Women-led businesses are bringing change in Myanmar
In Myamar’s Kayin State, FCA and Women’s Bank have supported women in 20 villages to establish and develop businesses to generate extra income.
NESTLED IN the Kayah-Karen Mountains range are the Kayin Highlands. The area has been plagued by armed conflicts between the Myanmar Military and the Karen National Union, People’s Defence Forces, resulting in very limited development opportunities. The region has been classified as a ‘black zone’ by successive governments.
Women in the area were often confined to the traditional living style of their village, struggling to make ends meet with small daily incomes. With some working as day laborers and others focusing on their existing farm businesses, financial stability proved hard to pin down. Although they could afford daily meals, they needed money to save up.
As the economic crisis worsened, the prices of food and gasoline skyrocketed and their income and investments also fluctuated dramatically. Additionally, products they farmed could not be exported in large quantities.
Women-led businesses are bringing change
A project aimed at empowering women in the region co-implemented by FCA and led by the Kaw Lah Foundation, brought about real change.
As part of the project, FCA provided financial assistance to 80 women, granting each of them 500,000 Myanmar Kyat (188 Euro) to help them establish and develop income-generating activities. Women participated either as members of the Women Empowerment Committee or as part of a Women-Led Cooperative.
Starting and running businesses in politically sensitive and fragile areas can be challenging, so FCA provided organised comprehensive business entrepreneurship training sessions to cover various aspects of business management, including financial planning and management, branding, and marketing strategies (including online platforms).
After the business was established, we continue to provide coaching and support. The project team regularly visit the businesswomen, offering guidance and addressing concerns.
The range of businesses established by these women included grocery stores, food stalls, seasonal crop trading, bakeries, motorbike workshops, and pharmacies. Within a year, 35 out of the 80 women (43%) began earning profits from their activities. 11 of them earned profits exceeding 10 million Myanmar Kyat (376 Euro) and one woman even generated over 50 million Myanmar Kyat (1880 Euro).
From entrepreneuship to financial stability
Life dealt 59-year-old Naw Aye Thar a devastating blow with the untimely death of her husband in 1997, leaving her as the sole provider for her three sons. To her support her children, she took on various odd jobs, earning a modest income of 3,000 Myanmar kyats per day.
But life changed for the better when she assumed the role of secretary for the Women Empowerment Committee in her village. It was during this time that FCA launched its project, aiming to promote women’s entrepreneurship and business ventures in Maing Lun. Recognising her potential, she was selected as one of the women entrepreneurs and provided with a business capital of 500,000 kyats.
With the newfound capital, she started a grocery store. Following her project proposal, she sourced products from wholesalers and began selling them retail. This venture proved to be a sustainable source of income to meet her family’s needs.
“Previously, I was very tired because I was buying goods by walking to Leik Tho Town with a bamboo-made backpack, and I couldn’t a motorcycle due to the high rental cost. My business became more convenient when I owned a motorcycle with my savings. In this time of political instability, the economic crisis worsened, food and gasoline prices skyrocketed, but mercifully I don’t have to worry about the daily meal anymore.”
Journey to business success
Naw Rutha, a 46-year-old widow from Kyaung Kone Lan Khwel village. She grew up selling groceries with her mother in a small food and local product trading business. However, despite having a wealth of experience in the industry, Naw Rutha struggled with keeping records of her business operations which made it impossible to ascertain the profit and loss of her enterprise accurately.
In June 2022, she successfully obtained a grant of 500,000 Myanmar Kyats, which she used to expand and repair her shop. The support from the project not only helped her become more familiar with business practices but also increased her profits.
“Thanks to the project, I received training on business market system development and basic financial management. The project also recognised my hard work and provided additional support funds (1,000,000 kyats) for my business.”
With this financial boost, she purchased refrigerators to store the goods and added value to local crops such as coffee, turmeric, honey, and tea. She further expanded her store and started producing and selling local products under the brand name “Rutha.”
The increased income not only benefited her family but also allowed her to financially support her parents and siblings.
“I can now support my son’s education without worrying about school fees. I can also afford donations for religious purposes and cover medical expenses for the sick. Moreover, I have been able to save money every month and even treated myself to a gold necklace.”
