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    Monday
    Sep292014

    Myanmar is Changing

    Everywhere you hear these words. Since the beginning of political reforms in 2011, the world has had its eye on Myanmar with the expectation of change. Indeed, as the price of SIM cards drops from $200 to $2, as the rate of construction in Yangon renders whole blocks unrecognizable, everywhere people remark that, “Myanmar is changing.” But what does this mean? What does it mean for millions of rural inhabitants? Hours by boat or motorbike from the nearest town, do villagers in hard to reach regions of Myanmar feel that change?

    The answer is multilayered and complex. On the one hand, there’s an increase in wages that makes it harder for farmers to hire labor and more attractive for landless families to separate and seek jobs in the cities. On the other, there’s the promise of increased mobile penetration and the hope for better infrastructure; there’s so much in fact, that we’ll be focusing on each of these separately in future posts.

    To give you a taste of how change is affecting rural farmers and is in turn shifting our focus at Proximity, imagine yourself taking a seat among 150 Irrigation Sales Representatives who traveled from all over Myanmar to Yangon for the launch of our 11th sales season. The first thing on the agenda is the market disruption caused by increased access to cheap diesel engines. Product Designer Taiei Harimoto remarks that, “imported diesel engines are becoming more popular with farmers.” The big question in this environment, he continues, is whether there is still room for treadle pumps amidst the flood of imports. If not, what new needs are emerging among rural farmers?

    Well, diesel engines can be difficult to operate, and require farmers to rely on costly fossil fuels to irrigate their crops. Which is why, Taiei Harimoto continues, Proximity is launching a new irrigation product that the Design Team has been working on for over a year. Scheduled for a formal launch on November 3rd (keep an eye out for more details) this product will be more cost-effective than diesel engines, and will make use of renewable technologies to help our customers engage in sustainable farming practices. The excitement in the room was palpable, as many farmers have already expressed interest in the product during preliminary field tests. 

    Looking to season 11, we’re investing heavily in skills training for our sales force. Looking beyond next season to a changing Myanmar, we look forward to working in an evolving landscape even while our approach remains the same; be proximate, empathize, constantly re-think solutions, and design for quality, affordability, and impact. 

     

    Friday
    Sep262014

    1000 Words: Spotted in the Ayeryarwady Division

    While their parents attended a workshop led by Proximity Farm Advisory Services, these children played outside, every now and then peeking in. Check back next week to learn more about how climate change is affecting farmers in Myanmar's lower Delta region, and what they can do to mitigate some of these changes. 

    Thursday
    Sep112014

    Cash-for-work, Education for Life

     

    Dar Hat's village leaders stand with students in front of the local school

    Proximity’s infrastructure projects are designed to have two-fold benefits: in the short term, families receive daily wages for their work at a time when jobs are scarce, and in the long term the village benefits from new ponds, footpaths, and embankments that increase connectivity or improve access to water. We were amazed, however, to see one village in the Dry Zone turn the daily wages into a long-term village fund that two years later, is still helping families access free education. 

    When Dar Hat’s 43 households gathered to renovate their village pond in 2012, village leaders collected $5 USD from every family – the equivalent to 1-2 day’s work on the pond. They inaugurated a village fund, whereby anyone in the community could borrow up to $200 USD at an interest of 10% per month. Though this is quite high, it’s actually lower than the customary 20% per month interest rates offered by other informal moneylenders in the region. The village then used the interest income from the loans to pay the schoolteacher’s salary, freeing families from the burdensome fees they had to pay to send their children to primary school. 

    Up until this point, families had to pay variable fees to send each child to school. These fees increased as students got older, making it more expensive and difficult for families to send students to upper elementary classes. Now, however, all the villagers in Dar Hat can send their children to elementary school for free.

    Since the pond renovation, the inhabitants of Dar Hat village have water for household use year-round. What’s most remarkable, however, is how village leaders continue to use the initial cash injection from the pond renovation to work for the community. 

     

     

    Tuesday
    Aug262014

    Hninn, on Dancing with Data

     

    Hninn sat down with us to talk numbers, merengue, and Harry Potter

     

    When you first approach Phyu Hninn Nyein, you’d never suspect from her friendly demeanor that she’s actually a fierce dancer and a statistics whiz. Do a little bit of digging, though, and it’s no time before Hninn opens up about how ballroom dancing is the best sport ever and how she hopes to increase numeracy levels across Myanmar. 

    There are many reasons why she’s the head of our Knowledge and Social Impact Team, but when you hear her story, it seems only natural that she’d carry the title of “Knowledge Manager.” Numbers have been her passion since high school, and at 17, she left Myanmar to study math and biology in the US. While doing work on HIV 1 pathogenesis at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, she made the switch to biostatistics.

    When Hninn decided to come back to Yangon to be closer to family, Proximity stepped in and seized Hninn’s talent to help us measure the impact our products have on the rural families that purchase them. The Knowledge and Social Impact Team collects and processes huge amounts of raw data regarding our customers, and while Hninn might dismiss what she does as “fancy analysis,” she’s essential to our operations. When asked why she postponed further studies to continue her work here, she says, “I really like what I’m doing right now so I want to keep on doing it," and recounts how Proximity helped her apply her skills despite the fact that she had no previous social enterprise experience. “This place has the right mix of guidance and freedom so that you really get to experiment with things,” she adds. 

    Glamorous? Definitely. Sweaty? We don't think so.

    All in all, the name of Hninn’s blog –Dancing with Data – suits her to a T. And while we are well acquainted with her data side, Hninn lights up whe she talks about training to master the Viennese Waltz in Massachusetts. “Ballroom is unlike any other sport, because you get to be both sweaty and glamorous at the same time," she says. Dancing is what she misses most from her time in the US.

    Still, there’s hope for Yangon’s ballroom scene with people like Hninn around. We're just saying: with her resourcefulness, we wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if in a couple years Hninn is a Burmese waltzing celebrity, in addition to the data rock star that she already is at Proximity.

    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.