‘Paddy to plate’ rice report launched

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 1 June 2016

Proximity's Jim Taylor at the launch
Proximity’s Jim Taylor at the launch

Social enterprise Proximity Designs launched a report on 31 May titled ‘Paddy to Plate: the Rice Ecosystem in Myanmar,’ which aims to identify the roles at each stage of paddy production, the factors that drive decision making in the sales chain, and the opportunities and challenges facing a sector that is in a state of flux worldwide.

Creative director and writer Lauren Serota told Mizzima Weekly that the biggest challenge was “the breadth of the topic area and really doing it justice.”

“Rice in Myanmar is such a deep and significant thing. So much of the language is rooted in agricultural metaphors – it was really interesting to learn about the nuances. Our aim was to strike a balance between being thorough and interesting – we wanted to make something that rice nerds and consumers alike would enjoy reading,” she said.

The fact that it has been created by a team of designers and has a large visual component lends it to the category of coffee table book as well as presenting a body of qualitative research in an accessible way, said Proximity Design’s co-founder and Chief Executive Jim Taylor.

“We took a design lens to the rice sector; we wanted to use our research as a foundational study and complement existing macro-economic research,” he said.

Proximity staff with the new report
Proximity staff with the new report

Back in 1999, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) found that Myanmar has the highest annual consumption of rice at 211 kilogrammes per person per year. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh trail behind Myanmar’s consumption rates, despite being among the world’s top consumers. According to UNDO, rice eaters and growers constitute the bulk of the world’s poor.

When asked by Vicky Bowman of the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business whether child labour had been found during the research process, Proximity’s project lead and writer Su Mon said that rice harvesting is “back-breaking, even for an adult. I don’t recall seeing any children working.”

“The thing that struck me the most is the interconnectedness of the process. It will take a systemic change from a lot of different players to get to the point where paddy farmers are at a level where they can consistently produce crops,” Ms Serota told Mizzima Weekly.

The launch was held at the Yangon Gallery in People’s Park and included a panel discussion featuring three rice experts, including Dr Duncan Bowden from Michigan State University. He presented a brief comparative analysis of Myanmar’s rice sector.

“There’s an amazing quote in the report… that says that [one of the researchers] didn’t meet a single young farmer who wasn’t frustrated. The future of the rice sector in Myanmar depends on changing that, so that young men and women do see a future for their families. Then rice will have a future.”

“Myanmar doesn’t need to worry too much about the international market – there is a strong demand for rice and competitors are struggling; they are struggling with issues such as climate change and the overuse of soils. But it is essential for Myanmar to make it profitable for farmers, and especially for young farmers.”

The launch was held at Yangon Gallery
The launch was held at Yangon Gallery

Fellow expert Daphne Khin Swe Swe Aye said that the government’s ad hoc policies of the past have held back the sector and contributed to high poverty rates amongst Myanmar’s agriculture workers.

“Suddenly there were no exports for months [following the floods during the last monsoon season] and then you lose the buyers. The government should not introduce ad hoc policies to solve problems in the short-term. There needs to be a longer term approach and more research needs to be done. And the research should be done on what farmers need – such as what types of seed they need – not what a minister likes to do. I hope the new government will do that. It is also very easy to say things, but implementation takes time. Schemes can be announced such as compensating farmers for losing crops, but there is no follow-through. The government should be really careful about announcing things before knowing whether they can be implemented.”

She also said that Myanmar should work towards creating its own unique variety of rice, rather than largely cultivating Chinese hybrids, as the costs of production tends to exceed profit margins.

The report is available for K20,000 from Proximity’s Yangon office – contact via its Facebook page. Or click here to download a free copy: http://www.proximitypublishing.org/paddytoplate


Keeping a Chin tradition alive by bringing it online

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 22 May 2016

Photo supplied by Rosy Chin's Fabrics
Photo supplied by Rosy Chin’s Fabrics

Twenty-eight-year-old Cing Zeel Niang was born in Chin State but left home at an early age to attend boarding school in Pyin Oo Lwin and later studied medicine in Mandalay. Her parents felt that it was in their daughter’s best interests to be educated outside her home state, as standards are lower than in other parts of the country. Chin State lacks a single university – the closest is in neighbouring Sagaing Region – and it is the most underdeveloped nationwide in terms of infrastructure. Cing Zeel Niang, who goes by the nickname ‘Rosy,’ graduated in 2012 and began working at a private hospital, but had long had plans to start a business in a completely different walk of life and one that was closer to her roots – selling Chin textiles online via Facebook.