Displacement didn’t stop this businesswoman
40-year-old Naw Blu Paw from Bo Te Kone Village started as a casual worker in 2005, averaging around 2 weeks of work per month. In 2008, she began selling Burmese traditional snacks door-to-door in her village.
When the project was introduced in her village, Naw Blu Paw participated in business performance training courses and attended monthly meetings. Her dedication paid off when she was chosen as the small to medium enterprise (SME) woman representative of the village on June 20, 2022.
Unfortunately, she and her husband were displaced due to the conflict in the area. But the situation couldn’t discourage her and she began selling kitchen products as a mobile seller to other villagers who had also fled to the jungle. Despite the difficulties, she traveled to Taungoo – around 200 kilometres from Yangon – to purchase groceries and continued her work.
With this determination, she was selected as a recipient of an additional 1,000,000 kyats from the project’s top-up grant for women. This capital injection allowed her to expand her current business and she ran the fish paste and dried fish businesses. She also learned how to maintain cash accounts and create monthly income and expenditure statements, skills she previously lacked.
The continuous operation of her business greatly aided her family while occasionally providing financial support to her daughter, who lives at the Thailand border, for school. Furthermore, she was able to send three of her children to school at a church-based institution, contributing to the welfare of the community.
“Through this business, I have gained a deeper understanding of my strengths and weaknesses which improved my business operations. Additionally, I seek guidance from others experienced in fish paste production to expand my business further. Despite the challenges of travel during these difficult times, I am grateful that my business continues to thrive, bringing greater happiness to my family by relieving concerns.”
Contract farming project delivers life-changing benefits for women farmers in Uganda
Traditionally, women have had a hard time making a living in Mityana, a rural town in central Uganda. Women are usually not allowed to own farming land, and the ones who have land at their disposal have had low and unpredictable crop yields. This is something the contract farming project, backed by Women’s Bank and Finn Church Aid, wanted to address.
CONTRACT FARMING is a system in which farmers enter into an agreement with a buyer under predetermined contractual obligations. The farmers produce for the market, as they are already assured that they will have a buyer, and what price they will get for their produce.
In some cases, the buyer might also support the farmers with agrotechnical knowledge, inputs and other production requirements to be assured of the best quality product.
“Before, I struggled to make ends meet. I would plant my crops and hope for the best. But now, I have a contract that guarantees to buy my maize at a fair price. I have also received training on how to improve my farming practices, and I have seen the results in my yields,” says one of the farmers, Celina Nelima, about her experience with contract farming.
“With the profits I make, I set up a fast foods business where I sell fried chips to the community in the evenings. I save enough money weekly, and now I am building my dream house. I am grateful to Finn Church Aid for their support,“ Nelima, 34, adds with a big smile.
Increased bargaining power
Finn Church Aid and Women’s Bank help build the linkages between the women farmers and buyers. One of those buyers is Egg Production Uganda Limited (EPL), which is set up by the Women’s Bank. Women are assisted in organising into groups, creating collective bargaining power, to negotiate fair trade deals with the buyers.
FCA and EPL provide women farmers with training and support in the community, such as business literacy, good agricultural practices, Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) methodology, gender awareness, leadership and short-term specialized livelihood trainings. Training has improved the lives of the women and helped them access seeds, fertilizers, and other things they need to start their businesses.
The results have been remarkable. The farmers have been able to increase their yields and household income significantly, take their children back to school with ease, access finances for investment through VSLAs, access medical services, gain respect in their communities, and be elected to leadership positions.
Women in control
Through this, the lives of the women farmers have transformed. They are no longer at the mercy of middlemen who would buy their crops at a low price or not at all. They now have a steady income and can plan for the future.
Bitamisi Nakibirango, 52 years says, “I used to walk 7 kilometers to go to the market to sell my produce, now EPL collects the produce from the bulking center which is not far from my home. This has allowed me to save time and money.”
The success of the contract farming system in Mityana has also had a ripple effect in the community. Other farmers have seen the benefits and are now interested in joining the program. Finn Church Aid Uganda continues to work with the farmers to expand the program and ensure its sustainability.
