In the busy, cramped Kyaung Kone neighbourhood in Sanchaung Township, life is as normal as it gets, that is by Yangon standard. Fruit vendors sit on the street corner, quaint teashops with plastic, child-sized chairs await nearby.
In one of the double-storey houses right on Kyaung Kone Street, tucked on the second floor, at the very back of the room, a bespectacled woman is busy making candles.
First, she melts soy wax, then adds dye block to the melted wax and stirs it. Fragrance comes next. As the wax cools, she places wick sticks on the bottom of the pre-tabbed wicks and centres them inside small jars. At around 57 C, the wax is ready to be carefully poured into the jars – the room all the while smelling arrestingly fresh and warm.
Meet Ma Khin Swe, Myanmar’s first, if not the only, scented candle maker. A recent repat, Swe had only returned to Yangon last year after spending eight years working as a secretary in Dubai. It was during her time overseas that she learned the art of the trade, coming home with not only a penchant for designer perfumes, but also a professional diploma in the industry.
“I’ve always been very passionate about perfumes and candles. I believe they have a spiritual element that’s good for the soul. Your house may be small, but if it smells nice, it’ll bring you a good aura,” says Swe, who’s into musky, woody and bold scents.
At first, she toyed with the idea of selling imported designer perfumes. But after finding out that the import tax could be as high as 50 per cent of the price, she balked.
Armed with professional know-how, and seeing market potential in the burgeoning repat community in Yangon, Swe decided she wanted to establish a business in candle making, or soy candle making, to be exact. The name “Koko” is a name play and an ode to one of her biggest inspirations, French fashion designer, founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, Coco Chanel.
Soon, Swe began traveling to Thailand and Singapore in search of vendors of organic wax supplies, most of which are American-made. A friend in Dubai helps her connect with perfume laboratories in Paris.
Back at home, Swe got to work, creating her own scents by blending fragrances, and at the same time, building presence on social media. She also took to registering the Koko Soy Candles trademark. An active member of Yangon Collective, Swe makes sure to always participate in pop-up markets, trade shows and other communal events.
Her hard work began to pay off. Beginning with one retailer, retroretro, more distributors caught on. By now, Koko Soy Candles are available at retail stores throughout Yangon, Mandalay, Naypyitaw, Mawlamyine, Ngwe Saung, Kalaw and Bagan.
As demands for her products increase, Swe needed more help. She looked around the neighbourhood and turned to her very own neighbours, who are mostly housewives with a lot of spare time.
“In a way, it’s never really been only about business. There are social aspects to it, because a lot of it has to do with involving the community around me. The job may be as simple as putting labels or packing the candles, but for these women it means a lot. I also make sure that some of the proceeds from the sale would go to help underprivileged children,” Swe says.
These days, between tending to her elderly grandmother, whom she cites as the main reason she returned to Myanmar, Swe is busy concocting new blends. When she first started, she sold seven different types of scented candles. That number has since expanded into 30, offered in jars, tins and tea lights.
Her latest series, released just in time to welcome the monsoon season, include Maymyo Moe (means heavy rain in Myanmar) – which smells like the crisp, cool freshly fallen rain – and Fresh Cut Grass – a familiar, heady scent of freshly cut lawn.
But it’s the Koko Soy Candles’ Classic Series, dubbed as Simply Myanmar, that Swe holds really dear to her heart. The three scents – Mesua Ferrea, Thanakha and White Jasmine – aptly represent her love of her home country.
“The thanakha soy candles are really special. The scent is original, produced using fragrance oil that was especially made for me. I sent real thanakha to a perfume laboratory in Paris and had it done,” she explains proudly.
Beginning in July, Swe will be offering candle-making classes at her workshop in Sanchaung.
“I want to educate people in Myanmar about scented candles and what they can benefit from using these candles,” says Swe.
With a mission to touch others’ lives in a positive way, Swe looks passionately into the future, lighting a candle at a time.
Koko Soy Candles