“I hadn’t seen anyone try do it,” she told Mizzima Weekly.

Rosy explained that selling via Facebook is more practical than setting up a dedicated website, as slow internet speeds would make page loading difficult and frustrate potential customers.

However, Rosy was daunted by her lack of first-hand experience in running a business.

“No one in my family has any business experience and they weren’t at all familiar with online businesses. So I didn’t have any business knowledge passed down to me.”

Cing Zeel Niang, aka Rosy
Cing Zeel Niang, aka Rosy

In 2014, Rosy leapt at the chance to take part in a start-up business course with the social enterprise Project Hub Yangon (PHY). The six-month course was the first to exclusively target female entrepreneurs in Myanmar.

“The incubation programme gave me the skills to refine my business idea. If I didn’t take part in it, I don’t think I would have started my business,” she said.

Like many people in Myanmar, where bank loans are virtually unobtainable without collateral, Rosy lacked funding to back her bright idea. Fortunately, the knowledge she acquired through PHY’s programme helped her to develop creative solutions to counter financial constraints, which is an integral part of start-up business methodology.

Miss Universe in Chin State - showing off the fabrics. Photo: Moe Sat Wine/Facebook
Miss Universe Myanmar in Chin State – showing off the fabrics. Photo: Moe Sat Wine/Facebook

While still working at the hospital, Rosy began selling Chin fabrics for a handful of Chin women. She photographed the fabrics and uploaded them to her Facebook page, Rosy’s Chin Fabrics, so that she received orders instead of speculatively purchasing anything.

“I also used my colleagues at the hospital, 99 percent of whom were female, to do market research. They were all interested in Chin fabrics and I got to know the price range they were willing to spend.”

She also quickly discovered that Myanmar women are eager to wear fabrics belongings to a different ethnicity.

“Bamar women have no problem wearing different fabrics. If the price is right, they actually prefer to wear tribal fabrics because it makes them stand out,” she explained.

Once she had a sizeable number of orders, Rosy began travelling to Chin State to source the fabrics.

However Rosy’s parents were dismayed to learn that their daughter planned to launch an online business rather than continuing her work as a medical officer.

Photo supplied by Rosy Chin's Fabrics
Photo supplied by Rosy Chin’s Fabrics

“My mother wanted me to have a stable, respected profession. It took me six months to convince her that I wouldn’t give up my medical career entirely and that I could balance it with my online business,” she said.

By day, Rosy runs her online business and at night she works as a medical consultant for a parenting website.

Rosy has been running her business for 18 months now and has her family’s full support. When she gave birth seven months ago, her mother volunteered to travel to Chin State to buy the fabrics.

“My mother works with my second cousin, who belongs to a group of weavers.”

However, although Rosy and her mother know a great deal about the traditions behind Chin weaving, which is considered the most intricate of any ethnicity in Myanmar and requires at least two weeks to complete a single piece, neither know how to weave.

“My mother cannot weave and I also cannot, so it’s unlikely that my daughter will learn either,” said the 28-year-old.

“The number of Chin people who know how to weave is decreasing. Women my age don’t know how to weave – those who do are my grandmother’s age, which makes it almost impossible to pass on the information.”

If the tradition of hand-weaving were to die out altogether, it would be a huge loss to a fascinating tradition. Whilst Chin fabrics have more than an ornamental role, with shawls keeping its bearers warm in one of the coolest areas of tropical Myanmar, many are rich in cultural significance. Shawls are highly specific to each of the dozen sub-groups of the Chin people and are also used to mark significant occasions, such as marriage and death. Special blankets, historically woven by the bride, are presented to a couple to mark their marriage – and cover the corpse upon death.

A red shawl, which incidentally looks very much like Scottish tartan, is given to a male who in earlier times fought and killed an enemy from another village, or killed an animal that threatened the safety of his fellow villagers. The shawl is worn during the celebrations that follow, and other men who previously received the honour also don red shawls.

Women of certain Chin tribes receive a white, green and red shawl when they get married, and wear black and white shawls during periods of mourning. Orange is a popular colour for shawls worn by Chin people (who are also sometimes referred to as Zomi) in India, which borders Chin State. Rosy’s primary market is domestic but she also ships items to the United States, where a sizeable population of Chin people live.

Rosy said that new fabric patterns are created every few months, but added that Chin weaving is becoming increasingly rare due to the lack of livelihood opportunities it offers in modern times.

