Gender Equality Necessary To Power Myanmar’s Society

Kelly Macdonald, Co-founder of Yangon Bakehouse

Text by Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by Shawn Khoong

Recent economic and political reforms in Myanmar have opened doors to a series of policy dialogues and civil society movements on issues including gender inequality and the lack of economic opportunities for women in Myanmar.

MYANMAR – 2013 was a watershed year for women in Myanmar.

On 20 September 2013, Myanmar played host to the country’s first-ever international conference on women issues and empowerment solutions. The Myanmar Women’s Forum, which was jointly organised by Women’s League of Burma (WLB) and Women’s Organisation Network (WON) attracted over 400 participants from corporations, government and civil society. This was followed shortly by a number of international conferences of a similar nature.

In light of Myanmar’s recent economic and political transition, these forums reflected a growing appetite for platforms that would enable discussions around the importance of enhancing women’s voice in society and the need to improve women’s accessibility to jobs and economic opportunities through legal and policy reforms.

At 51.8%, women make up slightly more than half the population in Myanmar, according to the Ministry of Immigration and Population census in August 2014. Yet only 38% of women are in the work force, the majority of whom are unskilled.

“There is an urgency to better understand how women’s labour force participation can be raised in a region as diverse as Asia. While markets such as Japan and South Korea are ageing surprisingly fast, others such as Cambodia and Myanmar are just stepping onto the global stage as they embrace economic reform. Across all these markets, raising women’s labour force participation rate offers the obvious solution to achieving economic development,” said Dr. Yuwa Hedrick-Wong, Global Economic Advisor, MasterCard.

Kanthan Shankar, World Bank Myanmar’s Country Manager added: “Myanmar is at a critical juncture for harnessing the forces of economic growth in a way that improves its human development outcomes and ensures that all segments of society can benefit. With continued attention to reducing vulnerabilities and improving opportunities, strong progress in gender-equitable growth and poverty reduction can be achieved for all men and women across Myanmar.”

In December 2014, some twenty leaders of major Myanmar and international companies met in Yangon for the inaugural edition of CEO Champions Myanmar, an initiative that was created in 2010 by the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society to drive progress and responsibility for the advancement of women in the private sector.

“The launch of CEO Champions in Myanmar is yet another example of the will and need of women from Myanmar to play a leading and influential role in the future of the economy and society of their country and region. We welcome this new chapter of CEO Champions and look forward not only to their work in Myanmar but also to their discussions with their peers at the Women’s Forum Global Meeting and in every country where our meetings are held, ” said Jacqueline Franjou, CEO of the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society.

On a national level, work has commenced for a coordinated move towards improving the situation of women and girls in Myanmar. The draft National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2012-2021) provides an integrated approach that aims to create enabling systems, structures and practices for the advancement of women, gender equality, and the realisation of women’s rights, in accordance with Myanmar’s expressed commitment to international standards, treaties, and agreements.

Myanmar is also seeing independent, emerging movements in civil society. Yangon Bakehouse for instance, is a “by women, for women” social impact organisation that was founded by three expatriates and a Burmese in 2013 to address gender inequality in a small but tangible way; it provides culinary and social skills training to disadvantaged women in Myanmar.

Women at risk, women lacking a stable income, minimally educated women are recruited by Yangon Bakehouse and put through a 10-month employment and training programme that provides a fair living wage, work skills training, medical benefits and life skills training. At the end of the programme, Yangon Bakehouse ‘apprentices’ as they are called, are then given career assistance and placement opportunities across a network of cafes, restaurants and bakeries in Myanmar.

“We realise that we can’t change Myanmar ten women at a time, but for those ten women, we hope to make a difference,” said Kelly Macdonald, one of the founders of Yangon Bakehouse.

Canadian social entrepreneur and a public health professional speaks to Catalyst Asia on Yangon Bakehouse, a successful social business in Myanmar that provides culinary and social skills training to disadvantaged women, and assists them to secure jobs in the growing hotel, restaurant industry.

What got you started on Yangon Bakehouse?

Yangon Bakehouse was founded to address women’s issues in Myanmar. We wanted to provide women with livelihood opportunities and to keep them safe. We wanted to give women opportunities that did not compromise their health, and options that safeguard their dignity. In Myanmar there is no social safety net. Even with NGOs, a lot of women are falling through the cracks. We want to better their position in life.

The sex trade is common in Myanmar because a lot of women have close to no options. What options would you have if you were not educated past grade 2 or grade 4?

Yangon Bakehouse was also founded as a response to the lack of healthy, western food choices that are free from preservatives. We wanted to introduce western food options that are made from healthy, wholesome ingredients. When we first introduced Apple Carrot Muffins to the menu, locals in Myanmar were tickled by the fact that we were baking with vegetables!

As Myanmar opens up, there will be a need for more skilled people especially for the hotel and hospitality industry. So Yangon Bakehouse complements that need.

How has the journey been?

