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    In the incubator: a new financial inclusion product

    There are few things as creamy and delicious as Burmese be u hin (duck egg curry), and yet, the inhabitants of Mhaw Aine Village in Dedaye refuse to believe that duck is a delicacy in some parts of the world. “We’re sick of duck eggs!” Ma Mya Mya Htway says; “we have them every day,” she explains. For some Proximity staff members, this would be a dream come true (cough, cough), but it’s easy to understand why Ma Mya Mya Htway would rather eat pork or chicken; she belongs to a family of duck farmers that have been raising the animals for generations.

    Ma Mya Mya Htway’s mother first taught her the basics of duck farming when she was a child, and to this day she continues to follow her mother's advice. Only two things have changed. The first is the kind of feed she uses for her ducks. The second is that, for the first time ever, she’s received a formal micro-loan to help boost her livestock business.

    While Proximity Designs has been offering farmers micro-loans since 2009, Ma Mya Mya Htway owns no land and doesn’t farm, making her ineligible for a crop loan.  She’s one of countless landless villagers across Myanmar who often have to rely on daily wages from working on others’ land or in the cities to meet basic needs. Even if they start small businesses like Ma Mya Mya Htway has done with her ducks, landless households still can’t qualify for traditional micro-loans from NGO’s or the Myanmar Agriculture Development Bank.

    Because of this, Proximity Finance has started looking into financial services that are more inclusive of non-farming households. These upcoming products, including duck loans and the on-the-go loan, not only provide access to credit to people who’ve never had it before, but also strengthen our social enterprise business model. 

    When Proximity decided to test out a pilot duck loan earlier this year, the $200 loan disbursement was timed to coincide with the yearly lean period for duck farmers in July. While duck egg production rises and falls seasonally, output decreases by more than half during this month. We checked in on Ma Mya Mya Htway two months later, and she reported that business was going well; she used the initial disbursement to buy nutrient rich food that helped her ducks lay more eggs in July, which has helped her save enough money to buy a cellphone. With it, she’ll be able to call the duck vendor in the nearest town directly and secure a better price for her product.

    The duck loans have also had a secondary effect on Ma Mya Mya Htway’s reputation. She’s the group leader for the thirty families in Mhaw Aine that are participating in the duck loan pilot run. While she’s been well-trusted for years, the impeccable job she’s done keeping records has earned her additional respect, both from her fellow villagers and from the Proximity Finance team. Thanks to her work, we're looking to expand the program and make loans available to more duck farmers in the coming year. 


    What is it like to have tea with royalty? We ask our staff to find out

    When the King and Queen of Norway visited Myanmar last week, they made it a priority to meet ordinary civilians who’ve proved themselves to be strong community leaders, be it by championing alternative education in Myanmar, or helping villages improve access to water. This past Tuesday, December 2nd, two members of Proximity were invited to have tea with King Harald V and Queen Sonja of Norway along with a number of other unsung heroes of Myanmar.

    Ma Toe Toe Kywe in one of the Dry Zone villages where she works

    Ma Toe Toe Kywe’s humble demeanor and youthful smile are the first things to greet you when you meet this strong female leader. Her commitment to improving the lives of rural people arose from her own upbringing in Oh Yin Village  (Myaing Township) where her parents harvested sesame and peanuts to support her while she studied industrial chemistry in university. In return, she’s dedicated the past four years to helping communities renovate rainwater collection ponds while earning a daily-wage for people in need of seasonal work. Throughout the course of her time at Proximity, she’s risen to the rank of team leader, and has helped 87 villages rehabilitate their ponds. Now a proud member of  Proximity Finance, she’s hoping to employ her previous experience with pond rehabilitations to help small-plot farmers in Myanmar access affordable credit to build robust businesses.


