Top 5 Socially Responsible Businesses in Yangon

By: Vicky Blades

Top 5 Socially Responsible Businesses in Yangon

Want to shop, eat or do some business in Yangon and feel that you are actually making a difference at the same time?  Look no further than these five companies which have all sprung up around town in the last three years.   Whilst Corporate Social Responsibility has become a buzzword in Myanmar, you don’t have to be a global conglomerate to push your CSR credentials; the following initiatives were set up with little more than a good idea combined with some great people, hard work and motivation.  Quietly getting on with providing training for a sustainable future,  enabling business ideas to thrive or providing a fair trade marketplace, they are all underpinned with a keen sense of social responsibility and a commitment to making a difference in their home town; Yangon.

Not only that, all five have quickly become the ‘Must Try’ / ‘Have You Been...?’ places because of the quality of their work and their products.  It’s a win - win when you can buy a beautiful purse, sensational sandwich or artisan teak sideboard, not only knowing it has been lovingly made in Myanmar, but also knowing that your cash will go right back to that person, to help them and others build skills and find financial independence.  Read on to find out where you have to go when you visit or come to live in Yangon, Myanmar.

1.       Pomelo

Expat Rachael Storaas arrived in Yangon two years ago and immediately set about furnishing her house.  She was determined to make use of the items and materials produced by local co-ops, NGO’s and charitable enterprises and thus found herself on a journey of discovery.  Not only to far flung and hard to find places but also to a whole world of beautiful fabrics, furnishings, accessories and more.  Realising that everyone else must have a hard time reaching these suppliers too, she decided to set up a shop, centralising distribution of all these goodies and opening up a fair trade market for the manufacturers and suppliers.  She was lucky to find a location above the famous Monsoon restaurant and with help from the owner, plus expats Annie Bell and Ulla Kroeber, was able to start the business surprisingly quickly.  Operating on a not-for-profit basis, Pomelo now sells items from some 25+ suppliers and is a must-visit shop for original, beautiful and unusual Made in Myanmar gifts and furnishings.  Run by volunteers who take turns to man the shop, pitch in to manage social media and marketing as well as serve on the steering committee of local and expat women, it has also become a fashionable place to hold events.  Not only that, but they also assist the suppliers in improving the quality of their existing products as well as designing new, super-sellable items.  Popular with tourists and residents it is continuing to expand and will be moving into new premises in the New Year. 

Top tip:  the papier mache animals in a variety of bright colours and sizes are a fantastic buy; the dogs are exclusively designed and made for Pomelo!

2.       Helping Hands

Every Yangon expat knows the formidable Annie who runs Helping Hands; helping street kids, the unemployed, the underprivileged and vulnerable men and women build a new life by training them to restore amazing teak furniture or teaching sewing, design and tailoring.  The first port of call for anyone needing furniture and furnishings, Helping Hands can provide most of your needs.  Visiting the workshop is a joy, nestling as it does in the yard of a beautiful old colonial building with fantastic landscaping (which is also the home of Annie and her family).  You will be greeted by Zaw who manages the furniture side and is extremely friendly and helpful, plus inside you can see the results of the all female sewing co-operative.  This project was started two years ago with four women and it now involves 24. Aided by a couple of expats and the brilliant manager Sabrina, the aim is to work with marginalised urban women and youth, their families and communities to assist them in becoming productive and independent, as well as allowing them to maintain their dignity and provide a support network.  It really is a family business!  So go buy cushions, kids’ clothes, bags and much more. While you are there, have a peek into the sewing room where all the machines have been donated by satisfied customers.  The coffee is great too!

 Top tip:  deliveries can be arranged and make sure you check out the brilliant reversible girls’ skirts in the shop; a best-seller!

