Tag: social enterprise

Reap what you sew

Published in Red Bull Amaphiko on 24 October 2016


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.”

Incubating the future in Myanmar

Project Hub Yangon co-founder Pete Silvester mentors a team of MBA students on planning a business start-up. Photo: Richard Edwards
Project Hub Yangon co-founder Pete Silvester mentors a team of MBA students on planning a business start-up. Photo: Richard Edwards

Starting your own business in Myanmar poses challenges that are insurmountable for most – which in no way reflects the skills of those wishing to try. According to a World Bank report published at the end of last year, Myanmar improved more than any other country in terms of ease of doing business. However it jumped from the very bottom spot of 189th to being 167th – which means that there is still a very long way to go before the country’s next generation of entrepreneurs can turn their professional ambitions into reality.

The local social enterprise Project Hub Yangon (PHY) is Myanmar’s first start-up business incubator and has been collaborating with Indiana University since 2014 to provide MBA students with new opportunities and skills through the USAID-funded Advancement and Development through Entrepreneurship Programs and Training (ADEPT) program. ADEPT is a three-year program that improves the success of the Yangon University of Economics students through entrepreneurship skills education. The partnership is funded by USAID with support from HP, the Vina Capital Foundation and Business for Social Responsibility. It’s one of three higher education partnerships in Myanmar that were launched by USAID in 2013 and aim to build on what President Obama called “extending a hand” to Myanmar during his first visit here in 2012. The partnership also represented the first bilateral agreement reached between the two countries since 1957.

PHY works with MBA students at Yangon Institute of Economics to provide entrepreneur skills training that aims “to encourage students to develop problem solving skills and start new businesses,” said PHY co-founder Allison Morris.

“What we have been doing since 2014 has primarily been going into the school and running business idea competitions. We also run one-off seminars and invite guest speakers, which gets students excited about solving problems through business.”

This year, MBA students who performed well at the business idea competition were then offered the opportunity to take part in a three-month entrepreneurship incubation program as an alternative to doing an internship.

PHY is currently providing oversight and mentoring to a team of three promising students who are setting up an events management company.

With bank loans being virtually non-existent and other channels of credit all but closed in Myanmar, participants must have a realistic vision to succeed, said Ms Morris.

“We encourage participants to think of a business idea that is practical and that could get off the ground within three months. When we first started out, for example, a number of people wanted to build online apps – but lacked any app building skills. We said, ‘Okay, you could spend three months learning those skills, but you wouldn’t be actually starting a business.’”

Project Hub team (L-R) - Kyaw Ye Min, Myat Kay Khine Hsint, Kaung Myat Kyaw. Photo: Richard Edwards
Project Hub team (L-R) – Kyaw Ye Min, Myat Kay Khine Hsint, Kaung Myat Kyaw. Photo: Richard Edwards

The three months is geared towards providing practical experience by speaking face-to-face with prospective customers, carrying out market research and applying the lean start-up methodology.

Ms Morris summarized the methodology as a practice that involves starting a business with a viable product as cheaply and quickly as possible.

“For example, the participants initially thought that the first necessary step in setting up their event management company was to buy a printer and a truck. However we explained that the first step is to go out and talk to a potential customer, and then eventually, when you have money from customers, you can buy things. It’s all about starting small – that’s what we’ve always taught at Project Hub – not to spend money first, but to make it.”

Ms Morris said that students often feel quite uncomfortable about the idea of approaching strangers with the goal of pitching a business idea; but that’s simply par for the course.

“Their goal this week was to go and do a survey of 50 mothers about hosting children’s birthday parties. We emphasized that those 50 people are potential customers, so when the survey is finished at the end, the students should try to see if they can get them to agree to run an actual event. It makes people very uncomfortable doing that, but at the same time, the goal is to win the customer,” she explained.

As well as building up sales skills – which are typically fairly weak in Myanmar, in large part due to a lack of opportunities – participants are also taught marketing skills that include research, web design and social media, as well project management tools, tracking tools and advanced online communicative tools. In addition to daily coaching sessions, they also meet with an expert mentor every other week to hone their new skills and to justify their rationale for various decisions along the way.

ADEPT participant Myat Kay Khine Hsint told Myanmar: All That Matters that “Kaung Myat Kyaw and Kyaw Ye Min and I joined this program to learn as much as we could. We don’t have much experience when it comes to starting up a real business and have difficulties in becoming entrepreneurs because we lack skills, experience and knowledge. This program has been really amazing – we’ve been mentored 24/7.”

“Our program manager provides guidelines about how to brainstorm like crazy to come up with a profitable business idea, approach real customers, build up a real business and financial model, deal with competition and supplier analysis and conduct market research as well,” she added.

Myat Kay Khine Hsint plans on continuing her business project after she completes her MBA, and also has an interest in social enterprises and becoming an “ambassador at some respectable entrepreneurship organization to encourage other newcomers like us [to start their own businesses].”

Whilst internships nowadays are plentiful in the commercial capital – to the point where Ms Morris said that MBA interns “have their pick of so many different companies,” she believes that the incubation program offers unique advantages over a more traditional path.

“Participants get to test out a business idea in a risk-free atmosphere and to discover what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. The second thing they acquire is real-world business skills and they test the knowledge they’ve accumulated from their textbooks. Whilst it does of course depend on the type of internship a person does, ADEPT participants develop professional skills that can be used in the workplace – such as how to develop a work plan, use online tools and utilize good presentation skills. If they have done this, they know how to take initiative, solve problems and are comfortable with performing challenging tasks. And that’s something an employer will look for that will make them a really valuable employee, if that turns out to be the route they want to take,” she said.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for young Myanmar entrepreneurs to reach their business ambitions, boost their entrepreneurial skills, and contribute to the growing Myanmar small-and-medium enterprise ecosystem,” said Richard Edwards, Incubation Program Manager at Project Hub.