YANGON, Myanmar — It’s 6 a.m. and a small kitchen tucked away at the back of a house in Yangon, Myanmar is buzzing. Women are hard at work measuring and mixing ingredients to make the day’s batch of baked goods. The women work away, occasionally sharing stories and laughing softly as they go.
Across town, in another kitchen, more women are getting ready to prepare the day’s meals — washing, chopping, tossing and cooking the day’s fresh salads and soups that will soon find their way to plates around Yangon.
These are just two of the kitchens belonging to the Yangon Bakehouse, a unique social enterprise started by two Canadian women and their partners. It was one of the first businesses of its kind in Myanmar, helping give women living in poverty, with little opportunity and few marketable skills a chance in the rapidly growing service industry in the country.
After the military junta that ruled the country with an iron fist for decades suddenly decided to ease restrictions on the citizens of Myanmar, entirely new opportunities began to emerge and the founders of the Yangon Bakehouse recognized this as their chance.
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“We were four women who had a real interest to do something different. We knew Myanmar was changing,” said Cavelle Dove, one of the co-founders of the Bakehouse.
Desire for something different
Dove and her other expat partners recognized a desire for healthy Western-style food that wasn’t readily available, despite the influx of foreigners.
More importantly, they also saw a need to help disadvantaged women gain the necessary skills to be a part of a growing economy that hadn’t existed under the strictly controlled military regime.
“For those women, they don’t have a chance to go back into the formal economy, or they’ve never had a chance to enter into the formal economy,” Kelly MacDonald, the Bakehouse’s other Canadian co-founder, told Global News. “So, it was that group of women we felt very passionate about giving a second chance in life.”
The unique social enterprise meant they could marry their passion to empower women with a business need. So, the Bakehouse was born.
It began in MacDonald’s kitchen in 2012 and expanded in 2013. Instead of collecting the profits for themselves as the business grew, all of the earnings went right back into the Bakehouse.
The women whose lives have changed
Those profits go into helping women like Moe Moe Swe gain skills they would never be able to get anywhere else. With just a grade four education and a son to support, Swe was earning about USD $6 a month as a seamstress before becoming an apprentice at the Bakehouse.
In a 10-month apprentice-ship, she learns kitchen food safety, hygiene and English.
Swe says she has set her sights high after graduation.
She is following in the footsteps of the other 70 students to successfully complete the program over the years.
Thin Thin Liang is one of them. She went through the same program and now works at the Bakehouse.
She used to earn very little at the local Tiger beer factory, cleaning up stray bottles.
“I am really proud because I get the success and chances that I never dreamed of in my life,” she said with a broad smile.
So far, the program is proving very successful with a 75 percent graduation rate, but MacDonald stressed they are working towards improving that number.
Of those who do graduate from the program, 90 percent go on to higher paying jobs and make an average of USD $45 a month — an amount can make a huge difference in the lives of these women and their families.
The future of Yangon Bakehouse
Seng Ja, the program’s manager, works closely with the women during their training. and says it’s exciting to be changing lives in such a tangible way. She hopes the program will continue to grow and be an example to others in the country.
“This is a very good example for others in Myanmar,” she said. “But, I think this is very new, so not a lot of people can see it very clearly.
“But I hope that later on it will be a good example for other people in Myanmar.” That’s what Dove and MacDonald hope for, too.
They’re excited to see how much the business is growing.
The Bakehouse currently provides catering services to several concessions inside major company headquarters in Yangon. But in February 2015, they added a very big, new client to the list.
“Coca-Cola is also back after being banned from Myanmar for 20 plus years. They’re now… rolling out production all across the country,” said Dove.
“It’s quite exciting and they also have a new corporate headquarters and they needed food services for their staff… we provide their lunch program.”
With all of this momentum, the future looks bright for an enterprise that is changing lives and changing the face of Myanmar.
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