    U Myo Myint with farmers U Thein Sein and U Thain Soe

    Accompanying her was U Myo Myint, a lifelong environmentalist and the head of our Farm Advisory Services Team. With over 40 years’ experience as an agronomist, during which he served as the head of the Plant Protection Department for the Ministry of Agriculture, U Myo Myint came out of retirement in 2008 after Cyclone Nargis threatened the food security of millions nationwide. Since then, he’s devoted himself to developing best fit, climate-smart techniques that help farmers throughout Myanmar improve their yields and save money on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The 29-person team that he leads assists over 10,000 farmers a year, but somehow, U Myo Myint still greets farmers by name and whenever he travels to the field.

      “For us, it was a great honor to meet Queen Sonja,” U Myo Myint said. “I was really surprised when I was invited. Why did someone like me who works at a community level get chosen to talk to her majesty?” While U Myo Myint’s conversation with Queen Sonja never touched on the subject, the answer to this question is clear to the rest of us at Proximity; we’re constantly humbled to work with local leaders such as these two, and are excited that they had an opportunity to share their personal commitments to social impact directly with the King and Queen of Norway.

     Proximity's Ma Toe Toe Kywe, U Myo Myint, and Debbie Aung Din, ready to meet Queen Sonja


    U Ngwe Aung's Myanmar Landscapes

    U Ngwe Aung is a prominent Burmese artist who’s donated seven landscapes to Proximity’s Crowdrise fundraiser. To learn more about his work (and learn how to get a hold of one of the paintings), read below:

    “Painting is in my nature,” U Ngwe Aung says in between a smile and a chuckle, “when I was in grade five or six, I didn’t pay attention in class. I would see an image in my reference books, and I would just start sketching it out.” More than forty years of dedication has brought U Ngwe Aung a long way from copying textbooks. Nowadays, his enrapturing landscapes of Myanmar’s Shan State leap from the canvas, literally.  The vibrant colors he uses are inspired by the deep, rich red soils of the region, which the artist then treats so that hues intermingle, crack and meld into one another to produce richly textured pieces that delight from up close and afar.

    Nowadays, U Ngwe Aung has a busy schedule of upcoming exhibits both in Myanmar and abroad, but he had his start at the local Bogyoke Market, where reproductions of pagodas and monks are a dime a dozen and sold to tourists for pennies. U Ngwe Aung claims that what he did back then wasn’t “art,” and proceeds to poke fun at his old “copy-paste” style. “You copy what you see and you paste it on the canvas,” he explains with a good-natured chuckle. It was all about the market, about what customers wanted to buy.

    It’s certainly ironic that he’s experienced much greater success once he moved past such considerations. His works are now valued at $2,000 and above, and they're often exhibited at River Gallery, among others. Nowadays, U Ngwe Aung is much more concerned with the process of creation than with the act of painting on its own. With these landscapes, he tells us he feels for the first time free to innovate, to join the picturesque with the playful, the insane, and the surreal.

    When asked why he was so willing to donate his time and art to Proximity’s efforts to broaden on-the-ground support for rural farmers, he tells us: “For me, giving is more about the receiver. As long as there is someone who is in need and sees value in what I am doing, then I will give.” What’s more, he adds, his own father was a farmer in Myanmar’s Delta region and struggled to send his son to art school in the capital. Especially when it comes to Myanmar, “most of our parents were farmers at one point,” U Ngwe Aung explains. At Proximity, we’re humbled by U Ngwe Aung’s generosity, and are excited to share his creations with the broader global community  (cough, cough, you). 

    To take a closer look at the seven paintings donated by U Ngwe Aung, check out this gallery we've created


    Designing with the user



    Fresh off the boat (well, in this case, the plane), Steve Frechette is our Energy Team’s new Business Advisor and extrovert extraordinaire. When he’s not devouring every Burmese treat under the sun, he’s blogging about his experiences in Myanmar. Here, he reflects on his recent experience of the user-centered design process at Proximity Designs.  

    I’m new here, but I’ve been at Proximity long enough to realize that user-centered design is truly part of our DNA. Luckily, I was able to join in on an important part of that design process. As the energy team prepares to launch a new product, we traveled to Myanmar’s Dry Zone to gather concept feedback.

