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    Flood Update

    Villagers in Pwint Phyu Township carry relief packages home by wading through flooded fields

    We're in the midst of monsoon season in Myanmar, which is a pivotal time of the year for local farmers. Heavy rains offer relief ater months of insufferable heat, making the ground fertile enough to sustain rice, beans, pulses, and other rain-fed crops that often make up the brunt of a family's yearly income. 

    This year, however, torrential rains have caused monumental flooding in twelve out of fourteen states. With more than 1 million people affected and 1.3 million acres of rice paddy fields sitting idly underwater for two weeks, these rains have thrown off the fragile balance that rural farmers rely on. Most farmers lack access to savings, insurance, and labor reserves, compromising their ability to bounce back from disasters like this month’s flooding. One bad harvest can set a household back for years, and in this case, damage to delicate farmland combined with the widespread destruction of homes and infrastructure point to a long and difficult recovery process ahead. 

    Over the past week, Proximity has reached out to our network of 250 field staff nationwide to understand how the floods are affecting our rural customers. We’ve learned that the damage is severe. In the township of Minhla alone, sales representative Ko Yan Naing Tun reports that 3,000 acres of harvested land have been completely destroyed, leaving farmers without a safety net. The extent of the damage is still to be determined.

    As the water recedes, farmers are starting to assess extensive damage to their crops

    We are evaluating ways to help our customers remain resilient in the face of natural disaster. Proximity Finance, our farm-lending business unit, is considering different ways to restructure loans and help reduce the financial burden on flood victims. Members of our staff have volunteered to assemble relief packages in Padaung and Pwint Phyu Township, and Proximity has greatly reduced the price of lanters for staff members wishing to purchase solar lights to donate to flood victims. Proximity’s experience in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 leads us to believe that the toughest time in the recovery process will take place when the floods fully recede and the aid stops flowing in. Looking at the long road ahead of our customers, we are committed to designing innovative products and services that will help our customers rebuild stronger, more robust businesses that will thrive for years to come. 


    Proximity's got Talent

    These past two weeks were busy ones at Proximity. Nearly 400 staff traveled from all corners of Myanmar to gather in Yangon for our Annual Meeting. It’s a key time of reflection for our organization, during which we leverage our collective viewpoints and the individual, localized knowledge of each of our field staff members to strategize for the coming year. The intense days of discussion and training were followed by three days of bonding, as all of us piled into eight buses to spend the weekend in scenic Bagan.

    We battled monkeys in Mt. Popa, learned the value of iterating in design by balancing marshmallows on spaghetti, competed against each other in relay races, and visited many a historic pagoda. Proximity’s annual talent show saw the return of several classic acts including the sweet tunes of Ma Moe Moe Kaing and the cross-dressing prowess of Ko Kyaw Zeya, as well as a performance by a promising Proximity Bhangra Troupe. All of the teams were encouraged to join the talent show, and several even created clever skits to explain the ins and outs of their work to the rest of the staff. Not to mention, all of the staff joined in on the latest interation of Proximity's product and services dance. Picture 400 people doing the 'water basket' dance move in unison; now that's some serious talent right there!


    Design Team’s Energy Visionary: Nyan Lin Htet




    What do you get when you mix idealism and drive with some serious brainpower? Meet Nyan Lin Htet, Proximity Product Designer and solar energy enthusiast, recipient of a highly selective scholarship to participate in a five-week exchange program with the University of Montana to learn more about global environmental issues.

    We caught up with him before his flight to Missoula and discovered that Nyan Lin Htet’s interest in renewables dates back to his final year of engineering studies at the Myanmar Maritime University. While carrying out exhaustive research for an essay contest about the low-carbon societies of the future, Nyan Lin Htet became aware of both the urgency and the potential for emerging technologies to alleviate some of the world’s most pressing problems.

    Pursuing this further, he eventually enrolled in an online course on solar energy at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Nyan Lin Htet spent at least three hours every day studying complicated equations and learning about semiconductors, as well as solar cells and solar systems, all the while bearing with power outages and slow Myanmar internet speeds. Still, out of the 57,000 people who signed up for the course, he received one of the top 35 scores, and was one of four students selected to visit Delft University for a one-week workshop. The visit had a huge impact on him and made it clear that he had to find a way to align his values and his work. Which is why Nyan Lin Htet set about researching the solar landscape in Myanmar while participating in a “Startup Bootcamp.”

    It was around this time that Proximity’s workshop first got a call from an inquisitive young man requesting data about our renewable energy lanterns.  “I had attended many meetings and conferences about social business, so when I learned that Proximity was a social enterprise with a design lab I was so excited,” he explains. It wasn’t long before Nyan Lin Htet joined Proximity, where he fit right in as a product designer. “The Product Design Team is unique in Myanmar,” he says, “here, every member has different ideas and everybody is allowed to think outside of the box and to think creatively.”

    Already, Nyan Lin Htet has helped the team design a solar panel stand that positions panels at the optimum angle given Myanmar’s northernmost and southernmost latitudinal locations. Currently, he's drinking up plenty of fresh Montana mountain air and soaking in as much as he can about opportunities to bring unique energy and environmental value to Myanmar customers.

    Tireless and positive, Nyan Lin Htet is determined to become a successful social entrepreneur one day, and we can’t wait to see where his mix of strong ideals, initiative, and intelligence, take him.  

    At Proximity's Product Design Lab, Nyan Lin Htet shows off his battery expertise




    Can digital sensors revolutionize smallholder farming in Myanmar?


    Digital sensors that allow for precision agriculture are becoming increasingly popular on large farming operations in the US and Europe. The technology, however is becoming affordable enough for developing markets. Earlier this year, Proximity Designs embarked on an interesting challenge with the Futuresense Team from; could we design sensors that would enhance the work of farmers in Myanmar? 

    Fast-forward a couple of months and a is nearing the end of their second visit to Myanmar’s dry zone. During their first visit in April, our aim was to hone in on particular needs in Myanmar that could be met through sensor-tech. This time around, a crew has spent ten sweaty days riding around Pakokku in the back of a pick up truck testing three prototype sensor products, speaking to everyone from farmers to fertilizer dealers, and thinking about what potential services around these products would look like. But, wait a second: what do we even mean by agricultural sensors? 

    At the high-tech end of the spectrum, there are drones that you can fly over your crops to tell you what areas are suffering from particular diseases or nutrient deficiencies. On the other end, there are farmers in Myanmar who use lemongrass stalks to predict next year’s rains. For this project, we’re wondering how we can use low-cost analog and digital sensors that measure soil moisture to help farmers make the best growing decisions they can.

    For instance, when we spoke to Proximity Sales Representative Aung Ko Win, he mentioned that farmers who purchase drip aren’t always sure about how they should adapt their watering schedules once they stop using traditional watering cans. So even though farmers access better technology through drip, they still rely on traditional thinking to determine moisture levels for their crops. Could a simple moisture sensor help a farmer make optimal watering decisions to reduce the risk of pests and disease and help improve yields? This is just one of the questions that we’re asking. 

    Over the next few months, Proximity will be working together with to continue evolving existing prototypes into fully fleshed out products and services. As we do so, we’ll be posting more on particular experiments or questions we’re encountering throughout this design process. If you’re curious and have any questions about this particular project, leave them in the comments below, and we’ll get back to you in future blogs!  



    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.