In a country such as Myanmar where two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line, income-generating activities are much needed but in desperately short supply. The social enterprise Hla Day, which is a play on the Burmese phrase for ‘beautiful,’ is helping hundreds of people gain a livelihood by producing crafts.
According to an impact study carried out by Hla Day in 2015, 70 percent of its 450-odd producers are women, and 76 percent are the family’s breadwinners. The majority are from marginalised groups, such as people living with HIV, which limits their ability to find work due to the stigma they face in society.
Hla Day works with 40 producer groups and the level of support it provides varies according to specific needs. Some producers undergo product design training while others “already have a great product and the support given is to connect them to the marketplace and enable them to earn a fair wage,” said Hla Day’s Designer and Communications Trainer, Randi Wagner.
Action For Public (AFP) has been one of Hla Day’s producer groups since 2012 and its aim is to support vulnerable communities in cyclone-affected areas and people living with HIV/AIDS.
AFP’s founder Daw Kyi Pyar said that Hla Day has helped its members to “become financially stable and develop a new sense of self-esteem through their sewing skills. They have become the breadwinners in their families and can support their children’s education expenses.”
Hla Day also provides a rare opportunity to earn a living through creative pursuits. Artistic expression was curtailed for decades under the Myanmar’s brutal military regime, and the country has only two universities that teach art, with both placing a heavy emphasis on traditional practices.
“Due to heavy censorship of artistic works in public exhibitions, a practice which ended only in 2013, Myanmar artists have had limited opportunities to display their many talents. It’s important for local and international organisations to create outlets for contemporary artists and artisans,” said the Yangon-based art historian and curator Nathalie Johnston, executive director of Myanm/art and the Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA).
“The training Hla Day provides doesn’t always come easily – students in classrooms are dictated to and free thinking and critical thought isn’t encouraged,” said Randi.
However she was quick to add that Myanmar has a large talent pool to dip into.
“Finding people who can make amazing and beautiful things and need an income can definitely be done – there’s no shortage of producers in Myanmar.”
Hla Day’s store in an airy colonial building in downtown Yangon features a beautifully arranged and eclectic mix of crafts that includes everything from jewelry, kids’ clothing, cushion covers and paper mâché dogs with elongated tails used as toilet roll holders.
Some of its craft items have taken on an iconic status in the years since the original store first opened in 2012.
“It’s like a rite of passage when an expat moves to Yangon and gets a dog toilet roll holder,” said Randi with a laugh.
Producers from Hla Day are paid per item and are also paid for the time they spend training or when helping to develop a new prototype.
“It’s important to us to pay for training because we don’t want it to be like a factory where people are just pumping stuff out,” said Randi.
Sales have risen dramatically since Hla Day was reformed and moved premises in April, and they’ve even started getting inquiries from international buyers.
“We’d like to sell online, but at the moment the infrastructure doesn’t exist. The postal service is unreliable and it’s very expensive to ship small quantities. But we’re ready to go when things change.”
Randi said that expansion plans will be carefully considered.
“We’re making craft – we’re not mass producing. If we grow, we want it to be sustainable – it will require a lot of thought.”
But can multinationals compete with the popularity of local super-substance thanaka?
Myanmar’s cosmetics market is expected to grow significantly in coming years. It boasts one of Southeast Asia’s largest populations (53 million people) and a growing middle class. However, consumer sophistication and spending power remains low compared with many countries in the region – its 2014 gross national income per head was US$1,280, according to the World Bank.
According to a 2014 report by researcher Euromonitor International, Myanmar was identified as one of 20 countries that will offer the most opportunities for consumer goods companies globally.
It has a mean age of 30 years, which is below average for the Asia Pacific region, noted Euromonitor.
“Growing middle class and increasing consumer sophistication bolstered sales of non-essential products, such as beauty and personal care, tissue and hygiene and home care products. Beauty and personal care reached a market value of $318m in 2013, after growing at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 14% since 2009,” states the report.
