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    A Proximity Love Story


    Maung Kyaw Win Naing admits that he’s not your average seventeen year-old. While many of his peers want to move away and work in nearby cities, he’s been begging to take charge of the family’s farm for years. “I like what I’m doing,” he says, “I like that I can plant something and see it grow, see all the young green leaves sprouting everywhere.” Life, however, takes funny turns, and just when Maung Kyaw finally got his wish, love happened.

    Even though the two of them grew up together in the village of Tha Yat Oak in the upper Delta region of Myanmar, they only started seeing each other shortly before she left to attend university in Hinthada, an hour away. Now in her second year, Maung Kyaw would slip away at any available chance to see her. As love blossomed, the family’s betel plants wilted.  

    Watering the family’s one-acre betel plot took Maung Kyaw and two hired workers five to seven hours every morning. Afterwards, Maung Kyaw managed the family’s blacksmithing and welding business. His father would grow angry if he neglected any of his responsibilities, and his girlfriend would be disappointed if Maung Kyaw couldn’t see her, but he simply had no time to spare. “Until last year, he was really immersed in the farm, but this year, his mind is elsewhere,” remarked Maung Kyaw’s father, as he remembers the tense period for the family.

    Just when it looked like nothing was going to give and no one was willing to budge, a Proximity agent visited the village. The family thought it sounded to good to be true, but Maung Kyaw convinced them to test drip irrigation. The difference was immediate. Using drip, Maung Kyaw spent only one hour a day watering the betel plants. By 7:30 am, he could set off for Hinthada to visit his girlfriend. What’s more, he could do the work by himself, so every month the family saves US $70 on labor and $60 on the diesel that would have otherwise gone to keeping their engine on for five to seven hours a day. Additionally, the family noticed fewer pests and diseases on their land. One and a half months after the purchase, the drip has more than paid for itself.

    These days, Maung Kyaw exudes the same enthusiasm he once had for taking on the family’s business. He’s speaking of planting an additional acre of betel in May, since he could manage the land by himself and still have plenty of time for social commitments. He’s also looking to expand their welding business, and dreams of someday starting a fully equipped workshop. His family is relieved at his renewed commitment; after all, they say, weddings these days can be quite expensive. 


    What I learned about social enterprises by working at one

    Guest blogger Lauren Leatherby is a first-year Master in Public Policy student at the Harvard Kennedy School who spent Winter Break as a short-term fellow at Proximity.

     Folds of longyi fabric drape onto the floor as a dozen farmers, their faces cooled with thanakha, discuss the past season’s challenges around a low table.  

    “Labor costs have doubled,” one farmer says in Burmese, the others nodding in agreement. “We can’t afford labor costs anymore. Costs have gone from 2,000 kyat per day to more than 4,000.”

    Proximity co-founder Debbie Aung Din asks about other difficulties they have faced. How have they dealt with the labor shortage? What kind of pests have they seen this year? What tools do they need the most?

    Since arriving at Proximity for a short fellowship, field meetings like this combined with my time at Proximity’s brightly hued, open office in Yangon have shaped my ideas of social enterprise. Below are a few of the things that stood out to me, surprised me, and even wore on me about my time here at Proximity.

    Customer Respect


    In a previous job, I conducted market analysis projects at a Fortune 500 company, where constantly soliciting customer feedback was critical to success. I’ve found Proximity listens to Myanmar’s low-income, rural farmers in the same way my previous employer listened to its Rolex-wearing customers. The luxurious $50 dinners of customer feedback meetings may be swapped for tea leaf salad on the floors of thatched-roof homes, but the respect and high value that Proximity places on its customers’ opinions is the same.

    I’ve also been impressed with the resources Proximity puts toward following up with its customers in proportion to its relatively small staff. The Knowledge and Social Impact Team spends their time taking buses, motorcycles, and ox-carts to remote villages, where they ask farmers about changes in yields, incomes and spending, after using Proximity products and services. Thanks to their work, the organization has measured nearly USD $400 million  in cumulative increased economic impact across Myanmar through the sale of Proximity's products.  


    Swimming Against the Current

    Walking into Proximity’s design lab, a naturally-lit, brightly painted space in Yangon’s industrial zone, one quickly gets the feeling that creative things happen here. Multicolored dry-erase sketches of prototypes dot the windows, and a mural depicts a fish swimming upstream, going against the norm.

    “These are some of the ideas from our Team Improvement Project this morning,” says Ko Nyan Lin Htet, the design lab’s newest engineer, as he directs my gaze to a handful of sketches on scrap paper. “We brainstorm like this every Friday. My idea presents a way to light the whole floor using only natural light.”

