“It’s always been natural for me, growing up among leper communities in Mowlamyine. I’ve always wanted to do something for them” Nah Eh Wah.
Sondang Grace Sirait meets Nah Eh Wah, one of the creative forces behind Yangon based social enterprise, Pomelo.
Born and raised by a physician mother who dedicated her life to leprosy patients in Mowlamyine, Nah Eh Wah grew up around leper colonies. People in those communities became her adopted family, and later, her career goal. From her quaint hometown in the capital of Mon State in Southeastern Myanmar to bustling Yangon, the soft-spoken woman has spent the past six years providing livelihood for lepers and other disabled people.
“It’s always been natural for me, growing up among leper communities in Mowlamyine. I’ve always wanted to do something for them,” said Nah Eh Wah, a former livelihood coordinator at Leprosy Mission, an international Christian charity.
To get started, she looked at none other than her own art skills. “I started making my own bracelets and necklaces when I was eight years old. I remember giving them out to friends and being told that they were lovely. So I thought, why not share my skills to these unfortunate people?” she recalled.
In 2010, after quitting her NGO job, the self-taught artist established an artisanal community she named Amazing Grace. Spread in four locations – Mowlamyine, Pakokku in Magway Region, Hlaing Thayar and Yankin in Yangon – leprosy survivors and other disabled people began receiving training on how to make jewelry beads and weave baskets.
The idea kept Nah Eh Wah busy for a while, until she realized that the products weren’t selling.
It was in 2012 that things finally took a turn for the better. Upon discovering a Yangon-based social enterprise called Pomelo, she began training with professional designers. Soon, Nah Eh Wah was able to hone her skills and share them with others under her wings.
But that wasn’t all the organization offered. Armed with a mission to provide better livelihood for underprivileged artisans in Myanmar, Pomelo – which now has rebranded itself as Pomelo for Myanmar following an altercation among its early initiators – also provided space for Nah Eh Wah’s products. Within no time, her jewelry and baskets began to sell more and faster. At her own home on Min Ye Kyaw Swar Street, what was once a tired looking little corner is now an attractive shop with colorful displays on floating shelves and bright red floors.
“Your tassels and earrings are selling really well now. We recently ordered 100 earrings and in the past what would we order, 10 or 15? Next year we’ll do more,” Pomelo for Myanmar cofounder Annie Burnet told Nah Eh Wah as they sat down for a catch up at the Amazing Grace workshop.
Now that business is doing well, the budding social entrepreneur would have to pick up the pace and outdo herself. By launching collections, it would help greatly with marketing, she was told. “It’s a way of growing up,” advises Burnet.
It took a while for Nah Eh Wah to digest the idea, but soon she lit up. “So it’s like doing it in seasons. Okay, now I understand,” she says, nodding in agreement. “I like being busy.”
In a way, “all grown up” may aptly sum up where Pomelo for Myanmar is today, firmly reinstating its position as Yangon’s most popular and beloved social business – and 100% locally owned. Some things remain the same, such as the policy to keep the value chain in Myanmar by buying from local, marginalized social enterprises whenever possible. But the rest on the plate is nothing short of exciting, such as its major plans for expansion.
In early December, a second store opened at Bogyoke Market, a hotspot for tourists. More plans are underway, which include splitting up its products into cheaper-end small gifts and higher-end homeware collections. Another initiative ties in with the enterprise’s philosophy to reach as many underprivileged groups outside of Yangon.
“It’s a new strategy. It’s a lot of bus rides and the rewards are great. If you want social business, it doesn’t always make economic sense. But we’re not about that. We need to make sure that it’s distributed. It’s also important that we have a policy that we visit the groups. Some people may say, ‘But that takes too much time’. But to sit down, to have a cup of tea, is really important to build a relationship,” said Burnet.
Such has been the responsibility of Tashi Goldring, one of the in-house designers tasked with scouting and sourcing artisans. Hailing from London with an extensive background in textile design and screen printing, Goldring first came to Myanmar in 2015 and fell in love right away.
Over the past four months that she had been with the social business, Goldring has spent an enormous time traveling to rural communities. It was in Pyin Oo Lwin, outside Mandalay, that she discovered an orphanage whose nuns are exceptional pattern makers and girls talented tailors. It was in Nga Yoke Kaung, located some 15 hours from Yangon, that she descended upon a coastal village whose residents share natural-born talents in weaving highly intricate bamboo baskets. The list adds up to about 20 artisanal groups that she currently works with.
“Mostly we start with the skill that’s already there. I’d start from there and think about how we can transfer that into sort of more contemporary design that’s more commercial,” says Goldring, pointing to a bamboo basket from Nga Yoke Kaung that she’s envisioning as a contemporary lampshade.
Another recent collaboration saw her introducing the art of screen printing to a group of disabled artisans in Dala, Yangon, who produce hand-cut longyi cards and stationery.
Her ambition now is to empower local artisans by developing their design skills. The potential, Goldring believes, is endless. One needs only to realize how Myanmar artisans have a real eye for detail and quality.
With renewed focus on design, Pomelo for Myanmar is poised to raise the game. No more pity purchases.
“What we need to do is to make the highest standard of items and then expand them to just be coveted and really wanted by the people that we happen to sell to,” said Burnet. “Designers who can work across ranges are the key to really being able to empower and be of assistance. We’ll collaborate with the groups. Otherwise, they’ll get there but it might take ten years and we don’t want them to take ten years. We want them to be successful within a cycle.”
Pomelo for Myanmar
89 Thein Phyu Rd., Yangon
Phone: +95 1 295 358