However, for now at least, spending power in Myanmar is among the lowest in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) block. According to survey findings released on 7 July by the Myanmar Rice Traders’ Association, 51% of household income is spent on food. That marks a fall from 64% in 2012, according to the country’s Central Statistical Organisation, but indicates that further economic growth – which the Asian Development Bank forecasted to be 8.4% in 2016 – is needed for the cosmetics and personal care sectors to grow.
What is thanaka?
If this happens, Khine Linn, Executive Director at the Shwe Pyi Nann Group of Companies will benefit. It is the largest manufacturer of Myanmar’s traditional cosmetic thanaka, a cosmetic paste made of ground bark that adds a yellow colouring to the face, notably the cheeks. His company also distributes personal care brands St Ives Swiss Formula (of Unilever) and South Korean cosmetics brand Nature Republic.
“Nothing can beat thanaka,” he said, while noting that Myanmar consumers were increasingly interested in foreign brands. He said European brands are trusted highly and that “‘made in the US’ is very, very popular”. Moreover, Korean products are “number one because of the popular Korean TV dramas that have elevated people’s expectations of beauty”.
Part of the ground floor at the high-end Parkson Department Store in downtown Yangon stocks cosmetics displays featuring products from Clinique and Kanebo, while the largest supermarket chain City Mart has dedicated customer service teams at each of its stores for displays from Yves Rocher, L’Oréal and Revlon.
Linn said there are also thousands of Chinese brands on the market, especially in rural areas, but these tend to be low-end items with a poor reputation: “It’s usually a one-time use because the quality isn’t good, so consumers aren’t happy and change to another product.”
Foreign brands need to note, however, said Linn, that after thanaka, powders and foundations are the two most popular cosmetics items in Myanmar. “Women have been using pressed powders for years. Lipstick is a lot less popular. Women don’t know how to use lipstick properly and they only know a few colours. Most are scared to try colour cosmetics,” he noted. Whitening products are also a “huge industry”, although many consumers struggle to source such products.
Building consumer trust
Consumers may also be wary of unfamiliar brands due to a number of scandals in recent times, such as when two whitening skin care products being sold by the popular Thai ‘Forever Young’ company were found to contain clobetasol propionate, a topical steroid that is banned in several countries due its harmful side-effects. The company had failed to secure a Myanmar Food & Drug Administration certificate and the health ministry ordered a sales ban and destruction of these products, citing a 1972 Public Health Law after a public outcry on social media.
One problem is that consumers who developed sores on their face after discontinuing use were unable to seek redress through official channels. Consumer protection is nascent in Myanmar, although a Myanmar Consumers Union was formed in mid-2015 and is a rival to the Consumer Protection Association, which, according to The Myanmar Times, “has a fraught relationship with government officials due to its willingness to criticise their perceived failure to protect Myanmar consumers”. Products which feature endorsed safety-tested labels are therefore likely to gain currency in Myanmar.
Linn said that one of the biggest challenges new brands face in gaining market share is dealing with retail bottlenecks.
“We go to the stores but the manager can’t make a decision right away – they say they have to speak to the owner. It’s really frustrating and the bigger the retail store is, the worse it is. New brands aren’t treated well,” he told cosmeticsbusiness.com.
Thai national Nook Kamonntip launched her cosmetics and personal care product brand Sarna a year ago and already has ten dedicated stores selling her lines. She said that the highest purchasing power is in Yangon, while the cities of Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Taunggyi together with Yangon comprise 70% of Myanmar’s market share, as rural spending power is very low.
Every item in the Sarna range contains thanaka sourced from Myanmar, although the actual products are manufactured in Bangkok due to lower manufacturing costs. The company is half Thai, half Myanmar-owned.
“Women of all ages love thanaka and I realised that there weren’t any brands tapping into that except for producing tubs of thanaka. Myanmar has quite a lot of international brands here now, but it still doesn’t have many natural products because people lack awareness,” she said.