Yangon Bakehouse started operations in Dec 2012. Till today, the concept of a social business is still very new. There is no agreement on the meaning of it and no set pathways, unlike a traditional business. In a social business like ours, we are trying to address social inequality in a charitable way while applying a business lens.

Business principles tell us that in order to be successful, you need to operate a lean, mean machine. In a social business where training is at the heart of what we do, high overheads are unavoidable.

We train 24 women a year in two batches and we give them a fair wage and medical benefits while training them on technical and life skills. Trainers, uniforms and equipment all cost money. Due to the lack of physical space in the retail outlet, we have had to acquire additional space to conduct the training for our apprentices as well.

The issue of rent in Myanmar is outrageous. Small organisations have to put down a year’s worth of rent as upfront payment to secure the space. Rent has also grown exponentially. This is compounded by the fact that there is no protection for the renter. Rent hikes are unpredictable and the frail legal system provides no recourse. We are at the mercy of landlords.

In addition, financial institutions are so nascent that there is no policy of loans. A US$50,000 loan for expansion is not an option that is available to us, so we are not able to expand in a big way. The lack of access to capital is a real limitation. To take in more women, Yangon Bakehouse needs more capital and capacity. The question becomes –If you wanted to scale, how fast can you scale?

Did you anticipate these challenges when you first started out?

When we first started out, we projected that the profits we make from the bakery would go towards sustaining the non-profit aspects of the business. We were also hoping to get corporations to fund the training programme for vulnerable women as part of their CSR efforts.

Although there is talk of CSR in the business community in Myanmar, the scene is still very nascent. Corporations tend to give to monasteries or poor schools in the villages, and less so to social enterprises like ours. There is still a lack of understanding in the value of supporting social enterprises as a way to grow a corporation’s ethical footprint. As Myanmar opens up, I hope that the concept of CSR for local businesses grows too. Foreign companies have supported us, mostly in-kind, during YBH’s start up phase. For instance, from an Australian company doing water treatment in Myanmar, we received a water filtration system.

Do you feel that there is support for social enterprises?

There are no policies available to help social enterprises at the moment. Since opening up, the government of Myanmar has had to deal with a long list of priorities. So we are not expecting support from the government in the near term.

I have observed that more donors are getting tired of the NGO model where there is 100% reliance on donations. NGOs cease to exist and operate when funding runs dry.

Social enterprises provide a different model because they are more accountable for their money. The business model of looking at cost recovery and even profit inherently means that they have the potential to be more sustainable.

Has Yangon Bakehouse been received well by the community?

The expat community in Myanmar understands what we are trying to do well and we have been getting support from them. What we would like to do better is in reaching out to the Burmese community. The concept of social business is still foreign to them. We need to do better at communicating our mission and educating them that a percentage of what we make at the bakery goes toward training women.

Given the challenges you’re facing, what is keeping you going?

We are in the business of providing an alternative paradigm to tackle social inequality. We are almost trailblazers as there are no pioneers and footprint that we can look to. Everyday, there are new issues and problems that need to be fixed. I grapple between the non-profit and for-profit ends of the business and ask myself what the best ratio is. If you focus on the for-profit aspect, you necessarily focus less on the social reasons that got you started. Finding the balance between the two is a juggling routine. It is new and it is dynamic. I also wonder if this is contextual to Myanmar or is it an issue that is faced by other social enterprises regardless of where they operate.

Beyond charities and NGOs that have existed for 40 years and are still heavily reliant on donations, I believe there is a different way to address social inequality. The drive to nail it keeps me going.

What advice would you give to emerging social entrepreneurs who are looking to contribute to the betterment of society in Myanmar?

I wear four hats. I am a woman, a mother, a public health specialist and a social entrepreneur. I feel that every journey is unique. The wealth of life experiences that I’ve gained from wearing these four hats have shaped me and where I am going.

If I have to give any word of advice at all, I would say that you have to nail down your business model. It is even more important in a social enterprise because of the social aspects you are dealing with. You have to be realistic about how much cost you can cover.

A social business is business that is built to address a social issue. It is not a business that channels a certain amount to social causes, that’s charity or CSR. You have to feel it in your heart to make a difference and to have clarity of your goals.


Kelly Macdonald is a Canadian social entrepreneur and a public health professional. She has been working for women’s reproductive health, safety, and rights as a social entrepreneur and a public health specialist. She is a founder of the Yangon Bakehouse, a successful social business in Myanmar that provides culinary and social skills training to disadvantaged women, and assists them to secure jobs in the growing hotel, restaurant industry. She also works with NGOs that provide social and clinical services to support positive outcomes for women’s reproductive health.

Kelly has MSc degrees from the University of Guelph (Rural Planning and Development) and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (Reproductive Health Epidemiology). She also has a BA from the University of Calgary. She has been living and working in Africa and SE Asia since 1994 of which she has been living in Myanmar for 10 years with her family.


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