Guest Blog

To support Myanmar’s rural communities, listen and innovate

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Thursday, 12 June, 2014

Debbie Aung Din Taylor argues that Myanmar must strengthen its economy by fostering conditions for inclusive development, explaining how responsive social enterprise can help the country’s struggling rural communities.

I packed up my life and moved my family from California to Myanmar in 2004. My husband and I had worked for decades on development and economic policy, and regular visits to the country of my birth made us deeply aware of the difficulties facing rural communities in Myanmar. We arrived in Yangon looking to have a meaningful impact on a large scale.

The country has 58 million inhabitants, the majority of whom are poor farmers, so the obvious place to start in Myanmar was agriculture. It’s the largest sector of the economy, and traditional methods were causing farmers to hugely underperform. Most still faced backbreaking hours of work every day, lifting water from wells one bucket at a time, only to then irrigate crops manually.

There was clearly an incredible potential to put a dent in poverty through agriculture, and we saw in the social enterprise model the possibility to effect sustainable change with limited capital.

Charity versus the social enterprise model

As a socially-minded organisation, we’re sometimes asked why we charge for our products. Well, it’s about giving people choice and therefore dignity. Giving people a choice to purchase a product creates instant accountability. It puts the pressure on us to design products and services that risk-averse customers with very limited incomes will find valuable enough to purchase. We don’t decide what people need; they tell us through the market whether our products and services are valuable.

A farm worker using a foot-operated water pump.
A woman using a foot-operated water pump. Photo: Proximity Designs

We think it’s critical to be proximate to the people we want to serve, so we can gain a deep, evolving understanding of their habits, beliefs, and aspirations. We chose the name Proximity Designs to reflect this commitment to combine local knowledge and expertise with empathy, and our first challenge was to offer affordable irrigation pumps in rural Myanmar.

Supporting Myanmar’s farmers to improve their productivity

While foot-operated pumps had been used in India and Africa, we knew that $100+ products were too expensive for Myanmar’s cash-strapped farmers. We set ourselves the goal of designing a high-quality pump for a fraction of the cost, and eventually established our own design lab, manufacturing facilities, and distribution networks to get our four pump designs (the most affordable costing $17) to 80 per cent of rural Myanmar.

A boy uses the water storage and foot pump.
A  man uses a water storage and foot pump. Photo: Proximity Designs

While a pump increases a farmer’s productivity, it’s only one part of the equation, so as our relationship with our customers deepened, we expanded our services to better address their range of needs. Over our decade-long work, we’ve expanded beyond irrigation into farm advisory services, solar home systems and farm financing. The focus has always been on helping farmers be more productive, which in turn raises their incomes and improves their wellbeing. To date, we’ve seen that each irrigation product raises a household’s yearly income by $250. That’s huge for a family living on a dollar a day. We’ve helped over 2.5 million people so far.

Myanmar’s development must be inclusive

Even as we expand, my husband Jim and I know that products alone aren’t enough to drive large-scale change. While our products provide daily ‘micro-sanity’ to households, the macro-economy also has a huge effect on rural farmers’ lives. In this regard, Myanmar finds itself at a defining moment in its history. International sanctions are easing, investments are pouring in, and land values are increasing dramatically.

The flipside of this is that for the past twenty years, Myanmar’s broader economy has been one of the world’s poorest performers, and continuing ethnic and religious conflict threatens to worsen conditions in the nation’s most disadvantaged regions. Simultaneously, inadequate policy could further concentrate any economic gains on the country’s elite.

As the country faces unprecedented choices, it’s essential for national policy to foster the conditions for inclusive development. Over the past few years, we’ve been working with a team from Harvard to replicate our on-the-ground feedback loop by conducting economic research and analysis that draws on our deep knowledge of rural communities. There’s a long road ahead, but we believe the key to significant change lies both in designing solutions that draw on an evolving, deep understanding of rural communities, and informed policymaking that promotes inclusive nation-building and development.

A native of Myanmar, Debbie Aung Din Taylor has also worked in Mississippi, Cambodia and Indonesia. She has conducted economic and design research throughout rural Myanmar for the past twenty years. Debbie holds a MA from Harvard University where she studied public policy and development economics.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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