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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

 

Thursday
Jul102014

A Year In Retrospect

 

 Proximity employees gather at Sayar San Plaza

Our 440+ nationwide employees got onboard boats, buses, cars, motorbikes, and even ox-carts to reach Yangon for Proximity’s annual meeting. The three-day get-together is crucial to the life of our organization, because we gather to share our collective social impact on Myanmar, as well as to get an overall, company-wide picture of the previous year. It’s a key opportunity for every single member of our organization to share the deep, local insights that collectively build our thorough understanding of rural Myanmar customers.

We’re committed to having an impact on a wide scale in rural Myanmar, and to that end we’re constantly measuring how we’re doing. The annual meeting is all about accountability, and while we’re accountable to our customers and to our donors, these three days in Yangon help hold us accountable to each other.

So, how are we doing? Several initiatives reported optimistic results. For instance, Proximity Finance provided loans to 33,000 farmers in the past year, a number that has more than tripled since 2011. We’ve also sold 24,000 irrigation products to smallholder farmers this past year, and our earned revenue is more than 50% of our annual budget. In addition to noting these accomplishments, we also held candid discussions about areas to improve on, including the proper way to handle returned products. Overall, we’re proud to report that our activities in 180 townships helped us impact roughly 95,000 households in the past year. For more details, take a look at our latest quarterly report

 

Looking to the future, Proximity Co-Founder Jim Taylor stressed the need for agility. With Myanmar’s new openness, the question we’re asking ourselves is: How do we focus on key opportunities  to contribute to this country’s future? We realize that when we talk about increasing farm productivity we also need to help farmers adapt to climate change and access much needed farm financing, and to this end we’re expanding our Proximity Finance operations and developing a new breakthrough irrigation product.

The three intense days of data compiling and open dialogue help ground us, all 440+ of us, within the greater mission we’re working to achieve. After three days of data-gathering and knowledge sharing in Yangon, it was off to Chaung Thar beach for Proximity’s annual retreat!

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jun182014

A Village of Solar Lighting Entrepreneurs

 Proximity's d.lights, left outside to charge 

It might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about challenges facing low-income farmers in Myanmar, but the migration of landless laborers is one of the biggest problems they encounter. Landless rural inhabitants are leaving their homes at accelerating rates in search of better futures in the cities and abroad, while farmers who count on their help to harvest crops are left short-handed. Migration is also hollowing out rural communities, with the elderly and the young becoming an ever larger portion of village populations.

Despite this migration pattern, only 5 out of 100 families have left Set Thwar village in recent years. Surrounded by the sandy expanses characteristic of the Magway Region, it’s not initially obvious why Set Thwar’s inhabitants have stayed. However, all it takes is one conversation inside a bamboo-thatched home with a group of 20 or so women, to realize that small household businesses are the reason this community has remained united. 

Daw Than Sein, for instance, deftly spins a stone wheel while molding a delicate clay vase. Pottery and incense are the village specialties, and she churns out a variety of vases and even an owl-shaped piggy bank in a matter of minutes. It’s no wonder she’s so skilled - she’s been working with clay since she was 15. What is surprising though, is the energy she brings to her craft; at 62, she doesn’t even stop to look up while recounting her family’s history. Almost mechanically, the row of pots next to her steadily expands while one of her six granddaughters sits down next to her, inspired to coat thin wooden sticks with incense to keep her grandmother company.

Daw Thein Sein spins her magic

Daw Than Sein’s family first purchased one of Proximity’s solar lights to save money during the monthly religious festivals, which would otherwise cost them 1,500 kyats in candles a night to attend. Before long, another, more significant benefit from the light became apparent: Daw Than Sein’s productivity doubled once she could work into the night. She went from making 50 vases a day, to easily finishing 100.

“We can get 8 hours of light at night from the light. Now I keep making pots till 9:30pm. I didn’t want my daughters to take the light away to the festivals when they went, so before long, we had two solar lights in the family.”

While Daw Than Sein’s pottery income is only one part of a larger equation, she’s able to contribute an estimated $360 more a year to her family’s income thanks to the solar light. Collectively, with her two sons working as drivers, her husband tending two acres of land, and her daughter and granddaughter helping transport Daw Than Sein crafts, the family’s able to earn enough to make an uncertain future in a distant city unappealing.