    By this stage, the team has already conducted and analyzed primary and secondary market research. Equipped with poster-board prototypes illustrating the potential products we’d like to offer, the Energy Team went back into the field to gather feedback on these potential solutions.

    In the course of 3 days, the team visited three villages, received 131 survey responses, and held focus group discussions at each location. It was an exhausting, eye opening experience that helped me to identify four conditions that were critical for the success of our concept feedback gathering and our overall design process.

    1) Quickly building rapport helps everyone to open up:

    Standing in front of a group of villagers, I was a bit nervous. But breaking the ice was critical for both them and me. To lead frank discussions, the team needs to make villagers who attend feel comfortable enough to share their preferences and experiences. On our end, I also had to be comfortable interacting with them. So after a deep breath, I stumbled through an introduction in basic Burmese and got some laughs from the group. It was heartening to see that some participants were so interested in the products that they stuck around after the formal session. Discussions with them led to in-depth learning about Myanmar rural energy needs. 

    2) Structure helps to simplify information exchange and keeps respondents focused.

    Direct interaction with villagers is incredibly valuable, but time is limited, and attendees, just like any of us, lose focus over time. We prepared with questionnaires, clipboards, and pens, and we asked villagers to gather in groups monitored by one of our team members. All of these groups were kept on track by a team member who “mc’d” the event. Visuals aids are also incredibly important to help communicate complicated product options. We had large vinyl sheets printed with visual mock-ups that could be hung from one of the village houses.

    3) Listen to what isn’t being said, and observe the environment.

    Listening is a basic human function, but it’s surprising how quickly we can forget to be attentive if we focus on ticking through a laundry list of questions. Sometimes slowing down, and really listening, makes all the difference.

    “Listening,” extends not only to the words people are saying along with their gestures, but also includes paying attention to the kind of environments, cultures, and norms where people live. This sort of observation, or “listening,” helped me understand what can sometimes be difficult to articulate.

    For example, during one village visit, the women sat on one side of the space, the men sat on the opposite side, and the village leaders sat in the middle. This observation provides insight about the decision hierarchy that may exist in the village and how we should approach introducing a new product.

    4) Remember the stakeholders who may not be center stage.

    When designing a product or service for a group of people, it is critical to consider who, besides the end user, will be important in implementing that solution. In our case, our energy sales team and other Proximity staff who interact with villagers on a day-to-day basis will be directly involved in getting products to our customers. Some of these people have grown up in the same villages where we will be selling products and serve as a bridge between Proximity and the end-user. We used a focus-group setup to get their input on the various proposed solutions.

    Reflecting on the experience, I’ve realized how important it is to remember that we’re all people, not simply data points or information reserves. Trying to connect with individuals, as well as simply enjoying and appreciating the experience, goes a long way.

    All photos courtesy of Steve Frechette. 



    The Simplest thing farmers in Myanmar can do to increase their incomes


    Our Farm Advisory Services techniques are all about simplicity. We've purposefully searched and selected climate-smart farming techniques that will not cost farmers a significant amount to implement, and that are easy to understand, explain and re-create.

    Take, for example, Salt Water Seed Selection. All farmers need to do is mix water and salt. At what ratio? The water should be salty enough that an egg can float in it. Then, farmers can dump in all of their rice seed. Bad seed floats, good seed sinks. By only planting good seeds, farmers significantly boost their yields by 10-15 baskets per Myanmar acre, which in turn improves their incomes. 

    U Chit Oo, a farmer form Yae Kyaw Gyi Village in the Myanmar Delta, believes that salt water seed selection was the main thing that helped his harvest go from 90 baskets per Myanmar acre to 144 baskets the next year. He tells us, 

    "I met the FAS team too late. If I had met them two years earlier, my business would be a lot better, and I’d be living in a big brick house.”

    We're currently raising money to expand the reach of our FAS services throughout Myanmar. With your help, other farmers won't have to wait to access climate-smart farming knowledge.