In Mityana, over 700 women, from as many households, with an average of 6 household members each, were introduced to contract farming by Finn Church Aid Uganda (FCA). FCA is a non-profit organization that works to promote sustainable livelihoods in rural communities in a program that was initiated on January 3rd 2021.
After her divorce, relatives refused to help. Now Kamu Sunar is the one people come to for help and advice.
A little boy comes to Kamu Sunar’s shop. He chooses a chocolate bar and hands over the money. He has already turned to leave when Sunar reminds him to take the change with him.
Kamu Sunar’s shop takes up one room in a two-storey stone building on the narrow main street of the village of Bhardeu. The shop sells a variety of items from soap and bracelets to shoes and petrol. The small village of Bhardeu is located in a verdant valley right in the middle of Nepal.
Sunar is a Dalit, or an outcaste, as well as an entrepreneur and a single mother. Now, she is also a municipal councillor on the Nepalese rural municipal council Gaupalika, meaning she gets to participate in local decision-making.
For several years, a women’s cooperative supported by the Finn Church Aid volunteer network Women’s Bank has operated in Sunar’s home village. The women who belong to it have received education and support for e.g. saving and agriculture as well as starting their own small businesses. The members of the cooperative have improved their financial and social position, but according to the women, equally important has been an improvement in self-esteem, team spirit within the group, and support from others.
And when a municipal election was held in Nepal, the women of Bhardeu decided to join forces. They voted for Kamu Sunar, a respected member of the group who had a slightly better chance of being elected, thanks to a Dalit quota. When she was elected, it was a victory for all of them.
In politics, Sunar wants to promote the financial and mental empowerment of women. In Nepal, the situation of women is still poor, and not everyone thinks rights such as ownership rights and financial power of decision belong to women just like they do to men.
Went to school in secret, married young
Remote Bhardeu has not always been home for Kamu Sunar. Her childhood was spent in the capital Kathmandu where her parents had a goldsmith shop. Her childhood as the eldest daughter of a family with five children was a happy one.
”I went to school for five years. After that, my parents wanted me to help my mother at home and my father at the shop. Even as a child, I was strong-willed. I was very interested in mathematics. I tried continuing to go to school in secret, but when my parents found out, I got a beating, and I had to drop out of school.”
Kamu Sunar sighs. Now comes the most painful part of her story.
A young man visited the goldsmith shop.
”I was 15 years old when we met, and he was six years older than me. We married for love.”
A couple of decades ago, love matches were much less common in Nepal than they are today. The newlyweds moved to the groom’s home village of Bhardeu. They were happy together for ten years.
”Then he found someone else. I don’t want to talk about it any more than this. He betrayed me. I don’t want to think about him,” says Sunar.
”No, I definitely never intend to marry again, because I don’t want that to happen to me again.”
When her husband left her, Sunar and her young children, a girl and a boy, were left destitute. The family of the husband did not want to help them.
”My children gave me courage. I didn’t want them to suffer.”
”Mom is kind-hearted and funny”
Being a member of the women’s cooperative helped Sunar rearrange her life. Little by little, Sunar acquired both skills and capital. She got a loan of 15,000 Nepalese rupees (110 euros) to start her own shop. Having her own shop had been a lifelong dream.
The shop was a success. Both of her children got the chance to stay in school for as long as they would like.
We close the shop for a while and go see Kamu Sunar’s construction site. She is about to fulfil another dream, a home of her own. Her time living in her ex-husband’s brother’s house is coming to an end. The house is not even safe, because it was damaged in the powerful earthquakes of 2015.
Sunar’s small plot of land is within walking distance of the shop in this beautiful valley in which the village is located. Houses are scattered few and far between in the valley, surrounded by meadows and terraced maize and mustard fields. In this country known for its snowy peaks, the tall green hills surrounding the valley cannot be called mountains.
At the plot, Sunar’s daughter and a friend are working in the heat of the sun, crushing rocks. You can also buy crushed rock, but it is cheaper to make your own.
Soon there will be a small house on the plot that belongs to no one but Sunar. It feels wonderful.
Tomorrow, 14-year-old daughter Amrita can leave crushing rocks behind and gets to go to school, as the school year starts.
”Amrita is stronger than I am. She talks a lot and has lots of suggestions,” says Sunar.
