More than 3 million women in Myanmar have migrated from villages to the city to find work over the past few years. Since 2014, entrepreneurship incubator Opportunities Now (ONOW) have been supporting this typically vulnerable population to take control of their futures through entrepreneurship.
In a year that has devastated the lives and businesses of so many, ONOW have managed to extend their support to 58,000 entrepreneurs through YBI’s COVID-19 Rapid Response programme funded by Google.org. We spoke to ONOW’s Matt Wallace to learn more about their vital work through the pandemic, and why empowering young, female migrant entrepreneurs is crucial to achieving change in Myanmar.
Where is ONOW based?
Our main operations base is in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar. But during COVID, we haven't really been in the office at all. In the last seven or eight months, our work has really spread across the country.
Can you explain what ONOW is and does?
We're an incubator focused on helping typically young, migrant women to launch their own businesses. We lean into technology to provide digital training in areas like financial literacy and digital literacy. A lot of the foundational skills that enable businesses to do well are lacking among this target population, so our incubator provides coaching services while also doing digital training and financial distribution.
How would you explain the need for ONOW’s work in Myanmar?
Over the last 10 years, about 20% of Myanmar’s population has moved from villages to cities to look for work; roughly 6 million people have moved to Yangon. More than 3 million women have moved to the city from the villages in the last few years, and they usually end up moving into work in factories, or worse. When you’re 18 to 25 years old and trying to find a way to live in a new city, away from your families and your support structures, it can be a frightening time. ONOW’s message to them is that they can take hold of their own future and their own path. Where people might be making roughly $100 a month, we’re saying: “You can actually double that or triple that running your own business, and we'd be glad to help you do that.”
"When you’re 18 to 25 years old and trying to find a way to live in a new city, away from your families and your support structures, it can be a frightening time."
Why is there such a huge flight of people coming from villages to the city?
A lot of it is desperation. It’s not uncommon for a village leader or a parent to choose one of the younger members of the family to go to the city to get work. Often, the oldest child will be sent off to find work in the city and send money back home. Usually, 30-50% of their earnings will go towards the education of the younger children, or to the everyday consumption needs of the family. Most people in the villages work in the agricultural sector and it's not uncommon for agriculture to lurch from debt to debt, season after season. That debt typically spirals deeper and deeper over time. It’s that desperation that drives people to the city to find work.
What is the COVID-19 situation been like in Myanmar?
Many migrant women working in factories saw their jobs disappear. Tens of thousands up to hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost when the orders dried up. Many factory workers also had side businesses serving the needs of other factory workers, so now their customers are no longer buying because they don't have any cash. Businesses have died at rates that are mind-numbing. Of the businesses that are still alive, 60-70% of them are functioning at less than half capacity. These businesses aren’t very resilient, and we're seeing them take on huge levels of debt, so we're doing everything we can to help them survive this time.
Can you tell me about the different types of support ONOW gives to entrepreneurs?
Our incubator is pretty unique because it targets an underserved population of young migrant women, who are not typically people that would be prepared to launch a business. We start with the very basics: introducing them to bank accounts, ATM cards, mobile money, digital finance, phones, how to download apps, and how to use pins and passwords. We've moved the financial and digital literacy pieces into automated digital trainings via chatbots. Across the country, more than 300,000 people have used our chatbots.
This first, automated stage helps them to build this foundation. The rest of the incubator focuses on developing market research plans, developing, testing and validating ideas, building a business model and a financial plan, and being coached through the launch. We feel that this typically vulnerable population needs to connect with someone, so we put them in touch with a coach who knows them by name and can talk them through the whole process.
We also help entrepreneurs find the money to launch; so far we’ve unlocked about a quarter of a million dollars for micro and small enterprises and helped launch about 500 of them. We then coach entrepreneurs for about a year to two years after launch.
How did COVID-19 impact this model?
COVID obviously disrupted our work because we couldn’t meet up in real life, so we pivoted heavily towards a digital and phone-based coaching model. This has helped us significantly scale what we do. We've supported upwards of 13,000 businesses via a digital coaching chatbot, where we've helped them assess their business, how healthy they are, their marketing and the state of their customer base.
Then we help them set some goals and action steps to move forward. Most entrepreneurs sign up for a phone-based coaching experience as well as the automated digital assessment process. Of the 13,000 businesses we've brought through the chatbot, about half have ended up having a phone call with a coach. That’s what the support from YBI and Google.org has helped us do: to build this digital system to support as many businesses as possible with the survival information.
“That’s what the support from YBI and Google.org has helped us do: to build this digital system to support as many businesses as possible with the survival information.”
How has the YBI programme funded by Google.org helped you?
We were starting to understand the problems caused by COVID-19 already, and we were applying our knowledge to support the smaller network we originally had. But the YBI programme allowed us to to build a scalable platform to get as much urgent information out to as many businesses as possible. We wanted to reach underserved businesses without existing support networks, so we made sure that at least half of them were run by women and young people aged 18-35. A digital platform can reach areas we typically wouldn’t be able to, so we made sure to cover the periphery as much as large cities. We couldn't have done any of those things without Google and YBI helping us build this digital platform, which has proved incredibly impactful and scalable. It's positioned us to scale our impact across the country for years to come, even after COVID.
