A Guide to Social Enterprise for Travelers in Myanmar
Updated August 2018
I hear from so many travelers to Myanmar who want to make sure that their money goes to the people, and not to the government or croonies. In the past few years, there has been a big boom in creative social enterprises in Myanmar, and I wanted to shine a light on them.
What is a Social Enterprise?
The BC Centre for Social Enterprise defines it like this:
Social enterprises are revenue-generating businesses with a twist. Whether operated by a non-profit organization or by a for-profit company, a social enterprise has two goals: to achieve social, cultural, community economic and/or environmental outcomes; and, to earn revenue.
On the surface, many social enterprises look, feel, and even operate like traditional businesses. But looking more deeply, one discovers the defining characteristics of the social enterprise: mission is at the centre of business, with income generation playing an important supporting role (from The Centre for Community Enterprise).
I'll be focusing on social enterprises that target tourists and expats. You know, the sort of ones that you would be most likely to check out.
Social Enterprises in Yangon
The most common entry point for visitors to the country, visiting these spots in Yangon can be a good place to start your trip (and see what's available) and stop by before you depart to fill up your checked bag with goodies before you fly home, or find a nice place to grab a bite to eat. This is also where the largest concentration of them exists.
HLA DAY - Shop
Hla Day works with Myanmar artisans, disadvantaged groups and small businesses to design, develop and sell quality handmade products with a contemporary twist.
Each step of the way, the team at Hla Day works with local groups helping them come up with ideas for products, assisting with training and design, and paying a reasonable wage. The goal is to help support the livelihoods of their producers, many of whom are struggling to overcome disability, exclusion and poverty.
Hla Day aims to capture the unique flavors of Myanmar design by locally sourcing all materials and celebrating traditional skills enabling both customers and producers to enjoy and benefit from unique and quality Myanmar handicrafts.
As well as carrying smaller, less expensive items that are easy to throw in your bag before you leave the country, they also carry a selection of high-end jewelry from Turquoise Mountain and chin textiles.
Oh, and "Hla day" means beautiful in Burmese :)
Payment in Myanmar Kyat, USD and credit card accepted.
Pomelo - Shop
One of the earliest in the game, Pomelo is much like Hla Day (in fact, they were once one-in-the-same...) and carrying many of the same products.
Another fair trade shop offering contemporary hand-made products with a Myanmar style. They provide opportunities for artisan partners so they can improve their lives, working with dozens of disadvantaged groups, developing their business and administration skills as well as providing design insight.
Payment in Myanmar Kyat, USD and credit card accepted.
Pann Nann Ein - shop
One of my favorite producers in Myanmar, Pann Nann Ein supports individuals with disabilities, while simultaneously raising awareness of neglected disability issues, including physical disabilities, mental health problems, learning disabilities, and language and speech impediments.
Products include really cool dropcut cards made with traditional longyi fabric, unique postcards, and other fabric-based products like bags, journals, bookmarks, and picture frames. Until recently, Pann Nann Ein just sold their products through stores like Hla Day, Pomelo and the like, but as of June 2017, has just opened up their own showroom in downtown Yangon.
This article (1/2 way down) has a good interview with one of the founders, Hnin Phyu Kaung, illustrating the impact on their members:
“Before members join, they never go outside their house. Now they become very confident. They can talk freely because they have money, and they have business. Some of the group members can save money, and they have dream to build a house in their village and go on holiday around the whole country for pilgrimage. One of the deaf girls planned to have a baby but she didn’t have a job and her husband did not have good health. When we met, she worked very hard and saved money. Now she has a son and is very happy.”
Helping Hands - shop
Helping Hands pairs up skilled artisans to work along side former street kids to teach them the art of restoring old teak furniture that Myanmar is famous for.
While likely not the best option for a traveler heading home looking to fill a small hole in their luggage, if you're an expat in Yangon, they could have just the thing to jazz up your little home.
FXB Myanmar - shop
FXB has a showroom featuring products made by artisans who have graduated from the FXB training diploma program. Products include pillows, clothing, toys, and even small furniture.
