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How one nonprofit is transforming farming in Myanmar

A path to progress

Proximity Designs operates in Myanmar (Burma) with the goal of increasing income for the country’s rural poor. The organization’s agronomists work with farmers to come up with affordable solutions.

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    Myanmar farmers harvest rice in a field in the village of Wah Thin Kha, March 29, 2012.
    Altaf Qadri/AP/File
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U Maung Maung, a rice farmer in the Bogale township of Myanmar, battled crop killing insects for years.

“I wanted to feed the bugs to the crocodiles,” he recalled. “My bank account was being nibbled away!”

In 2013, the stem-boring bugs ate through about $240 worth of U Maung Maung’s rice harvest, an astronomical amount considering the average person in Myanmar earns just over $1,100 in a year. U Maung Maung responded to the onslaught by purchasing expensive chemical pesticides, rapidly draining his savings. But he felt he had no choice. The farm was his family’s livelihood, their bank account, and their financial security.

Then, a friend told him about the “crop doctors.” 

The crop doctors are trained agronomists from Proximity Designs, a non-profit social enterprise operating in Myanmar with the goal of increasing income for the country’s rural poor. About 70 percent of people in Myanmar depend on agriculture. Proximity brings improved farming technology and practices to farmers and offers innovative financial solutions to help them do so.

“Poor people want well-designed products,” says Jim Taylor, one of the founders of Proximity Designs. “This idea of extreme affordability keeps us accountable. If people don’t find our products of value, they won’t spend their hard-earned money on them.”

Proximity offers a range of products designed to address the most common and pressing needs of Myanmar farmers. One of these products is a foot-powered water pump that allows farmers to irrigate their plots without having to haul buckets to and from water sources. For many, this device saves about eight hours a day.

In addition to products, Proximity’s Farm Advisory team offers free services to farmers in the Ayeyarwady Delta region, holding group training sessions and offering individual farm assessments. Proximity’s agronomists work with individual farmers to tailor affordable solutions to their farm-specific challenges. They offer simple but productive techniques so farmers can improve yields and reduce risks. Since the organization’s inception in 2004, farm advisory services have helped over 35,000 farmers.

U Maung Maung decided to attend a farmer training in a nearby village.

“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said. Proximity agronomists taught U Maung Maung a variety of easy and affordable pest management techniques that used locally available resources, instead of expensive chemical pesticides.

Over the course of a few seasons using Proximity’s recommended approaches, U Maung Maung gradually reduced his pesticide use. Now, he loses only a fraction of what he once did to insects and saves money on pesticides. Ecstatic with his results, U Maung Maung became a teacher to farmers in his region. Farmers now seek him out for advice and he spreads what he learned from Proximity, helping others achieve the successes he did.

"These are things we should all know, but we don't,” said U Aye Myo, another farmer who benefited from Proximity’s Farm Advisory Services. “I can't explain how beneficial this knowledge is to us farmers.”

Proximity has helped over 100,000 households increase their income and hopes to continue helping Myanmar farmers like U Aye Myo and U Maung Maung learn smarter – and more profitable – ways to work their land.

Learn more about the work Proximity Designs is doing with Myanmar farmers in a video here.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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