Stories like Daw Than Sein’s abound in Set Thwar, where 100 families own nearly 150 solar lights. Thanks to the increased productivity of household businesses, few in Set Thwar see a reason to leave their homes. Their stories are a remarkable testament to the entrepreneurial spirit of Myanmar’s rural population, where a simple, well-designed product purchased on credit has the capacity to double revenues from businesses that have been passed down for generations. Daw Than Sain is optimistic about the future, and we thank her for showing us just how much difference a couple extra hours of light can make.

 

 

 

 

Friday
May302014

In Pictures: The Ashden Awards

Receiving the  Ashden Award in Sustainable Energy for Agriculture is inspiring, humbling, gratifying, but for us at Proximity, it's also just plain cool. Not only are they the world's leading awards for excellence in the field of green energy, but the ceremony is also held at the stunning Royal Geographical Society in London, and is one of many events hosted by the Ashden Trust during a jam-packed week. This year, Proximity was one of 4 interantional awardees selected from over 240 entries for our work designing and introducing clean energy products to Myanmar's agricultural sector. Without further ado, here are some photos from the big night: 

It's very fitting that the little gold men of sustainability are beautiful, wooden trophies

oh, the nerves, the anticipation as the ceremony began... And the auditorium at the Royal Geographical Society is absolutely packed...The big moment! Proximity Co-Founder Jim Taylor accepting the Ashden AwardThanks to the Ashden Foundation for the great pictures and a wonderful evening. 

 

Sunday
May252014

Design Team, Dream Team 

Friday afternoons at our Proximity Design lab are spent creating masterpieces such as this one:

Or they're spent with our 5 engineers challenging each other to build spaceships with the help of CAD drawings.

We can understand why you might be a little confused (after all, some of our videos make it seem like our design team spends their time playing with robots) but we firmly believe that to create high quality products, we have to constantly improve what we're making, and by extension, we have to continuously improve and expand our skills. Which is why Design Team leaders encourage employees to take time away from current projects and work on individually set Personal improvement Projects. PIP's could be anything from mastering excel and Burmese language to learning all there is to know about human-centered design. On occasion, the team will invite experts and host workshops on graphic design, sketching, CAD modeling or Photoshop (which resulted in the inspired rendition of Aung Ko Ko above).

It's not often that people feel encouraged to improve skills of their choice at their workplace, and yet, we believe constant growth opportunities are the key to feeling motivated at work. Taiei Harimoto tells us that the PIP's helps him feel like “I’m valued and my development is valued.” What's more, there's a sense of unity and ownership within the team, not just thanks to the PIP's but also to the ever evolving Team Improvement Projects first begun 4 years ago.

“At the Design lab, we prototype everything,” explains Aung Ko Ko, as he remembers when the team first used small cash incentives to motivate team members to make the workshop space more intuitive and accessible. “After a while, we realized we didn’t need money, and we switched from an individual incentive to a team incentive.”

 Years of labor result in a spanking clean workshop

Indeed, when you first walk into the lab, the first thing you'll notice is the way that everything is neatly laid out and labeled. All of it, from the personal markers members use to show they've borrowed a tool, to the forms filled out to notify others that a particular material is running out, has been achieved gradually over several years. 

Upon closer inspection of the workshop, you'll see the art is in the details

The team spends one monring a month working on Team Improvement Projects that enhance the day-to-day experience of the lab space. Projects are then assessed on a scale of 1 to 8 depending on the impact of each improvement. When the team racks up enough points, they grant themselves a reward, such as a movie outing or a factory visit. For a while, there was talk of a Yetagon tattoo reward for 240 points, but, a fridge won out in the end. 

 

Paintball, movies, and go karts: all part of a hard day's workCurrently, the design team is updating its reward system (if you have any suggestions, leave a comment below!). We're crossing our fingers that the next iteration will still involve someone on the D team getting a Yetagon tattoo. After all, a fridge is nice, but the Yetagon logo would make a stunning tattoo... anynone?