FXB's programs help educate hundreds of young students every year coming from at-risk backgrounds, with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and support. Their training programs aim to give better job opportunities in the tourism industry as the country continues to open up. They even run community theatre programs targeting topics such as women's and children's rights.
No.294/3, Shwe Gon Daing Road, Middle Shwe Gon Daing Ward. (In Front of Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda) Bahan Township. Yangon
Linkage Training Restaurant & Art Gallery - EAT
Hidden on the first floor of a side street in downtown Yangon, LinkAge offers cooking and service vocational training for Yangon street children. For you, it also offers a tasty Myanmar / Chinese fusion menu.
The goal of the operation is to train street kids, and help get them back to school.
It can be a little tricky to spot (especially at night) , but look for the sign on the west side of the street. You'll head up a set of stairs to get to the little restaurant and gallery.
Quick tip, call ahead and make a reservation for the tiny table for two on the balcony overlooking the street below. Generally speaking, it's probably a good idea to call ahead in the evenings since the place only has a few tables.
No. 141, 1st floor, Seikkantha Street, Between Mahabandoola & Merchant Road, Yangon
Yangon Bakehouse - eat
Focusing on empowering women, Yangon Bakehouse delivers delicious salads, sandwiches, and baked goods at their two cafes in Yangon. It's particularly good if you're looking for baked good with a more euro-style (ie: less sugar).
Their training is a 10 month program, which includes 3 months of classroom theory and 7 months of on-the-job training. It's not all about baking however, with classes on health & hygiene, reproductive health, family planning, savings strategies and more. Their graduation rate is over 80% and show a 500% increase in earning power when they finish.
Social Enterprises in Bagan / Nyaung U
One of the hotspots for travelers to Myanmar, Bagan also has some great ways for you to make sure your tourism dollars leave a lasting impact beyond the hotels and restaurants you'll frequent during your stay. See my Bagan Travel Guide for more planning info.
Mboutik - shop
This showroom and shop carries a variety of interesting and unique gifts from the region, including textiles, rattan, and jewelry. To top it off, 100% of the profit is allocated to the group that produced the item as the overhead for the business operations of the organization and store are covered by foreign aid organizations.
Supported by Action Aid (a prominent anti-poverty organization), their network in Myanmar is based around supporting women in the "Dry Zone" where food scarcity is a real issue. Their Craft Producer Network focuses on education and training, even providing day care and a monthly stipend when they are in school. After they are finished, they are encouraged to create and join Women Producers Support Groups where they are taught basic business skills such as bookkeeping. It's a really great program that reaches deep into villages to assist women.
Payment in Myanmar Kyat, USD and credit card accepted.
U Paing (560), Thiripyitsayar Toechae no.(4) ward, Anawratha Road, Nyaung Oo (Across from the Post Office)
Sanon Training Restaurant - EAT
This training restaurant helps give opportunity to disadvantaged youth from the region with on-the-job training, English classes, and other support for a year, as well as help to find a job in the industry afterward. In the short time that it has been around, there have already been several success stories of graduates being picked up for excellent jobs in hospitality.
As a restaurant, Sanon offers a fairly ambitious menu that mostly delivers in spades. If you're sick of Myanmar beef curry, you could always go for the Tilapia Filet on Sautéed Leek & Apples with Preserved Lime, Caper and Anchovy Butter. Seriously. But it's busy, so book ahead, and be sure to get a little tour of the kitchen before you leave.
Three Treasures Bagan - Experience
Improving local livelihoods through inclusive tourism is the mantra behind the UKAID award-winning Three Treasures Bagan. They look to change the local/foreigner dynamic by creating an environment where guests engage with and learn from local people and communities.
An off-shot of a Swiss-based NGO Myanmar SEEDS, Three Treasures offers hands-on bamboo crafting classes, photo tours, meditation courses and even day-long romantic tour options.
