Thursday, 14 August 2014

Proximity Design, Yangon

A month ago, I was fortunate enough to have visited Proximity Design’s Office in Yangon, the winners of the CurryStone Design award 2013. Their approach to design for change is inspirational, not only because of their direct relationship with rural communities, but also because of the ingenuity of their designs. Proximity Design use the Human Centred Design (HCD) model when creating now products for their users. This requires living and working with their customer to develop live prototypes through participatory discussions and activities. This allows the designers to really empathise with their customers, which should inspire them to create products that are specialised to their needs as well as their budgets.

When talking to Jim Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Design, I began to realise the actual scale of the social enterprise and their operation. Not only had they successfully produced and distributed more than 110,000 irrigation pumps, water storage units and drip irrigation sets around Myanmar, but are also expanding to provide more services to their customers including financial services, farm advisory services, and are in the process of developing a solar energy range for use on the farm. At the time of my visit I was shown their latest design, a solar powered water pump, the cheapest in the world and soon to be sold to farmers. One project I found extremely interesting was a project being conducted by the graphics team who were working on information handouts that would be easily legible by farmers who are often illiterate and/or have eyesight problems. This included using HCD to develop clear graphics and a new font that would help communicate vital information to the farmers about how to use their products.

The range of products available allows small-scale farmers to increase yields sustainably, making such investments immensely beneficial. The products give farmers a reason to continue and expand their farming practices, hopefully considering it a viable means of making a living. Myanmar is extremely lucky to have a high water table, although there is often a minor problem of accessing, storing and distributing water on small farms. The range of products offered by Proximity Design allows for farmers to solve this problem and distribute water evenly throughout their farm, with little effort and also without relying on an unsustainable energy sources.

The staff at the organisation were a mixed bunch of young hip Mayanmese with different degrees and background. Jim told me that this was vital to create an innovative environment. I couldn't agree with him more, it seemed like the dynamic mix of engineers, social designers, innovators, anthropologists, and financial specialist made for the perfect knowledge base for the HCD process. This video explains a little bit more about this process and how Proximity Design use HCD to help rural farmers with their design of the foot pump which won the CurryStone award last year:

Monday, 30 June 2014

Street Market, Yangon, Myanmar

Myanmar, described as the final frontier of Asia. Still in the early stages of development, the country is vulnerable to external exploitations and this is being seen in the heavy influx of foreign investers who all want a cut of the virgin pie.

I am visiting my parents who have moved to Yangon last September (for some of this humble pie) and can not help feeling like I am part of the problem. Listening to expats whine and moan about the poor water quality, the lack of sanitation and the communication issues they have with their drivers is a little tiresome and frustrating. Worse still is the insistent trips to the only three air-conditioned malls/super-markets with "proper coffee", "sugar-free bread" and "cheese". I needed to escape and see what lay beyond Western Superficiality. So I took a trip down-town with chef Tuk Tuk from Horizon Golf Club, and ventured beyond the pagodas and river boats into the busy narrow streets of old Yangon. What I found was the most diverse variety of food, colour, and smells I had experienced since my arrival.

With 80% of the population still relying on agriculture as their main source of income, I truly hope this variety continues as Yangon develops, especially as padi-fields and farms around the city are being gobbled up by factories and high rise buildings. Like similar Asian cities, as competition increases with economic growth, there could be a reduction in variety of produce and an increase in more intensive agricultural practices. I wonder how this would effect the livelihoods of low-input agricultural farmers that supply majority of the city's fresh produce.

The polite patient nature of the Burmese people is something we could all learn from, but I feel it could also be detrimental when it comes to resisting the exploitation of human and environmental rights that are not being stripped by the government, but by foreign hands.

I dont want this post to be overly political. I would just like to show people what is worth preserving...

One of the many market streets in Down Town Yangon

...More Roots... 
...And Pickled Roots
Dried Mushrooms
Achari (Pickles)
Dried Chilli 
Fish Products
Chicken with all the bits and bobs
Live Eels
Fish, prawns, squid, clams and cray fish
Lobster and Langoustine 
Pig and all the bits and bobs
Indoor fish and meat market
Typical street in Old Yangon