Myanmar was a place I never thought of visiting. The country — bordering Bangladesh, China, India, Laos, and Thailand — was described in my school textbooks as a closed country, ruled by a military regime. What I perceived then was a country without freedom.
That perception lasted until recently. It turns out, Myanmar is a vibrant country, populated by people who stay true to their traditions and possess great hospitality. Oh, and those beautiful, majestic temples everywhere.
Having the chance to see Myanmar up-close was a rare opportunity for me. I travelled to the country as part of a technical advisory mission for a project called ‘Affordable Technology Innovations for Rural Communities’, funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and implemented by Mercy Corps in Myanmar. As the name suggests, the 16-month pilot project focuses on improving livelihood opportunities and social cohesion in rural communities in three states of Myanmar: Mon and Kayin in the southeast, along with Shan in the northeast.
Mercy Corps has been implementing this project by recruiting young, local entrepreneurial people to become sales agents that sell life-changing, innovative technologies to local communities. These technologies include fuel-efficient stoves and several types of solar powered lights, which are needed by people with limited access to electricity and LPG stoves.
Along with the sales agents, the business model also recruits sub-distributors and forms steering committees as the two other main players. The sub-distributors act as technology suppliers connecting the product manufacturers with the sales agents, while the steering committees serve as the bridge to help promote the products as well as improve participation of marginalised groups in the community.
Kopernik served as the technical advisor in the project. Kopernik staff visited the project sites on four different occasions, and collected information from the sales agents, sub-distributors, and steering committees to see how efficiently and effectively the project was implemented. We shared our observations and insights with both Mercy Corps and the UNDP after each mission.
Being involved in this project made it hard for me to avoid comparing it with our Wonder Women program in Indonesia. I learned numerous lessons on how to run our program more effectively given the similarities between our models: encouraging female entrepreneurs, innovative technologies, social impact, and the hope to sustain the business model into the future.
What was surprising about this project is the fantastic success of recruiting 40 sales agents (male and female, age 18–46 years old) that have successfully promoted and sold 471 solar products and more than 4,000 stoves in only seven months (November 2015-May 2016). In terms of the stoves, this commendable achievement might be due to the omnipresence of health-damaging three-stone fires and traditional firewood stoves in many areas in Myanmar, along with the rarity of access to LPG stoves.
However, from the sustainability perspective both models realise a similar challenge regarding the subsidies of the distributed technologies. For the Myanmar program they cover the transportation costs, commissions for both sales agents and sub-distributors, and price subsidy to lower the final retail price. Our collective challenge is to formulate a plan for when these subsidies are eventually taken out of the pricing structure once the project in Myanmar ends in August.
Another key takeaway that was relevant to our Wonder Women program is the sub-distributor role. As we plan to phase out from some of our program locations over the coming year, we could consider creating shops or kiosks that would serve as technology suppliers to our Wonder Women. This way our Wonder Women would be able to procure life-changing technologies, sell them, gain additional income, and allow end-users to benefit from these innovative products, all without Kopernik support.
Some other points that impressed me about this project:
- There was such a high level of commitment from all sub-distributors we visited to the social impact goal of the project. They chose not to sell the technologies to the public for their own economic benefit but rather prioritised providing products to their sales agents first.
- There was a clear system for recruitment with comprehensive guidelines and paperwork provided to all sales agents and sub-distributors.
- There was effective and informative training provided to the sales agents and sub-distributors last year. It was so well-received that almost all sales agents and sub-distributors asked for another session to further their training.
When I finally got back to Indonesia after the trip, I felt optimistic about integrating some of the things I learned into our Wonder Women work. Yes, there are uncontrollable factors that are unique to Myanmar and Indonesia that affect the outcomes of each program. However, we have power over the controllable ones that we can adopt and implement to improve our model. I look forward to working on these things with the Wonder Women Indonesia team to hopefully reach a greater level of empowerment for our entrepreneurial women all around Indonesia.
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