The Dish

Proximity Designs: Myanmar

creating affordable, income-boosting products and services for rural Myanmar

Proximity Designs is an award winning non-profit social enterprise operating in rural Myanmar. They use human-centered design principles, years of technical expertise, and a whole lot of local insight to create affordable, income-boosting products and services that address the needs of rural burmese families, while complementing their unique entrepreneurial spirit.

Established in 2004 by Jim Taylor and Debbie Aung Din, Proximity began by making foot-powered irrigation pumps, and soon expanded this into an entire line of irrigation products tailored to the Myanmar farmer. Each product costs under $45, but can increase farm incomes by 100% in the first season. This can mean an additional $1000 over just 3 or 4 seasons-- making basic needs like education, healthcare and food no longer luxuries, but realities for rural families.

Proximity believes that like people everywhere, the poor deserve products that are high quality and durable, that deliver great results and are enjoyable to use.

To make these at extremely affordable prices they use cutting-edge technology, creativity, and a whole lot of prototyping using advanced computer modeling software and robotics technologies. They rigorously test products using in-house robotic innovations that mimic customer usage and show them just how durable their products will be after a month, a season, and a year in the field.

They're efforts have resulted in increased incomes and improved lifestyles for over 486,500 people across Myanmar. One of these many lives is that of midwife and nurse, Daw Tin Tin Mya of Shwebo Su village. She purchased a solar lantern in early June, and has since successfully delivered three babies by its light. The lantern has also helped her to visit sick patients at night and says they are comforted by the strong light she brings with her.

Their products have also had some unexpected benefits. It turns out that dating, like farming is rather time consuming for eligible young farmers in rural Myanmar. According to 24-year old Ko Kyaw Kyaw Sein from Kyaukse, he used to spend hours pumping and lugging water in sprinkler cans every day, which left him minimal free time to be out meeting girls. After installing Proximity's drip irrigation system on his betel plot, he says it's saving him about 3 hours a day of labor.

"Now I’ve got some free time", he says, "I’m going to use it to woo the girls. There's a girl I quite like already but I've always been too busy with the farm to spend time with her".

After a major cyclone hit the Ayarwady Delta in 2008, they began diversifying their line of services, and created farm recovery services in direct response to the crop failings and pest infestations that Delta farmers were suffering from. As relief services became less critical, they added financial services, a line of solar lanterns, and a comprehensive farm advisory service to share simple high impact, low-cost farming techniques that get farmers bigger yields.

Most recently they began offering a crop loan service, that provides credit for critical inputs, to help farmers set themselves up for a successful season. Each of these services increases incomes by an average of $250 per season. This year Proximity Designs were recipients of both the Skoll Foundation's and the Schwab Foundation's Award for social entrepreneurship.