Pomelo store, through its partners Pann Hann Ein and Kyut Kyut, give marginalized communities and recycled waste new leases on life.
Rachel Storaas is a woman ‘mad about crafts’ and dedicated to buying responsibly, according to Ulla Kroeber. Upon relocating to Yangon in 2011, Rachel was determined in her quest, weathering flooded Yangon streets, heat, and dead ends aplenty to find interesting handicrafts. Most of us – residents and tourists alike – lack Rachel’s patience or physical time to simply search for crafts, leading her to an a-ha moment.
On January 17, 2012, Rachel opened what is now called Pomelo: a rainbow-splashed store selling arts and crafts locally made by over 30 disadvantaged groups. Now in its second location, Pomelo sits on the second floor overlooking Thein Phyu Road. Its clean white built-in shelves and earthy wooden furniture and tables display Myanmar crafts ‘with a twist’.[pullquote]”Our policy is to look at everybody’s product. If we find that the product isn’t sellable, we offer to work with them. During that time, we pay a small fee. Once the product is ready, we order.”[/pullquote]
Rachel initially launched the not-for-profit social enterprise with three groups, that refurbish wooden furniture; design children’s clothing, bags, and cushion covers; and make the ever-popular paper mache animals. She hired Deborah, whose bright smile is still seen at the store, who was quickly joined by Ulla on the store’s third opening day.
Ulla quickly realised that, “what we do for three groups, we can also do for more groups. I talked to NGOs and asked people to bring forward their products.” The response was overwhelming and the products so diverse – from tea to wedding invitation suppliers – that Ulla told her husband, “I don’t know how we are ever going to do that.” But we started working with those groups, we changed the packaging of tea, we worked on the wedding invitations and showed them a new technique, laying cutouts with local longyis.”
More groups began approaching Pomelo. “Our policy is to look at everybody’s product. If we find that the product isn’t sellable, we offer to work with them. During that time, we pay a small fee. Once the product is ready, we order.”
With this growing community, the store needed a name. It was Ulla who suggested Pomelo after the native, juicy fruit. “Pomelo is a segmented citrus fruit. We have many segments and facets that represent each group, coming together to form one fruit.”
Over their three years, Pomelo has nurtured many groups and has been internationally recognised for it. They will represent Myanmar in the Craft Trends in ASEAN Talk 2015, and regularly have business school students visiting over school breaks.
“Our concept is one which we have carried and developed, and we think that we should grow because we need to give more people the possibility to have an income. We also feel that in a country like Myanmar where changes are so rapid, where so many things are coming in from surrounding countries, it easily loses its identity. I have been visiting craft stores and souvenir shops and all that I found were crafts from Thailand and China. I think that is tragic because Myanmar people can be proud of what they are able to produce and that’s also what we want to showcase here.”
Ulla believes crafts must be adapted to the needs and the times, such as making laptop covers and using man-made material, such as plastic. One group, Kyut Kyut, is using just that. Kyut Kyut, which is the sound made when scrunching plastic bags, is a two-year pilot project initiated by Italian humanitarian organization Cesvi. The project collects and washes dirty plastic bags, then sews them into patterns for pencil cases, trashcans, and over fifteen other products before finally ironing it all together. Products are made by family members of the project’s main Myanmar lead, Wendy, as well as parents of handicapped children.
The pilot project will close in March 2016, and Cesvi’s consultant who developed the project, Friedor Jeske, is exploring ways to make the project sustainable. “Ultimately, from the NGO perspective, the project raises awareness of recycling. The idea is not reducing plastic waste but showing that it is possible.” Pomelo awarded them the Most Innovative Thinking and Creativity Award this year.
Pomelo’s other segments include groups of people living with HIV, the blind, small family businesses, and student groups. “Most of our producers are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of those groups depend heavily or completely on us for their income. Some others supplement their income from Pomelo.”
Kyut Kyut is one that relies on the store. “Pomelo is our main market, and the most helpful market, because when we have ideas, they are always willing to try it.”
Pomelo considers itself a social business, “because we put all the money back into the business and product development.” Reinvesting in product development particularly has helped evolve the store’s relationships with producers. “It brings you closer when you work together and find solutions together,” said Ulla. It also helps ensure that products sold are of high quality, which can be challenged by inconsistent availability of materials.
This year, Pomelo presented the award for Fantastic Quality to the group Pann Nann Ein, which was founded in November 2012 by several friends, including Hnin Phyu Kaung, whom I interviewed. The foundation supports individuals with disabilities, while simultaneously raising awareness of neglected disability issues, including physical disabilities, mental health problems, learning disabilities, and language and speech impediments. Pann Nann Ein trains those interested in handicrafts for three to six months, on how to produce the popular cutout longyi greeting cards.[pullquote]The foundation supports individuals with disabilities, while simultaneously raising awareness of neglected disability issues, including physical disabilities, mental health problems, learning disabilities, and language and speech impediments.[/pullquote]
“In Myanmar culture, people always pity the people who are disabled, so if you sell something that’s not good quality, people still buy it but as a pity donation. They don’t really want the product. We don’t want that. People with disabilities are able to work and have dignity and can make quality products. iNGOs depend on donations and when projects end, the workers don’t have anything to do. I don’t want to do like that because it’s not sustainable.”
To aid their longevity, Pomelo provides “a little bit of business training but we are limited on space and time. Our producers are also busy; they don’t just have time to do something else.”
That is sometimes because groups like Pann Nann Ein are invested in their own programs. In addition to teaching basic skills for product development, such as how to use a measuring ruler, Hnin Phyu Kaung “teaches them not just how to get money but how to live in their surroundings. We give awareness on health topics, how to manage money, hygiene. We hired a sign language teacher from the Department of Social Welfare. All group members must learn together because we have a lot of hearing impairment members and need to communicate. Every week, we have a lesson on sign language. Pann Nann Ein is not just about money but also their life.”
Pann Nann Ein has also been teaching ‘craft therapy’ at the mental health hospital twice a month for the last nine months. Patients are now producing crafts and selling them throughout their ward to other patients and visitors. “At first, they were afraid of me, and I was also afraid of them, but now they seem very happy and wait for the day we will meet.”
“Once groups have a little security through income…once they feel safe, that’s when they start becoming creative,” remarked Ulla.
Hnin Phyu Kaung has born witness to that at Pann Nann Ein. “Before members join, they never go outside their house. Now they become very confident. They can talk freely because they have money, and they have business. Some of the group members can save money, and they have dream to build a house in their village and go on holiday around the whole country for pilgrimage. One of the deaf girls planned to have a baby but she didn’t have a job and her husband did not have good health. When we met, she worked very hard and saved money. Now she has a son and is very happy.”
Pann Hann Ein has equipped members to provide for their families and realise their dreams, whether that is financial stability, familial happiness, or good health. That impact is what drives Pomelo to support their groups through product development and to provide a market place that empowers its producers and connects them to customers searching for local, high quality goods.
This article was first published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine InDepth, June 2015.