Naturals market takes off
Meanwhile, a market for natural cosmetics products is starting to take off. Yalee Azani is business development manager at Israel-based Tag International Development, which founded the fair trade Plan Bee range of honey and beeswax by-products such as lip balm and beeswax infused with essential oils. The company is seeking sales in Myanmar. Azani said that Plan Bee’s range is limited to tourist-orientated stores around the country, as well as artisan and health stores in Yangon.
“We are slowly expanding our client base, but there’s not a huge market for natural products yet. It’s a challenge and it will only grow through awareness. People tend to say, ‘why would I would a product with beeswax in it?’ It’s not something that people are familiar with and Myanmar people tend to view honey and its by-products as medicine.”
Hnin Yee Htun opened up a bar in downtown Yangon a little over six months ago and has already had her fair share of ups and downs in starting a new business. However she’s well-placed to face the vicissitudes of life with a smile on her face, because the 27-year-old is no stranger to drama.
Hnin was born in Mawlamyine, Mon State, two days before the 1988 Uprising, the series of nationwide demonstrations and civil unrest against Myanmar’s military dictatorship. When she was 48 days old, her father, who was a prominent member of the opposition group, the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front ABSDF, had to flee the country to escape imprisonment. Her mother left Myanmar a year later to search for her husband, leaving Hnin in the care of her maternal grandmother. She wouldn’t see her parents again until she was a teenager.
“Until I was 12, I’d only spoken to my mother about three times on the phone. I saw my parents’ wedding photo. That was it,” she told InDepth.
Her parents lived in Thailand, both in Bangkok and a refugee camp, where Hnin’s younger sister was born.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was in a strange situation. My grandma took care of me as if she were my mother and father. I had a great time as a kid but obviously now when I look back I think, ‘My god.’”
Hnin’s grandmother was extremely protective of her granddaughter and refused to allow her to be reunited with her parents, who were engaged in the dangerous pursuit of achieving democracy in Myanmar from the other side of the border.
When Hnin’s grandmother died, her parents were able to start making arrangements for Hnin, who was then 14, to travel overland to Thailand.
She began the journey with her uncle, who knew part of the route and had local contacts to help them stay safe along the way.
“I had to cut my hair short and dress like a boy because there was a chance that I could have been raped. It was scary.”
Hnin and her uncle spent one night sleeping at a stranger’s house, and another two nights on a floating bamboo raft. She was then transferred into the custody of a detective who had been paid to help her make the final part of the journey. Hnin was excited about being reunited with her family, but also apprehensive as they were virtual strangers.
“I hadn’t seen my parents for 14 years – I didn’t even really know what they looked like,” she said.
Hnin arrived at the refugee camp and heard her father’s name being called.
“My father had long hair but I recognised him from the wedding photos. Mum rushed towards me and a little girl came along with them – that was my sister.”
“There was a spiky security fence between us. My dad simply lent over and picked me up and put me on their side. Mum told me not to feel weird, that we’re family, and she started crying.”
The next six months were spent in a refugee camp which was relatively comfortable. However the government of Thailand shut down the camp because there were too few people and they were relocated to a refugee camp closer to the Burmese border.
“The conditions there were really bad. At least in the first camp we had electricity, our own family room and concrete walls. The shelter in the second camp waas made of bamboo and palm leaves. We got a certain amount of rice, oil and salt and that was it,” Hnin recalled.
Hnin’s aunt was living in the United States and wired money to the family so that they could buy clean water and food. Hnin and her sister did not go to school and she couldn’t speak Thai.
“At the time I was just focused on what I would eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she said.
Then in 2001, government officials informed Hnin’s father that he had to leave Thailand. The family elected to go to the United States as refugees, but their plans were scuppered when the 9/11 terrorist attack took place and the US temporarily stopped accepting refugees.
Hnin’s family arrived in Melbourne in 2002. Hnin had missed two years of schooling and didn’t speak a word of English, but she was grateful to be living in a fully furnished house provided by the Australian government.
The ever adaptable Hnin said she didn’t experience culture shock in her new home.
