Sondang Grace talks with the people who have seen their lives empowered through the daily grind of sustaining and growing social enterprises.
In a kitchen steaming with the enticing aromas of garlic, red chilies and turmeric, the main ingredients of a typical Burmese curry, Myint Zsu is busy stirring and occasionally looking out of the window and into the yard, where several young carpenters are sanding and polishing furniture. It’s almost lunchtime.
Today’s menu in Myint Zsu’s kitchen will be chicken, mutton and vegetable curries. With sixty-five mouths to feed, the cook doesn’t have much time on her hands. But still, the whole operation looks plain effortless.
Soon enough, a host of sweaty young men walk in to get their share of the day’s meal, followed by the women. On each plate is a pile of rice curries with fresh vegetables on the side. The setting is Helping Hands, a place that many underprivileged men and women of this country have called home, or workplace, for the past few years.
“The carpenters are mostly from outside of Yangon”, says project manager Ba Thaw. “When they heard about our place, they came here. But the boys, some of them were living on the streets before they came here. They’re mostly interested in sanding and polishing, but we’ve also provided them with other skills and education. They’re also welcome to stay here”.
Established in 2008 as a social project in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Nargis, Helping Hands has progressed from producing reconditioned teak wood furniture to inspiring a range of other socially responsible businesses, from employing mostly men to involving dozens of women.
Flame Tree and White Lotus
Also housed near Kandawgyi Lake in the same compound are the production workshops for Flame Tree, which churns out home décor items and children’s clothing, and White Lotus, which makes women’s clothing. It is through these two initiatives that many impoverished and marginalized women have come to make a fair living wage, enjoy medical benefits and get their hands on life skills courses.
Forty-year-old Sag Kitto was a housekeeper-turned-nanny when she first joined the community five years ago.
“My dream, since fourth grade, was that I’ve always wanted to be a professional seamstress and a business owner. But I kept telling myself that can’t happen because I’m not good enough, my education is not high enough, how can I get there? I’m only a nanny. I will never get there,” recalled Sag, who also goes by the name Sabrina.
Sabrina’s education might have been cut short to eighth grade, but not her path. After a wide range of intensive trainings in sewing techniques, business and management, Sabrina now pretty much runs the business at Flame Tree, managing 24 other women while taking care of matters concerning budget and accounting. Between caring for her 11-year-old daughter and taking emergency midnight calls from team members, purchasing logistics and commanding meetings, Sabrina has found a new world. The soft-spoken woman who once thought she would never escape the endlessly long hours and low wages common among domestic workers here, is finally embracing a brighter future.
“I feel I’m a different person now in many ways. I’m learning things I never knew before. I’m learning and I’m changing. If I can change, that means other women can change too. I share with the women here what I have learned, that if I can change, they have to change too. If I step up, they have to step up too,” she contemplates, tears of pride building up in her eyes.
Sitting next to Sabrina is Kzin Nwe, a 24-year-old mother and seamstress working for the White Lotus project. Tears are also welling up in her eyes, as she nods in concurrence.
“I was once lost and didn’t know what I wanted. But now I know what I like and what I’m going to be in the future. Now I trust myself. My life has changed a lot since I joined White Lotus, and I will keep learning,” she says.
Sabrina and Kzin Nwe are real examples of how, provided the right push, underprivileged women can rise to become leaders and successful figures able to strengthen their families and societies. In the end, it is through successful mobilization of its women that a country will be able to accelerate its progress.
“We kind of have the same path, Sabrina and I. I didn’t know I could design. We started together and then we got interested in it. This daily process of discovery and empowerment made us grow as a family and provide support to each other,” says Valeria Turrisi, lead designer for Flame Tree. Hailing from Italy, Valeria had trained as a photographer but found a cause worth fighting for when she first learned about the women.
“The potential of women in Myanmar is huge. It just needs to be given an opportunity. What it’s missing, sometimes, is self-esteem,” she says.
Indeed, self-esteem wasn’t exactly something the women at Flame Tree or White Lotus had heard of before they started working there. Most of them had been unemployed, poor, single mothers with young children. Some were also HIV positive. Their lives had been marked with poor education, poor nutrition, vulnerable to unemployment and not to mention gender discrimination.
It is against such settings that social enterprises are often run, often in an attempt to empower women. At this particular community though, women will also find more than life skills. They’re also bound for life transformations and a new social safety net as they find in each other a similar background and high hopes for the future.
For all their hard work, Sabrina and her fellow women could be well on their way to spawning a new era of women’s freedom in Myanmar. But for now, it has to start with the daily grind of sustaining and growing business.
“Social business isn’t the answer to everything, but it’s a good model,” says Helping Hands founder Annie Bell. “We’ve had our challenges. It’s always a bit of a tension, isn’t it, business and social. If you get the business too tight, you don’t do the social. And if you have the social, you don’t have the money. But there’s tension in every bit of life, between that balance.”
In order to succeed, much like for any other social enterprise, there are social goals and financial constraints that Sabrina and her colleagues will have to manage.
For the time being, Flame Tree and White Lotus products are marketed at the small-scale craft store called Pomelo, in downtown Yangon, Inle Heritage House and a few other select outlets abroad. As for Helping Hands, some of their furniture is on display at Pomelo, but for the most part is sold directly at the production compound. With two major production seasons every year, work is always in full gear at Flame Tree and White Lotus headquarters. These days Valeria and her team are busy preparing a catalogue. As for the women, there’s also a four-month training program with a French fashion designer.
“They will need support to grow. What we’re trying to do now is to go and visit some small factories to see how they’re organized and what they’re going to need to scale up. It’s all still very new in Myanmar,” says Valeria.