We’re Reinventing Ourselves to Help Farmers Through the Pandemic

Proximity Designs
May 19, 2020 · 5 min read

Amid so much uncertainty, supporting those who grow Myanmar’s food has never been more important.

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Before Covid-19, sesame being bundled by a farmer and laborers for drying.

The past few weeks have seen Myanmar’s farmers hit with falling prices, border closures and uncertain markets as the pandemic ravages economies worldwide. Local movement restrictions, labor shortages and a decline in access to brokers have compounded the impact the crisis has had on rural communities.

It was clear we would need a ‘jolt’ to our strategy and operations so we could respond to the needs of farmers, who supply food to Myanmar’s 54.6 million residents. And to ensure we could continue to support and serve them as the situation evolves.

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Proximity team members working from their homes.

In March we began preparing to operate with a remote workforce, sorting out internet and software access issues, as staff began working from home. This is not an easy feat as power cuts, weak wifi and crowded living spaces are commonplace. At the same time, we promoted hand washing and shared safety tips to prevent the spread of the virus.

We rapidly sped up our operations to deliver crucial products and services before the virus spread widely and a lockdown would be necessary. Our workshop team worked around the clock, safely, to ensure irrigation orders were distributed. Our Extension Officers also upped the pace to finish soil health tests and deliver the results.

Meanwhile, Proximity Finance accelerated the rollout of its new Core Banking System, bringing a lot of their processes online, knowing how urgent it was to go digital.

Here’s what we’re focusing on as the crisis evolves:

Putting everyone’s health and safety first

Now, as Myanmar looks to ease its way out of lockdown, all of our offices will abide by Ministry of Health rules, providing masks and face shields, moving desks further apart and limiting the number of staff inside a building at a given time. There’ll be temperature checks and hand washing basins at the entrances.

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Proximity Finance conducting disbursements with Lending Group Leaders in Da Hat Taw village.

The Proximity Finance team has cut back its interactions with customers to the bare minimum, with Loan Officers now running disbursements and collections directly through Lending Group Leaders or Village Chiefs.

Yetagon Irrigation Sales Representatives will also only meet one-on-one with customers. And staff from all teams will follow strict safety measures when meeting customers in-person, keeping a distance of six feet and wearing protective gear.

We’ve also kept our colleagues’ mental health front of mind, organizing webinars and creating a video series that helps tackle the challenges of physical isolation and being cooped up with family for extended periods.

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Campaign titled: ‘How to Harvest Safely With Physical Distancing

We have collaborated with the government on public health awareness campaigns. We moved fast to design advice aimed specifically at farmers, who can’t stay home when they have crops ready for harvest, or need to plant in a set window of time. More than ten million people have seen the videos we made to ensure farmers can continue working safely.

Diving deep into farmers’ needs

Since understanding farmers needs is so important right now, our teams have been collecting data, and garnering insights, non-stop.

The Social Impact, Labs and Data teams have regularly surveyed thousands of farmers in recent weeks. With online polls, in-depth phone interviews and a prototype app we designed for field staff to enter data, we’re getting a clear and up-to-date picture of the situation on the ground.

This helps us decide where to direct our energies next and how to provide the best support. And this data infrastructure will be useful to better understand our customers well beyond the pandemic.

It also enables us to give the government information that helps them work out how to respond to Covid-19 without hurting critical farming activities, rural daily wage workers and the food supply chain.

Supercharging our digital services

Our Farm Advisory team has spent years earning the trust of hundreds of thousands of farmers by meeting in-person, largely in groups, for consultations and technique sharing. Going the extra mile with face-to-face advice is what has made us unique in rural Myanmar.

The pandemic has meant we have to readjust so we can keep serving our customers.

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Foliar spray, a fertilizer technique for sesame, explained through the Yetagon chatbot.

We had already started to expand the advisory services we offer online, but now we are working hard to make more available digitally or by phone. In the coming weeks we’ll roll out sales of soil health tests and bio-pesticides on Facebook and via phone. We’re also arranging for contactless delivery and payments, and to share the results of the soil health tests digitally.

Our chatbot continues to provide farmers access to a library of online resources about fighting pests, preparing land for planting and managing risks to harvests. And we’re transitioning our crop protection services to phone and messenger, so team members can address problems for customers from afar.

To help lay the groundwork for more digital services, we’ve sped up the rollout of tablets to our Loan Officers. This makes our team more efficient as we shorten the time gap between loan disbursements and opens the door for processes like mobile money payments that can minimize in-person meetings.

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Farmer insights shared on digital sticky-notes.

For the product and design teams, work is normally very hands-on and tangible, involving hundreds of sticky-notes and large poster boards with giant blueprints. Now that they’re working from home, they’ve found new ways to feel present, agile and engaged.

They’ve turned to new online tools like a collaborative whiteboard platform and a videoconferencing service that uses activities to help people connect more meaningfully.

Internal training has also gone digital, with Proximity School’s curriculum, which is focused on building core skills, including digital literacy, now fully online.

Myanmar’s farmers have endured tough conditions in recent decades, and have proven time and time again that it has strengthened their resilience. With the country now facing enormous uncertainty, protecting those at the center of its food supply chain, and most vulnerable to the pandemic’s impacts, has never been more important. As ever, we’re committed, and ready to support them.

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