“I just remember that it was cold and that my mum made Burmese curry with kangaroo meat!” she said.
The family moved into an area with a large Burmese community and they began attending six months of English language classes.
“I listened to a lot of music and watched the news and movies to help me learn as well. When I started going to school I was the only Burmese student there so I had to just suck it up,” she said.
Hnin’s new school was multicultural: “Half of my girlfriends were Asian. I couldn’t speak English properly but I’d just sit with a group of girls at lunch time and listen to them talking. I think I shut my Burmese side down during that time so that I could absorb everything.”
She was also an active member of the Burmese community in Melbourne, helping her mother run a food catering business for parties, temple donation ceremonies and the like.
Fast forward to 2011, when Hnin made her visit back to her homeland. She couldn’t stay with her relatives because it was illegal for foreign passport holders to stay anywhere but in a hotel. Hnin returned to the home she grew up in Mawlamyine, but found herself too overwhelmed with emotion to even go up the stairs.
Hnin made two more trips back to Myanmar before deciding to return permanently.
“My aunt and uncle had just come back from a holiday in Europe and had fallen in love with the small cafes in laneways in Paris. They said they wanted to invest in a bar – there weren’t many in Yangon back then. I saw it as an opportunity for me to run my own business but said I’d go home and think about it.”
Hnin was nervous about telling her parents that she wanted to move back to Myanmar.
“I thought they wouldn’t support me but it turned out to be the opposite. They told me to go for it.”
Hnin left her job as a retail store manager in Melbourne to return to Yangon in August 2015 and spent the next two months renovating a former mobile phone store on Bo Aung Kyaw Street.
“The father of the nation Bogyoke Aung San used to work in the secretariat opposite – that’s how I came up with the name,” she explained.
Her vision was to create a neighbourhood pub with a “community vibe” – the bar hosts bimonthly trivia nights and the monthly Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club drinks. She prides herself on knowing the preferred drinks of her regular customers, who she knows by name.
“We don’t have a lot on the menu – it’s just one A4 page. It’s about quality not quantity.”
Hnin’s background in customer service shines through in her friendly approach to both patrons and staff, although in the case of the latter, this can be somewhat problematic.
“Burmese people work as either the employee or employer – that’s the only relationship they’re accustomed to. But here we are all equal. That I also clean the toilets is quite shocking to my staff. They can’t accept that everyone is working towards the same goal. Some of my staff quit because they couldn’t accept that system of working – they wanted the hierarchy.”
However Hnin is determined to persist and is currently in the process of hiring fresh crew.
“I’m not going to change my approach – I don’t care if I have to keep hiring people. In Australia, people work side by side. It’s a good system and I don’t see why it can’t work here. But what you typically see at tea shops is one guy sitting in a chair giving orders.”
Hnin said she’s pleasantly surprised by how quickly Yangon’s nightlife scene has evolved.
“When I first came back in 2011 there was only 50th Street Bar, but when I came back in 2015 I could see things were starting to build up. I can’t believe how many bars and restaurants have popped up,” she said.
When Father’s Office first opened, 90 percent of its clientele were expats. The ratio is now 70:30 and Hnin hopes that it will eventually be a 50:50 split.
She’s also noticed that young women are frequenting bars, but that a certain reservation still exists among local patrons.
“The culture of not going out at night if you’re a woman is changing, and I like that. But meeting new people is a different story – people are still too shy. It’s not like in Melbourne where you just start talking to people you haven’t met before.”
Hnin said that regardless of the hurdles and hazards she’s faced in opening a new bar, including complex drinking laws and coming very close to being electrocuted when Father’s Office flooded on the first day of the monsoon season, she “wouldn’t change a thing.”
“It’s like solving a maths puzzle every day. It’s rewarding because I learn a lot by having to deal with so many different situations.”
Hnin plans on continuing to grow her business and said her dream is to eventually bring her mother back to Myanmar and for them to open a Burmese restaurant together. For a family torn apart by the events of 1988, there could surely be no happier ending.