Social Enterprises in Kalaw
The quiet hill station of Kalaw is one of my favorite places in the entire country, with its mix of cooler temps perfect for hikes, tree-lined streets and yummy food. (See my Kalaw Travel Guide for more info)
Clover Social Enterprise Gift Shop
Started by a local trekking guide and a graduate from Sprouting Seeds, Clover Social Enterprise Gift Shop sells handicrafts from several producers and social enterprise producers (like Pann Nann Ein) in a small shop just south of the main highway. Of particular note are interesting hand-painted bowls, cotton scarves with natural dyes, and rubber wallets that you might not come across in other shops.
RDA Fair Trade Shop - shop
This little shop on the outside of the Kalaw Market offers a few goods made in the local villages, including a small selection of clothes, hand-made paper products, and beadwork. You can probably see everything in the shop in a couple of minutes, but it's worth a visit regardless.
The RDS (Rural Development Society) was founded in 1992 by U Tommy Aung, and is best known for its water and development projects in the region. In addition, they help with micro-financing. Sales from the shop go directly to fund these projects.
Sprouting Seeds Cafe & Bakery - eat
This lovely cafe about 8min walk from the town center is a great way to avoid the noise of the main street in a comfy little spot up the hill. With locally-sourced produce for the meals, real french pastries made on site, and their own home-made ice cream... there is something for everyone. The interior is nice and comfy, encouraging people to set together at their comfy tables. Outside are a few picnic tables with umbrellas for shade for enjoying those lovely, fresh Kalaw days.
The parent organization, Whispering Seed, has been involved in projects in Myanmar for many years. In the pipeline, Sprouting Seeds plans to offer cooking classes, an on-site yoga studio, and more.
They focus their support on orphans and other disadvantaged youth, offering a safe home, job skills training, and help starting their own businesses.
Social Enterprises in Pindaya
The town most famous for its caves also has a new social enterprise in town.
Plan Bee - Experience
This non-profit has been teaching local villagers in Southern Shan State the value of bees and beekeeping as bee colonies collapse in the west. This includes education, training, and support. So far, they have helped create 19 small cooperatives of new beekeepers.
For travelers coming through, you can purchase Plan Bee honey from their small shop, as well as other beeswax products (and halva!). You can even arrange a one-of-a-kind beekeeping learning tours and community based workshops where you will learn to make beeswax candles or balms. Best to contact them in advance to arrange.
If you can't make it to Pindaya, you should be able to find some Plan Bee honey in some supermarkets in Myanmar as well.
Social Enterprises in Hpa-An
Lovely Hpa-An in Kayin State is a great place to explore for a couple of days with a large number of limestone caves and karst formations in the area. And now with some social enterprises popping up too.
Veranda Youth Community Café - eat
This brand new place in Hpa-An is the first social business project of the Tounge La' Yat Education Gathering Group (EGG) which is a Karen State based organization. The cafe was created by alumni of their education programs.
On the menu at the little cafe by the lake is Genius Coffee from Shan State, a host of teas, juices and a long list of Myanmar salads. It's a bit of a wander from the town center (~25min), but there are worst places to wander than little Hpa-An.
Social Enterprises in Lashio
Lashio is off the beaten path for most travelers to Myanmar, but this capital in Northern Shan State has plenty of room for growth with beautiful countryside and renowned markets with a heavy Chinese flavor.
Myanmar Adventure Outfitters - experience
If you're looking for motorcycle journeys on back roads, waterfall jumping at local swimming holes, and hiking and homestays in places that don't see much foreign traffic, Byron and his team at Myanmar Adventure Outfitters in Lashio may be right for you.
Byron and his family have years of experience in the region, as well as plenty of NGO experience. They created MAO to help introduce more tourism in the region around Lashio and towards China, as well as teach the locals about all they have to offer. By training local guides, and making the local ethnic tribes a part of the process, he hopes that will lead to more development in the region.
Did I miss any that you know of? Let me know in the comments below, or send me an e-mail so I can check them out and add them to the list.