Extreme Affordability” course, explains, “Proximity is an amazing organization… For us, the fact that they have experience on the ground, deep insight…that they are involved at the highest levels of crafting a path forward for Myanmar as a country…. They couldn’t be better partners.”

In addition to making us blush, Beach does point to some of the factors that make our partnership with Stanford’s d.school a truly symbiotic exchange. Strong partnerships, grow, evolve, and endure, and we can’t wait to see what breakthrough, innovative products our work with the d.school will bring to rural Myanmar. 

A Stanford team member out in the field