A Mason on voluntary service in Myanmar (Burma)

Malcolm Timms is junior warden of Rockhaven and Horwich Lodge No 2324 and Malcolm has for the past five years done voluntary work for a Scottish charity that provides skilled business consultants to organisations in some of the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Malcolm has recently finished his second tour of Myanmar, the first one was for 14 weeks duration and the last one has been for five weeks.

Malcolm Timms (centre in the chequered shirt) and the team meet with a yoghurt farmer.

Malcolm Timms (centre in the chequered shirt) and the team meet with a yoghurt farmer.

The aim was to build the capacity of social enterprises and in doing so, provide employment, protection to the vulnerable, access to local products and services for the most needy. The role is to train local people as business consultants/advisors to provide consultancy services to the social enterprises. This training is done, so to speak – ‘in the field’.

At the end of this programme Malcolm has completed 15 months of overseas voluntary work over the past four years, in such countries as Malawi, Sri Lanka, Nepal (including an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude), Myanmar, and Botswana.

So why has this trip to Myanmar been so different? The scope has covered 15 enterprises spread over half of the country and 15 consultants to manage. The furthest outpost consisted of a flight of one and a half hours and a bus journey of two hours. But it was well worth it!

On the outskirts of the large town of Pyay, which is some six hours by road (290 kilometres) from Yangon (Rangoon) is the Shwe Altruism Childs’ home which raises orphans, providing education and vocational trainings. Shwe’s Board is made up of a 15-member committee, consisting of local businessmen and members of Rice Mills Association of Padaung township.

There are currently 120 students living at the home, ranging from kindergarten to high school students. The daily activities include morning prayers, meal times, playing time and tutoring sessions before going to bed.

This home has been supported by donations since its inception. The board of the home are not happy with just accepting donations and want to do something which will generate funds to support the orphanage. They were recently given a small piece of machinery to make liquid soap which is then sold in 500ml bottles for the equivalent of 40p.

The board asked the British Council who are sponsoring the social enterprise programme if they could use the services of the consultants. And so, on a very hot sunny morning Malcolm and five trainee consultants arrived to hear the home’s story and agreed a way of helping them. After two hours of discussion (all in Burmese), there was a tour of the facility. The children appeared well fed and well clothed. They were somewhat wary of Malcolm as he was the first westerner they had met. They were very polite and disciplined and obviously well educated (for Myanmar standards).

On their return to the home two days later Malcolm was taken aback that the five consultants had been out the previous night and bought toothbrushes and toothpaste, drinks and sweets for all the children, which they distributed to the assembled children, with much chatter and excitement.

A meeting at a rice farm.

A meeting at a rice farm.

So, what was the answer to help the orphanage? The consultants believed that by slightly altering the formula for the soap, the orphanage could produce ‘body wash’, which commands a higher price. They could use their current manufacturing facility to produce 200ml bottles which would sell for at least the equivalent of a £1. This produced great excitement amongst the board, which could clearly see the opportunity to quadruple their current income. This would go a long way to making the orphanage self supporting. One job well done!

The second project was to support Mrs Daw Myint Myint Thaung who owns and manages three companies in Zigon Township; Pyae Hein Thar Rice & Paddy Co Ltd, Lucky Private School and a rice mill. She operates all three companies with an objective to raise the living standards of families of farmers in the community. As can be imagined this is a labour-intensive company and as such some 100 people work for the companies.

The Lucky Private School takes the labourer’s children between the ages of eight and 14 and provides, not just a basic education (education in Myanmar is sporadic, not compulsory and expensive) but also prepares the brighter students for university.

How much does this cost the labourer? Some as little as £2.50 per month. Those that can afford to pay more (foremen and managers) pay more but in line with their income. The deficit is met by Mrs Daw Myint Myint Thaung. But Mrs Daw Myint Myint Thaung wants to do more and she has challenged the consultants to help her to educate the farmers to keep their children in school, developing their skills and knowledge in English, provide low-cost computer training to the local people, thereby aiming to alleviate the unemployment rate within the region.

Meeting with the principal of a local temple.

Meeting with the principal of a local temple.

Support was also provided for a Community Support Regime programme regarding school education. For example, 16 ethnic children from Shan State are provided with stationery and other necessities and moreover, two students have been supported for their further continuous study. This programme also sees the distribution of free water to nearby local people who are in need of it, along with a school milk programme.

Malcolm’s five weeks were up and it was back home. And then, what are his next plans? Who knows? The Scottish charity say they have a number of parties interested in taking Malcolm both in Africa and Asia, perhaps if he is invited he will go back next year – if his wife lets him!