Life became a complete struggle for Than Win, a 37-year-old mother of three children, after getting divorced. It has been six years since she parted ways with her husband, and she is looking after her children as the head of the family.
Than Win lives in Mu Char village, 12 miles from the town of Mrauk-U in Rakhine state, and home to 114 households and 343 people. Her 19-year-old son, Zaw Zaw, had to drop out of school in Grade 9 because she couldn't afford to pay for his education. Zaw Zaw moved to Mandalay in 2019, and now he is working at a motorcycle repair shop. Her 15-year-old daughter, Soe Soe Nwe, got married in 2018, and she is living with her husband. Her youngest daughter, Nyein Sandar, 6, is attending kindergarten.
She had to struggle a lot both physically and mentally to earn income and to be able to support her children for their future. She had to take a 100,000 Kyat loan (about US$80) to meet the family's daily needs.
"Though I wanted to start a business, I couldn't do it due to a lack of capital. So, I fished in the lakes around the village and sold the fish in the village to eke out a living. During the rainy season and the winter harvest, I had to work for 3,000 kyats a day in paddy cultivation. Fishing can be a tough job for someone like me. So, I did not want to do that. Every day I thought about another source of income," says Than.
Than saved some of the money from the fish sales and invested 50,000 kyats from the savings to open a vegetable shop in her house. She went to the Mrauk-U market to buy vegetables and resold them in the village. She needed 70,000 kyats for a one time purchase at the market. The daily sales were about 12,000 Kyat, and she would earn up to 30,000 kyats during the festival days in the village. Sales were strong because there were no vegetable sellers at that time.
"But the business was making little profit and it was not enough to repay the debt," says Than. "I could only pay interest on a regular monthly basis. There were no proper loan records and I didn't know how to calculate the expenses. At that time, I could not afford for my daughter's education due to low income."
In the meantime, Than set out to run a regular income-generating business in her village. However, due to her poor education and poor transportation from her village to the town, it was very difficult for her to acquire business knowledge on how to start a business. Then, in May 2020, through the village administration, she heard that a community-based organization named Meikswe Myanmar would come to her village to introduce the "Women's Empowerment and Resilient Inclusive Communities in Rakhine" project funded by UN Women.
"I had an opportunity to participate in the Women's Empowerment Project in our village implemented by World Vision and Meikswe Myanmar. I attended the Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) "Entrepreneurship" five-day training in my village in 2020. I actively participated in the training without missing a day because I want to get a lot of business knowledge and ideas," says Than.
"In the training, the lessons I was interested in are marketing, costing and business planning. A Women's Business Advisory Group was formed on the last day of the five-day training. I wrote a business plan I wanted to work on and submitted it to a community-based volunteer from Meikswe Myanmar," says Than.
Than applied with vegetable sales as her business plan. During the five-day course, she gained a lot of knowledge from other trainees' business experiences that she didn't know before. After attending the training, she was very encouraged to start a business. The training provided Than and other participants with stationery, refreshment and 20,000 Kyat for five days for each participant. As a result, it has become a habit for Than to keep a record of her daily income and expenditure in a book and a list of debt accounts. In addition, a few months after the training, the volunteer from Meikswe Myanmar came to her village twice a month to check the progress of businesses of the women who attended the training. The volunteer also gave advice and took record of their business progress.
"Once a month, members of the Women's Business Advisory Board met to discuss business issues. A few months later, out of 24 trainees in my village, three women, including myself, were selected for start-ups as part of the project," says Than. On June 18, 2021, Through Meikswe Myanmar, the project provided Than with 200,000 kyats as capital for her business. "I was delighted thinking that I could make my dream come true. The funding provided by the project is being invested in my current vegetable business," she says.
Moreover, she used 50,000 Kyat from the funding to buy dried fish and expand her home-based vegetable business. Her business has now become more profitable than before and she is expanding her business with 100,000 Kyat which are the proceeds from vegetable and dried fish sales as capital for mobile phone top-up cards. She is getting a profit of 20,000 kyats per 100,000 Kyat-worth prepaid cards sales.
"Now I paid off all my debt. I also have some savings in my hand. With the money I have saved, I have planned to build a shop in front of my house to run a grocery store and sell vegetables. I was one of the first female heads of households to start a vegetable business in Mushar village," says Than.
With her business growing gradually, Than can now afford to buy new school uniforms, a school backpack, stationery such as books, pens and pencils for her youngest daughter. She has also got more free time to spend with her daughter.
"Now I can give my daughter [money] so that she can buy snacks at school. This wasn't possible before. I could only buy meat once a week for meals in the past, but we can now eat meat or fish every day. I am also really happy to have more time with my daughter. Earlier, most of my time was spent fishing and I didn't have much time for her," says Than.
"Currently, I am still short of capital to run a grocery store. Therefore, I am actively participating in the activities of Savings for Transformation (S4T) savings and loan group, as a member among 30 members. We started saving money in the group on November 15, 2021 and I save 1,000 Kyats a time and the frequency of savings is twice a month. I'd like to thank Meikswe Myanmar, World Vision and donors for providing us with technology and equipment to form a self-supporting savings and loan group which we never had before in our village," says Than.
"Without leaving out the poor and needy like us, Meikswe Myanmar and World Vision have helped us with the right support. It is a fact that we can get out of poverty if we can utilize that support effectively," says Than. "We would like to thank Meikswe Myanmar, World Vision and donors for helping us to get out of difficult situations. If you have any projects in our village in the future, we will actively cooperate with you."
The "Women's Empowerment and Resilient Inclusive Communities in Rakhine" project was implemented by World Vision in collaboration with Meikswe Myanmar from 2019 to 2021 in Mrauk-U, Sittwe, Ponnagyun, and Pauktaw townships in Rakhine State. The project aims to promote gender equality, particularly related to women's economic empowerment and financial inclusion, and to empower women to engage in, contribute to, and benefit from community resilience, and inclusive growth and development in Rakhine State.
The project also aims to help establish a supportive environment to increase women's access to and control over financial resources and new sources of income for promoting their leadership and entrepreneurship. As part of the project activities, SIYB entrepreneurship training was conducted for 1,956 women and 250 women. All trainees received cash grants to start or improve their own businesses. 110 women joined the savings for transformation group (S4T) and members have now increased to 201.