3.       Yangon Bakehouse

Opened a year ago to the (almost) day, Yangon Bakehouse is the brainchild of four future thinking businesswomen who realised there was a gap in the market for European style lunches and snacks.  As well as providing sensational sandwiches, salads, soups and baked goods, the ladies wanted to help those in need and therefore provide a culinary skills training programme for the women (and one man, to date!) who make, cook and bake all the items for sale.  Not only food preparation and hygiene are covered, the women also learn leadership skills, customer services, reproductive and sexual health, nutrition, micro credit saving, loan schemes and English, plus more.  After 10 months YBH support them in finding employment using their new skills in the city’s blossoming hospitality market.  From a home kitchen they are now in commercial premises (see below for details) with a small but efficient kitchen, serving and seating area.  Due to demand opening hours are expanding all the time; currently 7am to 5pm Monday through Friday (closing at 2pm on Wednesday for staff and apprentice training) and Saturdays 8am to 5pm.  If you go at lunchtime be prepared for a crowd!  However, you can order via email or phone for either pick up or delivery.  They also offer outside catering for lunches and cocktail events, which has become hugely popular.  Plans are afoot to expand their training programmes and offerings, most notably their exquisite, English-style savoury pies, hurrah!  The company also offers a comprehensive, graded sponsorship programme for interested donors and you can have your company logo printed on one of the beautiful teak chopping boards which hang in the cafe. 

Top tip: can’t decide what to choose?  YBH offer half and half options so you can buy half a sandwich and half a salad, genius!

4.       Shwe Sa Bwe

Shwe Sa Bwe is the perfect date night locale.  A small but lovely building, beautifully decorated with a serene garden seating area, close to the American Club, Shwe Sa Bwe is the place to go for great French food at affordable prices in a lovely setting.  Francois is the manager (ably assisted by Margot) and he will happily show newcomers around the kitchen with its spotless food preparation area and pantry plus small bar.  He will also tell you how he came to set up this teaching programme for disadvantaged local youth who come here to train in all aspects of hospitality from cooking to front of house.  You will be served by the trainees who are unfailingly courteous and polite (whilst occasionally nervous) and who seem to thoroughly enjoy learning on the job.  The 3-course set menu changes every week and you can be notified of this via their mailing list.  Special occasions such as Valentine’s Day are also catered for and they can be booked for dinner parties and events too, bringing all the equipment and staff needed for a really great drinks and food service.  Visiting chefs come to train the staff regularly and at a super reasonable 14 000 kyats (around $15 USD) for the lunch time set menu, for example, Shwe Sa Bwe is well worth a visit.

Top tip:  a small but good value wine list is available and the trainees love to make cocktails, so be sure to ask!

5.       Project Hub

Project Hub is part of a global movement to support local entrepreneurs with business resources.  Project Hub Yangon was started by Aussie/American couple Pete and Allison two years ago and provides, amongst other things, business premises with super reasonable shared desk space which you can rent by the month, as opposed to the usual, ridiculously high annual rentals in more traditional offices downtown. A lively programme of events helps the burgeoning businesses by providing not only a communal working and socialising space but a continuous programme of seminars, talks and workshops by successful local and international business people; networking events, investor pitch nights and ongoing support by being, literally, a news source and hub for all kinds of business events, sponsorship programmes and training opportunities.  With business ideas as diverse as palm sugar products, a PR agency and of course plenty of IT enterprises, this place may well be the birth place of the Next Big Thing in Myanmar business.  Offers of help are always welcome and the work space itself is ideally situated and very friendly if you would like to drop in to find out more and meet some of the entrepreneurs.  Did we mention they have great coffee too?

Top tip:  Join the mailing list to find out about events hosted by Project Hub, always a fun and relaxed affair with the chance to meet the not just the up-and-coming but the movers and shakers of the business world.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingVicky Blades is a British expat living in Myanmar. Blog description: I'm Blades, he's Wilson and we have 2 small boys. Currently living in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma) I'm a 40-something actress and mum, blonde bit of fluff and sometime Sybil Fawlty impersonator... writing about expat life and parenting.
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Heatherly wrote 10 years ago:

Having lived in Myanmar for three years in the past, I appreciate the challenges of starting any business, much less social business. Vicky does a great job highlighting the best in class in town - that are making a real difference meeting social needs while also providing market products in a challenging environment. Vicky knows what she writes about.

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