After seven months of living in Myanmar, it was finally time to bid farewell. As I looked outside the car window on my lone taxi ride to the airport, a wave of emotion overcame me as I passed dainty teashops and mega shopping centres – the latter of which were only erected during my stay here. There and then, I couldn’t help but feel I was saying goodbye to a person, rather than a place. A person with a vibrant yet humble personality, a disposition full of surprises, and most importantly, potential. If anything, I was saying goodbye to a turbulent teenager budding to adulthood.
What happens when a country doesn’t use banks - A look at how the world’s second last frontier economy functions on just cash.
When I first got off the plane at Yangon airport, jetlagged and exhausted from the 42 hour journey, what shocked me most was being handed a stack of 1,000 kyat ($1CAD) bills at the currency exchange - around 500 bills to be exact. Unable to stuff this into my wallet or fanny pack, I asked the currency exchange clerk if they had larger bills, to which she replied “We ran out.”
This was my first glimpse into the nearly non-existent banking services of Myanmar. They say that frontier economies develop in the following order; telecommunications, banking, power & hydro, and finally, consumer goods. While the internet connection is slowly starting to improve here and power cuts have dropped from an average of three times a day to just three times a week, the banking sector is still lagging behind. Decades of hyperinflation and mismanagement have made everyday citizens weary of using existing banks and financial institutions.
To the middle and upper class, the low utilization of banks presents certain problems. For example, large payments must be made in cash since checks cannot be processed without a checking account. An expatriate once recounted to me the story of the first time he prepaid rent – he loaded an entire taxi with cash, went to the landlord’s house, and waited for her to hand count all of it three times in the span of four hours. Getting all this cash isn’t easy, either. Another expatriate had to visit a local illegitimate businessman with a basement stuffed with cash and jewels in order to obtain enough cash to pay the lease on her newly purchased hotel.
This is the view outside of my bedroom window. To the right is the “Myanmar Plaza”; the largest shopping complex in Myanmar that opened just this year. To the left is Inya lake; a manmade reservoir built by the British when they colonized Yangon and named it “Rangoon”.
This little joint is a quick walk from my office and only set up from 6-11am in the mornings. For 700 kyat ($0.7CAD) you can get a full breakfast!
Mohinga is the most popular Burmese breakfast dish. Consisting of fish soup, rice noodles, deep fried chick pea crackers, coriander, mysterious crunch vegetables and a handful of chili flakes; it’s definitely one of my favorites.
As you know, it is early days for our Myanmar project, Improving Market Opportunities for Women (IMOW). But after a period of dotting i’s and crossing t’s as we built our team and laid our foundation, I am excited that we are beginning the “real work” and seeing areas that, with your generous support, will make a difference for the lives of women in Myanmar.
In June, MEDA helped to support the first-ever vegetable and fruit trade fair in Southern Shan state, where I met a woman grower and mango processing operator. Trade fairs are a great way to network and we made many connections, including one with an organic buyer who has since met with our team to explore opportunities. I saw a lot of potential at this fair, but what I didn’t see were many women farmers! So next year, we want to sponsor women to attend the event, raise their profile, and even create an award for best woman farmer of the year. While other organizations may do similar work to us, no one is focused on women, reminding me of MEDA’s unique opportunity in Myanmar.
Some of IMOW’s work will also focus on women’s savings group. In one village we visited, the first female politician was just elected (pictured below). She attributes her decision to run to the increased confidence and speaking skills she gained from participating in the savings group. MEDA will be working to help groups like hers go to the next level and encourage even more women to take leadership roles. We hope our efforts in villages in other parts of the country where there are no savings groups at all will result in similar stories of confidence-building and empowerment.
MEDA Myanmar currently works in two states – Shan State in the North and Kayin State in the South. I have been here for almost two months now, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting villages in both of these areas and observing the stark differences between them. While Southern Shan villagers have been blessed with the assistance of numerous NGOs due to the lack of armed conflict in the area, Kayin villagers have been tormented for over 50 years by the ongoing conflict. Burdened by a shared border with Thailand, Kayin’s Christian rebel group (the Karen National Union) and Buddhist rebel group (the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) use proceedings from controlling border trade to fund weaponry used to fight the Burmese Army.
In my final year of university, I took a mandatory course on business sustainability. As a business major, I found this course was quite boring because of its slow pace. However, our final project influenced me in such a tremendous way that I eventually decided to join MEDA’s work as an intern at its Myanmar office.