With ‘On-the-Go’ Loans and Tech, Social Firm Boosts Myanmar Farmers

A social venture in Myanmar is boosting farm outputs with customized technologies and giving loans for seasonal migration to raise incomes in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Proximity Designs, which was set up in 2004 in the country’s commercial hub Yangon, focuses on farming, on which more than two-thirds of the population relies to make a living.

The ethical business gives farming advice, custom-designed irrigation products, and loans for crops, livestock and migration to about 200,000 clients in the Southeast Asian nation.

“It’s about improving access of smallholder farmers to knowledge, technology and capital,” said Ben Warren, head of strategy and finance at Proximity. “Myanmar was closed for so long, it was hard for farmers to access these. While access is better now, not many products are made for farmers or reach them.”

Myanmar began emerging from nearly half a decade of military rule in 2011. Helping its smallholder farmers requires a deep understanding of context, as well as empathy and creativity, Warren told Reuters.

Across Southeast Asia, businesses with a social purpose are improving the lives of vulnerable communities and helping narrow inequality.

In Myanmar, farmers rely heavily on the monsoon rain, and the country has one of the lowest percentages of irrigated farmland in Asia, according to Proximity.

The company designed a range of products including drip and sprinkler irrigation systems, and solar-powered pumps which can help increase yield by about a third, Warren said.

As a social venture, Proximity is better placed to help farmers than businesses with a purely profit motive, he said.

“Some areas are not viable or are hard to get to. Since we are supported by some funding, it allows us to subsidize our products and go the extra mile to reach farmers,” he said.

Proximity started giving micro loans to farmers in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, Myanmar’s worst natural disaster which killed nearly 140,000 people and affected some 2.4 million people.

About two years back, based on feedback from its clients, Proximity began “on-the-go” loans to help families during the dry season from November to April, when many men move to cities in search of factory or construction jobs.

A loan of about 200,000 kyat ($130) helps the family in the village until they receive remittances from the city, and also pays for the initial trip to the city, Warren said.

While on-the-go loans are a small part of Proximity’s portfolio now, they could grow because of demand, Warren said.

“Seasonal migration is an annual occurrence in nearly every rural family. With a loan from a reliable source, they can do it without worry,” he said.