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    Wednesday
    May202015

    Proximity senior manager invited to speak at Devex Executive forum

    Su Mon speaks about her experiences managing a rural sales force in Myanmar

    Last Thursday, the development media platform Devex hosted an Executive Forum in Yangon, aimed at preparing international players to enter the Myanmar development space. Su Mon, our multi-talented Rural Energy Team Leader, was the only female Burmese speaker invited to speak at the daylong event. We sat down with her to learn about the forum:

    Can you tell us a little bit about the panel you spoke on?

    Su Mon: My session was focused on operations. What are the processes and pitfalls of doing development work in Myanmar? The talk wanted to explore organizations that have been operating here for a long time, and focus on what’s happening on the ground, which was especially relevant to me because of my experience training our rural sales force.  

    One of the guiding questions was about reaching remote customers, right? How does Proximity’s approach differ from other organizations on the panel?

    Su Mon: Well, unlike with other iNGO’s, a part of our sales and distribution network is made up of independent agents (they’re not full-time employees but instead earn commissions for sales), so they don’t need to do the work if they don’t want to. But if the incentives—such as the financial incentives, or the social prestige they gain from spreading technology— are right, people will be happy to do the work. If a product or service is actually valuable to an agent’s friends and neighbors, then he or she will share it naturally. This really is the key to last-mile distribution.

    It seems like there’s two parts to this process. On the one hand there’s the way that you foster agent networks, and on the other there’s the fact that the products themselves have to be valuable. Did that come up at all?

    Su Mon: It did. In my introduction I talked about our agent network, but I also wanted to stress that there has to be value to the products. You have to design something that people really want and in order to do that you have to really engage. You can’t just design in some headquarters somewhere. When you’re designing products or services, you have to have someone in the room that is involved in operations and who knows what’s happening on the ground. I think this is why understanding context is built into our organizational DNA, because we believe that creating that value for our customers will only happen if we adopt a human-centered approach. Already, in my time here, I have visited 25% of the nation’s townships even though technically I am based in the office.  

    What were some of the other main points discussed at the panel?

    Su Mon: Well, we talked about how it’s essential not to make assumptions about gender, and the speaker from PSI brought up some examples that were really good about how this is relevant. He was talking about their mosquito net program, and how females as heads of households were originally targeted. However, PSI found that in one particular region, they needed to target men, because the men went off to work in the mines where they were geting exposed to disease. Their approach had to change quickly to adapt to this.

    How will the discussion change how you think about your work in the future?

    Su Mon: In terms of my work, when I was listening to big international corporations talk about talent in Myanmar, I saw the ways other organizations are investing into bringing and training talent. It made me excited about all the things Proximity can do. It’s not a business as usual environment for talent recruiting in Myanmar at the moment, and Proximity already has some good initiatives running through Proximity School, but the talk sparked a lot of thinking about what more we could be doing. It’s nice to see that we’re on the right track, but still, I want to help us do more. 

    Thursday
    May072015

    Remembering Nargis

    Remembering Nargis from Proximity Designs on Vimeo.

     

    Saturday May 2nd was the anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, a storm that caused more than 130,000 casualties in the Myanmar Delta. One month ago, we spoke to U Soe Win about his experience, which compelled us to make this video. On the seventh anniversary of the storm, our thoughts and deep empathy go to hundreds of thousands of families who remain resilient, even after surviving unspeakable loses.

    Thursday
    Apr302015

    Proximity Designs in the 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.