    These Team and Personal Improvement Projects, which take time away from current projects to focus on self development, were just one way I saw Proximity’s emphasis on being unafraid to fail a few times before getting things right. This emphasis on creativity and innovation struck me as representative of Proximity’s overall business model –using swift, imaginative solutions to confront large, seemingly intractable problems.

    Burmese at Heart


    Knowing that Proximity operates only in Myanmar but has strong Western connections, I wasn’t sure what to expect in regard to office culture. As I found my way up to Proximity’s third-floor office my first day, I saw a neat array of shoes outside the door. Guessing I should take mine off too, my first day at Proximity also marked the first time I entered a new job barefoot.

    I had previously worked abroad in Dubai, where my meetings were held in English and the office generally followed U.S. work culture, so the amalgam of Burmese and English used during Proximity's staff meetings was striking. While a few expats dotted the crowd, the room was nearly entirely locals, and not a single foot wore shoes. Longyis predominate over pants here, office snacks generally consist of Myanmar jellies and tea leaf salad, and Burmese is the primary language echoing throughout the office.

    The Mundane Exists Here, Too

    Finally, my time here has reminded me of the regular work that goes on even at award-winning social enterprises like Proximity. While high-level strategic thinking frequently takes place, with meetings discussing the future of Myanmar's energy and innovations to combat rising labor costs, there are also the same mundane, day-to-day tasks that go on everywhere. I got to help on projects I really liked, but where was my help, at times, most exigently needed? Writing up job descriptions and finding photos for publications. This was a reminder that even at the coolest organizations, there’s still no shortage of small tasks in addition to the big, fun, shaping-the-future-of-this-country brainstorming.



    New Year, New Faces: Su Hlaing 


    Su’s love of other cultures started early. Growing up, Su attended an international school in Yangon, where her classmates – often the sons and daughters of diplomats – hailed from around the world, an experience that informed her childhood career decisions.

    “I used to want to be a diplomat,” she says with a small laugh as she makes herself at home on a couch in Proximity’s office. Well spoken, poised, and rarely without a glowing smile, Proximity’s newest team member would have done a fabulous job in the foreign service, but we’re lucky she chose Proximity instead.

    While her fervor for diplomacy has waned, her enjoyment of different cultures has only grown. Su received a full scholarship to attend university in the United States, where she studied Asian studies and Chinese. After graduating, she worked in Washington, D.C., at an international food policy research organization with coworkers from all over the world.

    She recently moved back to Myanmar to reconnect with family and friends, only to discover her cross-cultural education would continue in her home country. Now, she says, her job at Proximity has taught her about rural ways of life in her own backyard.

    During her first three months working with our irrigation division, Su jumped right into her new role by traveling all around the country giving sales training to field staff and developing relationships with countless farmers along the way.

    “I saw Myanmar in a way that even many people here don’t see [it],” she said. “I saw how hard rural farmers work and how they are really in need of techniques and strategies. When we’re able to provide for those needs, through Proximity, I feel like I’m doing something for my country.”

    Giving back to her community has always been a big part of Su’s life, from teaching English in Yangon during her secondary school years to volunteering with refugees in the United States. Her desire to have a positive impact drew her to Proximity’s social mission, and her love of adventure drew her to what she saw as its creative, international culture.

    Here, her role is still evolving; Su will be working with a number of different teams during her first few months to find the perfect position for her within the organization. It won't be the first time someone who's multi-talented and versatile was hired at Proximity and given a taste of different roles before defining their own. So far, Su's enjoying her role at sales, and we can't wait to see where she'll end up. 




    We're in good shape

    To start the year off on the right foot, literally, 90 staff members joined the 2015 Yangon Marathon. While only one person was brave enough to run the full 42km path, Proximity did win the 10k team race. Here are some photos from the day!


    1000 words, 2015 beginnings

    The sun sets over Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State.

    It’s tempting to get poetic about the year ending while contemplating the setting sun over Taunggyi. After all, it's been quite a year. Some of the highlights include receiving the Ashden Award for Sustainable Agriculture in May, a partnership with Studio D, Visa, and IMTFI to the research and develop a new financial service designed specifically for rural Myanmar, and raising over $60,000 in the Social Entrepreneurs’ Challenge thanks to the amazing support of people all over the world and the Skoll Foundation’s matching grant. As 2015 dawns, we want to take a moment to thank everyone from staff to strangers who helped turn challenges into opportunities for innovation. Happy New Year!