In Yangon we visited Proximity, an NGO that's been working in Burma since 2003. The neighborhood feels familiar with embassies and homes surrounded by low walls, trees, and flowers. Even the stairway up to their office is reminiscent of other site visits I’ve been lucky enough to make in Manila, Delhi, and Karachi. The unfamiliar part of the experience is having no business there other than being a better informed tourist.
We met founders Debbie and Jim Taylor. We also heard from Alisa Murphy who is part of a steady stream of Stanford Design school grads who have interned with Proximity and returned to work there.
Proximity is a social enterprise that recovers the cost of producing their products by charging for them. They rely on donors for R&D and their policy work. Their products are about getting, storing and delivering water. Think treadle pumps. They are designed in a collaborative process with users. The goal is "extra affordability". Purchases are supported by a loan program.
They put their mission succinctly. “Get more money into the pockets of our customers so they can pay for things like food, healthcare and education. We do that by creating affordable products that farmers can use to dramatically increase productivity, which means greater profits and far more income harvest after harvest”.
With their simple innovations small farmers are able to double or triple their income. They grow one rice crop in the wet season, and with better water management tools they can grow vegetables in the dry season. There are usually enough veggies for their family and some to sell in local markets. With the additional income they purchase other food and cover school costs.
We were lucky enough to also hear from David Dapice, a Tufts/Harvard economist who concisely shared information that provides great context for our travels. Data is hard to get. UN data is considered inaccurate. Rice crop yields are published by the government and he can get a reality check on the data from Proximity's people on the ground. I wonder what they would say about the government data re 41 per cent contraceptive prevalence rate.
The people on the ground are salaried salespeople and agents. Agents market the products by planting test plots demonstrating the benefits of the product by growing more rice, peanuts, sesame or pulses. Agent "centers” install and maintain the tools. I like social benefit projects that tap into profit motivation to meet their goals. I think that paying entrepreneurial people to do the work is not only more sustainable, it is more dignified and empowering. Janani's work to distribute contraceptives and family planning services in Bihar and Jharkhand, India taught me this.
They shared with us the challenges of involving users in their design process which progresses from needs to ideas to prototype. The co-designers who have been raised in a culture of respect, rote educated, in a society where disagreeing is disrespectful and in some arenas dangerous. It was nice to hear that products are built locally, of local components.
Group travel is a mixed bag of course. You can see solo tourist groan when even just half of us we show up at a peaceful temple. Traveling with this Stanford Alumni Association group of forty-four has really nice benefits like this visit to Proximity.