“My dream and vision is to inspire young women living in villages in Chin State to know that they can still make a living out of weaving,” she said.

While machine-made alternatives exist, Rosy steers well clear of them: every item on offer is produced by a handloom.

Miss Universe Myanmar in Chin fabrics. Photo: Moe Sat Wine/Facebook
Miss Universe Myanmar in Chin fabrics. Photo: Moe Sat Wine/Facebook

“This is a socially responsible business – products made using a machine simply won’t work for me. When everything is done by a machine, there’s no value in it. And machines cannot do the most complex work.”

Rosy is also keen to motivate other women to start their own businesses and follow their passions.

“I have always wanted to inspire other women to start something new and to follow their dreams. Even if there is a lot of pressure and a lack of support, just keep at it and eventually you will succeed – you will get somewhere if you put enough effort in. When I started my business I didn’t get enough sleep: I had to learn online skills and it took a lot of time. But finally it’s paid off,” she said.


State-run media to continue: Information Minister

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 15 May 2016

Newspapers come off the press at The Global New Light of Myanmar. Photo: Jessica Mudditt
Newspapers come off the press at The Global New Light of Myanmar. Photo: Jessica Mudditt

The Mizzima Media Group and Action Aid hosted a conference on media policy in Myanmar on 15 May at Yangon’s Kandawgyi Palace Hotel.

Over a hundred stakeholders from the media, diplomatic community and government met to discuss Myanmar’s changing media landscape in the context of having a new and democratically-elected government and a raft of reforms to undertake.

The four-hour discussion was dominated by the future of state media, with several speakers and audience members voicing their dissatisfaction over comments made by Information Minister U Pe Myint as part of his opening remarks.

The minister said that state media can “act as a bridge between the government and the public” and that it will continue to have a role in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy government.

Mr Oliver Spencer from Article 19 said: “Does the [the NLD] want to be a full democracy? Democracies do not have state media, whether print or broadcast. Public service media is very different. China, Cambodia and Laos have state media – that’s because they are not democracies.”

Others objected to the continuation of the Ministry of Information, and said that as each ministry has a public relations department, it is not necessary or desirable.

In his concluding remarks, the Information Minister observed that: “The ministry is like a tree: some people want to cut it down and others want its branches to be stronger.”

He added that: “We will not be commercially competing against other media – it will be performing the need to communicate with the people. If there will be impacts on the private media from state-run media, please let us know. I would like to remind you that in a democratic state, a market economy will come into play. The Ministry of Information is not competing against private media… We will try to reduce the columns used for ads. We don’t want new problems cropping up.”

U Aung Shin, Central Executive Committee member of the NLD said that high expectations of the NLD government were to blame for discontent over current policies.

“Myanmar is very much in a democratic transition – freedom of press is still very low and we are trying to progress. It is important that we work together for media development in Myanmar.”

On the future of the Ministry of Information, the minister said: “A government does need an information role – it can be an agency or something else. The government needs a way to communicate to the people. I would like to remind you of that. It is not just dictatorial states – it is all governments. Even private entities need to communicate to the public. In the UK there was a ministry of information but it was changed into another ministry. The US has an information service to disseminate information all over the world. We need some kind of mechanism. I just want to give you that food for thought.”

The need for media training, including for ethnic minority media, was also discussed, with some pointing out that training from the international community must follow a needs-based approach rather than a policy approach, as the latter often leads to overlap and neglecting certain areas and communities. Calls were made for a media development fund in Myanmar, with appropriate criteria for receiving training and curriculum developed.

Daw Lut Latt Soe, Chief Editor of the People’s Age Journal said that women must be encouraged to develop their careers in journalism.

“There are very few women in leadership roles in the media. One reason for this is cultural – in Myanmar, women are considered the second sex and suited to household work and being occupied with family responsibilities. These are the cultural norms that we have to go against when we join the profession. Some women become reporters, but the number of female editors is very few.”

The perceived shortcomings of the broadcasting law were also discussed in detail, with some questioning the arrangements for CNN and Skynet, which will produce the first 24 hour news channel, as well as the allocation of new channels.

Also speaking at the event are Mr Staffan Herrstrom, Ambassador of Sweden to Myanmar and Mr Shihab Uddin Ahmad, Country Director, Action Aid Myanmar. The event followed the first media policy dialogue organised by the Mizzima Media Group and Action Aid and held on 21 February, shortly before the NLD government came to power.



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