Amrita is interested in a career as a volleyball player. ”She gets to choose herself,” Sunar assures us. Her 18-year-old son Amit works in a goldsmith shop in Kathmandu, but often visits his mother and sister.
”Mom is kind-hearted and funny. And a little strict. Mom used to be very quiet, but not anymore. I’m really pround of her being on the council,” says Amrita.
Work on behalf of women
Outcaste people still face many kinds of discrimination in Nepal.
”I’ve suffered a lot because I’m outcaste. But I have learned a lot as well. I’m here now because I have had so much support,” says Sunar.
According to Sunar, all members of the council are like one big family.
”We dine together and help each other. There is no discrimination there.”
Sunar knows from experience exactly what kind of skills a woman needs in order to improve her situation in society. She is now in a position to give advice and help others.
Being on the council only pays a small fee, and the 460 municipal councils of an impoverished country do not have a great deal of funds to hand out for local development. 18 percent of the funds are especially reserved for supporting women. This is better than nothing at all.
”My mind used to be empty. Now I have lots of knowledge, skills and ideas,” describes Sunar.
Finn Church Aid (FCA) has decided to shut down its country programmes in Liberia and Sierra Leone by the end of 2017. Involvement in Liberia led to the founding of the Women’s Bank volunteer network which currently has thousands of volunteers.
“It is always difficult to make a decision like this. Over the past year we have worked hard to find new donors in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, but have not been adequately successful. However, it’s great that the work will continue by a local civil society organisation”, says Jouni Hemberg, FCA’s Executive Director.
Finn Church Aid has operated in both West African countries for ten years. Involvement began with rebuilding efforts after over a decade of civil war and included training on farming methods and provision of psychosocial support and education to former child soldiers, particularly girls.
“After ten years, our work is now picked up by locals. The Liberian staff members of our country office are founding a new, Liberian organisation to continue the work that FCA has done, and this is exactly how it should go”, Hemberg says.
The decision was affected in part by Finnish foreign ministry’s cuts on development funding but also FCA’s shifted focus on the most fragile countries of the world, which Liberia and Sierra Leone no longer are.
“At the moment we are discussing the closure of our programmes with beneficiaries and local partners and planning how we could best support them to ensure that the work remains on a sustainable foundation”, says Marjo Mäenpää, Desk Officer for West and Central Africa.
Income opportunities and Ebola prevention
FCA has maintained a country programme and a country office in Liberia since 2007. In Sierra Leone, FCA has been operating for seven years, and even before that, since 1993, FCA has supported the work of the Lutheran World Federation in both countries. During civil wars, work focused on providing basic necessities at refugee camps.
FCA’s own work has focused on developing village communities and supporting livelihoods in rural areas by organising training on farming methods and supporting youth professional education.
From 2010, FCA assisted refugees who fled violence in Ivory Coast during elections by maintaining schools on Ivorian refugee camps in Liberia.
During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, many rural families had to eat their seed corn. Omai Toka is harvesting her rice in the village Gohn in Grand Cape Mount county in 2015. She bought the seed corn with the support of Finn Church Aid’s food security programme. Photo: Ville Palonen.
During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, FCA distributed hygiene products – like soap, buckets and chlorine –, organised large-scale awareness campaigns to prevent the spread of Ebola and supported efforts to maintain food security. The latest humanitarian operation was the distribution of relief packages to victims of landslides and floods in Sierra Leone in late 2017.
In Liberia, FCA will conclude its EU-funded project to train prison staff and communities and promote the rights of prisoners to legal counsel. The project will conclude in early 2019.
Women’s Bank volunteer network has its origins in Liberia
In January 2007, FCA invited a group of socially active women from Finland to travel to Liberia and meet local women. The trip inspired the group to act for the benefit of other women in developing countries. On 24 May 2007, Women’s Bank was formed and in ten years, it has grown into a network of over 3,000 volunteers and raised 11 million euros of funds to support more than 40,000 people in the developing world.
In Liberia and Sierra Leone, Women’s Bank supported vulnerable girls and women in obtaining livelihoods, for example by providing vocational education and entrepreneurship training. Altogether, 12,000 people benefitted from the Women’s Banks’ work in the two countries.