I just returned from an exciting visit to Myanmar as part of a delegation put together by the Aspen Institute Global Alliances Program and the Richardson Center for Global Engagement to explore to potential for social enterprise to make a positive impact as the country continues its transition toward democratization and a more just, functional civil society. This seems to be a place where Prakti could make a huge difference in the lives of the people.
Biomass accounts for 90% of the cooking in Myanmar, which splits 70% wood and 20% charcoal. According to the latest figures from the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, approximately 50,000 women and children die each year from causes directly related to indoor air pollution from cooking – this in a country of only 21 million people. Our current line of wood and charcoal stoves could make an immediate and significant public health impact, along with the attendant benefits for women’s empowerment, poverty mitigation, and environmental sustainability, with which you are already familiar. Our ultra-efficient institutional stoves could serve a very important market segment.
I had the good fortune to meet with two distributors currently doing the groundwork to evaluate the marketability of clean-burning stoves, AZB Foods & Spices Co. and Mai Kha Co., Ltd. As we know, the most difficult challenge is not providing a stove that is both economical and beneficial; it is getting cooks to consider adopting a new appliance to do something that, by tradition and habit, they have always done very differently. The pilot studies are well-underway.
In addition to demonstrating a keen interest and appreciation for the ways in which clean cookstoves can promote better health and spearhead social transformation, these distributors displayed a fresh enthusiasm and youthful energy that is rare and inspiring.
I also met with a very interesting social enterprise, Proximity, which is looking to aggregate and distribute the kinds of products that should both interest and empower families living at the base of the pyramid. Obviously, our stoves would be an excellent fit within their product line.
It was not possible to judge whether social enterprise has been long-ingrained in the fabric of small business in Myanmar or whether the vibrancy of this sector is only manifest now in a younger generation. One thing is clear: if the political evolution of the country stays on-track, Myanmar will be an inspiring and impactful place to work.
The government is clearly interested in bringing-in corporate investment to the country but, at the same time, it is clearly concerned that the costs of multinational involvement will create only marginal benefits for Myanmar, create a variety of deep social costs, and in-the-end benefit only the multinationals. Indeed, these are legitimate worries. It seems the government understands that development of social enterprises could be a healthy alternative for both economic growth and positive social transformation. The logical concerns about this approach concern whether it can scale appropriately. In any case, the environment for social entrepreneurship seems quite fertile.
Prakti will continue to look at opportunities to serve in this country. We are grateful to the Aspen Institute and the Richardson Center for opening our eyes to the possibilities for dynamic social enterprise in Myanmar.