Good as a cheesecake
It was not easy to find changemakers, in particular social entrepreneurs, in Myanmar. The concept is fairly unknown and we had little time in Yangon, the biggest city. We spent most of our days in the Thabarwa meditation center, allowing ourselves one or two visits to the city itself. During one of those visits we discovered Yangon Bakehouse.
Our company started years back when in Yangon there were limited western beverage places - says Kelly MacDonald, founder -. With a growing expats community there was the need for this type of places, with healthy options. There was a market. The second thing was that I have worked all my life in sexual and reproductive health in different parts of the world, including Myanmar, where I worked for 8 years for issues connected with poor women and how their choices in life affect their health. Or rather lack of choice. They make decisions based on economics, a lot of them don’t have access to services as they don’t have any income. And the third thing… I was working in NGOs all my career. And I’ve got tired of NGOs and donors doing the same things over and over again to address the same issues. I wanted to see if I can address those issues in a different way. I was linked to different people, also my future co-founders. And we started to discuss Yangon Bakehouse, how it could look like, its basic outline. We decided to set a company and we were ready to invest in it. We did an IndiGoGo crowdfunding campaign around 2012 and we had some backers to help us, people believed in us.
Having people supporting them turned out to be a crucial element of success.
The reason why we are successful is that we were able to involve the community to support us. By that I mean our suppliers, from which we buy local products. We bring women into this program, hire Myanmar people. The other part of the community are our customers. We have to be able to convince our customers that it’s better to drive 5 minutes more down the road to our cafeteria, even if driving in this city is terrible. “Please, stay in your car for 5 more minutes because you are going to make a difference in somebody’s life. You can eat your cheesecake and feel good about it.” The profits go back to people. But it’s not only that, it is important for us to have a product which will stand by itself. People’s empathy and sympathy don’t go very far, it has to be a good product.
And Yangon Bakehouse products are definitely worth to try. They sell coffee, delicious cakes, but also local products like bread or honey. Anything you buy will help to organize courses for women from disadvantaged backgrounds, which will empower them with a profession and the possibility to work.
Our main mission is about moving women who have no means of income from the informal economy to working places, the formal economy. They become valuable, functioning women contributing to their household income and at the end of the day that’s what I’m the proudest of. There was one woman who at the beginning I questioned whether she was the right apprentice to accept for our course. Finally she graduated, and 6 months later I met her again. She left her husband, took her child, she is working, she stands on her own feet. When I saw her, the glamour of her skin and light in her eyes… she is a different person today. She said she changed her life. In moments like that you just feel that what you are doing makes sense.
Although the beginning was not a piece of cake.
The operating environment it’s really tough. It’s not only for us, but for any small or medium size business. Let me give you an example. Myanmar starts to boom and all landlords put the rent up. If you are a small or medium business you have to put down one year rent ahead, that’s before you buy anything else, decoration, equipment. The amount of investment becomes very, very high. How to create a small business without taking such a risk? Especially in the beverage industry where the margin is very small, nobody gets rich with that, unless you do alcohol. Bakery, café … you don’t make big money.
To survive, despite the hard conditions, you need first and foremost to be able to learn from your own experience...
We need to reflect backward what were the lessons to learn. It hasn’t been a straight line of progression. What have we learned? What are the best ways to go forward? We always think about our program, what works, what doesn’t work, what could we do differently, even in terms of our model: is it the best model? What do we need to do to make it better? What do we truly know it works and can be replicated?
… and enjoy what you are doing.
Have fun. I really like my job. I have some terrible days just like everybody else, but at the end of the day I really enjoy what I’m doing, I feel good about it and I see it has an impact on women who participate in our course. They change their lives. If you want to do something good, I wish you fun doing that. Anything that is valuable has to be fun.
More about Yangon Bakehouse: yangonbakehouse.com