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.