Farmers, Meet Processors. Processors, Meet Farmers.
This post was written by Timothy D. May in Yangon.
Smallholder soy farmers in Burma, many of whom still rely on bullock carts to get around, lack good markets for what they produce. Myanmar is an ethnically stratified country with rickety infrastructure just emerging from an economic deep freeze, and factory owners from Mandalay don’t usually sit in the same room with farmers from Shan State discussing direct sales.
This is why when it does happen, it’s transformative. Ask Daw Lei Lei Aung, the forward-thinking owner of Yangon Nike Bean Products (named after the Greek goddess of victory, not the shoe company). She accepted an invitation from USAID’s Value Chains for Rural Development project, implemented by Winrock International, to attend a pair of business-to-business events to match the market needs of soy farmers using improved, climate-adapted seeds and new technologies — such as hand seeders and grain dryers — with domestic buyers in need of bigger volumes of better soy grain.
The strategy worked. After meeting and talking with soy farmers, Daw Lei’s Lei’s small tofu company, supported in part by an Innovative Grant to improve her factory, placed new orders with growers in four townships in southern Shan, paying them quality premiums of $8.00 more per bag in exchange for clean, high-quality grain. Other processors followed suit, and a new, direct market lane was opened.
“It is to our mutual benefit to work together directly, because farmers get better prices and Nike gets better quality beans,” Daw Lei Lei said, adding that her new confidence in the quality of supply, along with the grant that helped mitigate her risk, motivated her to expand and launch such new products as the healthy soy sprouts and tofu tubes now available in Myanmar’s fastest growing supermarket chain, City Mart. She also invested more than $222,000 in upgrades and is pursuing certification for global food safety/hygiene standards.
One of the first business-to-business events covered the nutritious virtues of soy, an important, protein-packed crop for food security in Myanmar, where many people abstain from eating meat for portions of the year. That event featured such speakers as a Myanmar celebrity chef and the former global technical director of human nutrition at the American Soybean Association, elevating soy’s profile as a healthy food with huge marketing potential in Myanmar.
A second event, held in Shan — the epicenter of soy cultivation in Myanmar — enabled processors to get down to business, negotiating with farmers and making deals. At the Shan event, Dr. Khin Maung Win, the owner of a Myanmar agri-inputs supply company, Jaguco Co., met directly with newly organized producer groups adopting improved seeds, inputs and technology and hatched plans to develop new seed multiplication and distribution networks with them, in cooperation with the local Department of Agriculture.
The project continues to support soy farmers in Myanmar, helping producer groups become organized, facilitating community extension and assisting the groups’ transitions into registered small and medium-sized enterprises, enabling them to qualify for loans and micro-finance to grow their businesses. Similar “people-to-people” activities, linkages and technical assistance in other smallholder-driven value chains, including in the specialty coffee and ginger value chains, are opening new and more lucrative markets in those sectors as well, offering farmers in once-isolated communities in Myanmar a chance to make new connections, improve incomes and benefit from economic growth.