“This digital platform… has proved incredibly impactful and scalable. It's positioned us to scale our impact across the country for years to come, even after COVID.”
Without the support from YBI and Google.org, where do you think ONOW would be now?
We would be a smaller organisation. I imagine we would only be supporting the 300 or smaller businesses that we were originally working with. We would not have found this incredibly innovative, scalable approach combining digital and business support. Most likely, thousands more businesses who would be having a lot of trouble right now. Our data's showing that we’ve helped preserve 16,000 jobs in these businesses, which would otherwise have been lost. Typically, our users are telling us they’ve found our support very helpful, and they've been able to pivot their business models as a result.
How do you manage to reach a target community with low levels of digital literacy online? How do you then give them effective digital support?
Myanmar is a unique context, because it’s seen the fastest smartphone adoption rate in the history of the world since 2014. There are 27 million people in this country on the internet, which is just over half the country, and all of them, 27 million , are on Facebook. So while they don't have a lot of digital literacy generally, they totally understand how to use Facebook. Facebook Messenger is the most common app in the country, so we’ve focused on providing as much support as we can through that. That's been really key to our strategy; we call it appropriate technology.
We don't have a huge follower count on Facebook because we don't pursue likes and shares. We call them vanity stats because they're not that useful. What we care about is getting people to open a Messenger conversation, which we've done more than 300,000 times. 80,000 users have had some kind of interaction with the chatbot, and 13,000 people who have completed a chatbot conversation have done this coaching conversation. That’s an incredibly high conversion rate of around 18% who end up being coached by us.
A lot of delivery partners through the Google.org programme are receiving or starting to receive support from Google employees. Is that something you're also doing?
Yes, and it was so well received that we’re planning to do it again with a much larger group of people. We brought in Googlers from the India and Singapore offices who did a webinar for some of our business owners to teach them about Google Maps and how to get their business listed on it. I thought the Googlers did an excellent job figuring out how to hold an interactive and engaging webinar even though most of our business owners are not English speakers. They were very patient and flexible and inquisitive, and really managed to connect with our business owners, even across cultural and linguistic lines.
“The Googlers did an excellent job figuring out how to hold an interactive and engaging webinar even though most of our business owners are not English speakers. They were very patient and flexible and inquisitive”
With regards to the migrant women that you support, what typically might some of their businesses be in what sectors and areas?
There’s a lot of variation in our incubator but most of the businesses are very basic business models. About 43% are retail, 20-25% are manufacturing, 18% are in agriculture, 8% are transportation and 6% are other services. Each of them have been hit somewhat differently by the pandemic, but it's not surprising that retail and manufacturing have been worst affected. In the retail sector, around 35% of businesses expect to have to close within the next six months, and around 23% of them expect they won't survive another month. So, we're talking about some really rough situations. Transportation businesses are also hurting because people aren't leaving their homes, so there’s no-one to drive.
Can you talk about the side businesses run by factory workers?
Most of the entrepreneurs in our incubator are factory workers and they need a regular income to survive, so they're not willing to just quit that and start a business. Instead, they’ll take baby steps towards it. They'll open their business, but they'll run it from inside of the factory and target their co-workers with a new product or a new service. Often, the factory management doesn’t want their workers leaving the premises for lunch, so often they will actually encourage their workers to have this kind of side business to meet each other's buying needs. Obviously, this raises serious questions about agency and dependency, but I think it's really interesting that so many women are able to run their own enterprises within these limitations.
Can you tell me about any young women entrepreneurs who have really inspired you?
Yes – her name is Htu Luan. She’s a young woman living with a disability on her right foot. She’s a seamstress and was really affected when the pandemic hit, as it was a non-essential business, and her income completely dried up. But she transitioned her team quite quickly to begin to sew some stylish masks. She has pivoted really well during the crisis and continues to operate. She did the Google ‘My Business’ seminar recently and was really attracted to the idea of trying to reach a larger population using digital media and digital adverts, and I feel sure she's going to do it. She also employs five or six other people also living with disabilities.
Why is women's entrepreneurship such an important tool for change?
That's really the key question, and it’s why we do what we do. When I think about entrepreneurship, it is this agency question that's really essential, especially with migrant females. In many cases, they're decision takers, not decision makers. They've been told to go to the city, they've been told to find work and they've been told to send most of their money home. But to truly become their own person, they need to see other ways to meet those cultural needs. Entrepreneurship is an amazing way to show women that there are many paths to building your own decision-making ability, and to contributing to the needs of your community. That’s an especially big driver in a communitarian society like Myanmar, as opposed to our individualistic society in the West.
“Entrepreneurship is an amazing way to show women that there are many paths to building your own decision-making ability, and to contributing to the needs of your community.”
Before we finish our conversation, is there anything you want to mention?
My team are amazing. We've got seven coaches who spend a ton of time on the phone talking to business owners. They’ve tried to call upwards of 11,000 businesses, and though only 6,900 of them have been successful calls, it’s still an incredible number. That’s about a month straight, 24 hours a day, of talking on the phone. Their dedication through the crisis has been incredible, and they've really figured out how to give support in a way that's really helpful for the businesses. I'm really proud of my team, they're incredible and I'm really thankful for them.
To learn more about ONOW’s work, go to www.onow.org