Reap what you sew

Photography: Kaung Htet

In a country such as Myanmar where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line, income-generating activities are much-needed but desperately in short supply. The social enterprise Hla Day (a play on the Burmese phrase for “beautiful”), is helping hundreds of people gain a livelihood by producing crafts.

According to an impact study carried out by Hla Day in 2015, 70 percent of its 450-odd producers are women, and 76 percent are the family’s breadwinners. The majority are from marginalised groups, such as people living with HIV, which limits their ability to find work due to the stigma they face in society.

Hla Day works with 40 producer groups, and the level of support they provide employees varies to accommodate specific needs. Some producers might undergo product design training. Others, said Hla Day’s Designer and Communications Trainer Randi Wagner, “already have a great product and the support given is to connect them to the marketplace and enable them to earn a fair wage.”

Burmese artists were oppressed by military censorship for decades.

Action For Public (AFP) has been one of Hla Day’s producer groups since 2012. Its aim is to support vulnerable communities in cyclone-affected areas and people living with HIV/AIDS.

AFP founder Daw Kyi Pyar said that Hla Day has helped its members to “become financially stable and develop a new sense of self-esteem through their sewing skills. They have become the breadwinners in their families and can support their children’s education expenses.”

Hla Day also provides a rare opportunity to earn a living through creative pursuits. Artistic expression was curtailed for decades under Myanmar’s brutal military regime, and the country has only two universities that teach art, with both placing a heavy emphasis on traditional practices.

“Due to heavy censorship of artistic works in public exhibitions, a practice which ended only in 2013, Myanmar artists have had limited opportunities to display their many talents. It’s important for local and international organisations to create outlets for contemporary artists and artisans,” said the Yangon-based art historian and curator Nathalie Johnston, executive director of Myanm/art and the Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA).

“The training Hla Day provides doesn’t always come easily – students in classrooms are dictated to and free thinking and critical thought isn’t encouraged,” said Randi.

However, Randi was quick to add that Myanmar has a large talent pool to dip into.

“Finding people who can make amazing and beautiful things and need an income can definitely be done – there’s no shortage of producers in Myanmar.”

Hla Day’s store in an airy colonial building in downtown Yangon features a beautifully arranged and eclectic mix of crafts that includes everything from jewelry, kids’ clothing, cushion covers and paper mâché dogs with elongated tails used as toilet roll holders.

Some of its craft items have taken on an iconic status in the years since the original store first opened in 2012. “It’s like a rite of passage when an expat moves to Yangon and gets a dog toilet roll holder,” said Randi with a laugh.

Producers from Hla Day are paid per item and are also paid for the time they spend training or when helping to develop a new prototype. “It’s important to us to pay for training because we don’t want it to be like a factory where people are just pumping stuff out,” said Randi.

Widening profit margins by narrowing socioeconomic margins.

Sales have risen dramatically since Hla Day was reformed and moved premises this past April, and they’ve even started getting inquiries from international buyers.

“We’d like to sell online, but at the moment the infrastructure doesn’t exist," said Randi. "The postal service is unreliable and it’s very expensive to ship small quantities. But we’re ready to go when things change.”

Randi added that expansion plans will be carefully considered.

“We’re making crafts – we’re not mass producing. If we grow, we want it to be sustainable – it will require a lot of thought.”

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