Monday, May 21, 2012

Myanmar Day 1

By the end of the first day (out of three) of the Field Learning and Networking event for social entrepreneurs at Yangon (Myanmar/Burma/Birmania) organized by the British Council and supported by ASEF, I have run out of my Moo business cards and that can be not-so-nice in an asian country where there tradition is to exchange them in a very respectful way, with half a bow, reading them carefully, asking questions and understanding more about what the other person does.

The good news is that I have met today so many interesting people that where worth exchanging cards with! I gave the last one to a lady from PSI Myanmar, a global health organization dedicating to improving the health of people in the developing world by focusing on serious challenges like lack of family planning, HIV/AIDS, barriers to maternal health and the greatest threats to children under five, including malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. She has been here for two years and has whitnessed the transition that this country is undergoing. When asked by other people if she had seen the docummentary "Burma VJ", she answered negatively as they still don´t have access to some content here.

During dinner, I found about two different projects but somehow related: Action Tank from Kathrine (Denmark) and Future City game from Andreas in Sweden trained by the British Council in Warsaw to be a Game Master. The Future City game is a team-based process designed to create new thinking and actions to improve quality of life in cities. Both KaosPilots graduates (an innovative university if you haven´t heard of it) and driving amazing initiatives in their countries and beyond! We were also dining with Bodil (Sweden) who shared the project-management she is doing for Radio Totalnormal a radio that was inspired by La Colifata in Argentina, although it has its differences with it.

Earlier this evening at The Strand Hotel I met a HUB Seattle member, Pwint P. Htun, who is from Myanmar originally but lives in that northamerican city working in technology, and is looking forward to exploring how and with what projects to come back to her home country. I also shared my situation with coming back to Argentina, that I am in the same exploration, but it will probably take several years as I wanted to engage with the city of Berlin where I am living more. Pwint and Kathrine shared an incredible initiative by the city of Seattle! They will open a Food Forrest in the city, do follow the link and read about it because it seems like taken from a fairytale (Beacon Food Forrest).

It was also interesting to meet Prof. Dr. Aung Tun Thet, Senior Advisor to UN Coordinator´s Officer, who was also involved in the launch of the Global Compact UN initiative in Myanmar this same month! It was fun to hear him say that many people think they are social entrepreneurs but they actually are not... to which I replied that in the Hub network we are trying to transcend the terms social enterprise and social innovation as the entrepreneurs themselves sometimes don´t identify with those categories or denominations. ;-)

I was invited to represent the Hub Network with a short keynote speech about "Social Enterprise in Transition", which I gladly did sharing what we stand for, the vision, purpose and values, as well as the transition we had undergone for two years and how each one of us in the network had to hold space for some time letting things emerge so that the network had the distributed governance model with the legal and financial structure its members wanted from the start. Finalized by referring to what I personally think is the leadership type that we need in times of transition, moving from heroes that need to predict and make decisions on their own, to hosts that enable people and let things emerge in co-creation and collaboration. It was interesting that the BC Director, Alan Smart, really digged into "ordinary people doing extraordinary things".

During the day, I shared a lot of bus (lovely kept and with purple curtains by the way) conversations with Rambie Katrina R. Lim from Manila in the Philippines. She was full of energy and ideas about sustainable fashion and design, with many projects already in place (one of the being Tepiña, luxuriously green) and some on her head as well. I got to know about the pineapple fiber they use in some traditional outfits (saw some truly beautiful photos in her mobile phone) and update them to modern design but keeping the traditional weaving. I suggested that she should check out the IOYOU project as the work they are doing with the Madras fabric in India is totally amazing! She suggested that I should check-out the Invisible Sisters work, when talking about waste management as they are re-using plastic bags to create new things. Did you know that the potato starch bag so trendy nowadays takes 10 years to degrade? Not so biodegradable as I thought...

So, this first day was exactly about that, meeting the participant´s of this event initiatives and also visiting two local ventures: FXB in the morning and Proximity Designs in the afternoon. Both have quite different models but were very intelligent chosen by the organizers as their impact is inmense. Interesting enough, both are associations in legal form and not a for profit company.

The very passionate lady from FXB showed us ever room in the building and explained the various programmes they have, in so many levels of society: men with woodcrafts and iron, children with HIV through non formal education, adolescents from 16 to 20 who sow for a living, young people with drama classes and sex education and women also with diverse issues to weave and make beautiful threads. We later visited their showroom, shopped too and experimeted total heat+humidity as got to know first hand that people here have maybe 3 or 4 hours of electricity per day, so you hear the power generator noise everywhere near the buildings.

The second project we visited was Proximity Designs. We were welcomed by David Klaus and Todd Murphy, in charge of design and production respectively. They made a very interactive presentation (we could not stop interrupting to ask questions!!!) and started explaining that a well designed product can have an impact in our lives, so they design, manufacture, distribute and sell affordable products that have to do with water access (pump), storage (water tank) and application (drip irrigation system). Their products cost in retail between 17 to 50 USD! And the make possible one-person farming (a huge change from two people as one of the family members can farm and the other one run errands, take kids to school, etc.)

Their focus is on quality (as they believe many of the products at the BOP -Bottom of the Pyramid- usually are cheap and not durable. The purpose? To address poverty by actually increasing the income of their customers, because that is what people are for them, not charity receivers. They never give away their products for free but sell them at an affordable cost for their customers (if a price is to hight they inmediately receive feedback from their customers!).

They manage to cover the costs for the production and distribution, but they also need to fundraise to maintain the whole organizational structure, specially design and overhead. There is two dedicated staff to fundraise. Between the design team, people working in the manufacture, logistics (dealers, agents and demonstrators) and impact, 900 people are involved and that is only in the products department. They have also other areas of work like Relief, Microfinance, EAS, public policy.

They mentioned that they don´t have an IP (intellectual property) strategy yet, but they have been thinking about it. I personally think it would be great for them to have an open source model, or a freemium one where you get a design toolkit if you pay a small fee, so they would actually increase their impact providing quality at an affordable price with some legally binding conditions to the ones that would use this for example. But I am no legal expert so its just an idea! They are always looking for talent so if you know anybody from Myanmar, do refer them!

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