Running a Small Business in Burma

Running a Small Business in Burma


The conflicts and challenges of working and living in Burma

Our next shipment was meant to have left Yangon this morning. It didn’t. Our jam-packed container is still sitting in the docks, waiting for an obscure new piece of paperwork which conforms to some new regulations which came in last month.

“This was always going to be a difficult shipment,” I hear myself say to Rosiam, our Yangon Manager, implying to us both that Covid is behind the problems. And to an extent that’s true: Covid has created more red tape for imports and exports, and some inevitable delays. But in truth, these have very little to do with why this shipment has been a struggle to get together. Burma has had relatively few cases, in line with its southeast-asian neighbours. And for Kalinko, working with small family workshops means most of them were able to continue with their work throughout lockdown. Our seamstresses totally understandably paused their projects to make thousands of masks, but beyond that, production didn’t really stop because of the virus.

It did stop though, at various stages, for all sorts of non-viral reasons, some which we’ve come to expect, and others which happened for the first time, and will no doubt happen again. Hundreds of glass products had bits of gravel baked into them as they were made by somebody who despite great speed and productivity, needed a little bit more training. Luckily with glass, you can melt it down and start again, but that was weeks of work wasted. The entire stock of raw rattan was stolen from one set of weavers one night, meaning new material having to be found and paid for, and putting production back by a few weeks. Hundreds of shoehorns were finished way ahead of time by our excellent woodworkers, but started to warp after a few weeks in our warehouse. It turned out they’d been sold unseasoned wood; the wood market is very opaque and unless you’re a big player who can afford to bid on huge lots, problems like this are very common. Our beloved bamboo stools are on permanent hold because the makers (the one remaining family…), are dismantling and moving their house, so no time for making more at the moment. And reams of beautiful fabric arrived from Chin State in the north covered in dust, their bag having been broken in transit leaving them to roll around the filthy truck. So we started again on those.

Then the pre-shipping headaches. The export agents tell us that we’re inexplicably limited to shipping 10 of each wooden product. So 10 shoehorns. You guys consume shoehorns like Twiglets, so that wouldn’t last us a weekend. Nor can we export any shredded paper, a vital part of our recycled packaging, because how do they know what we’re hiding inside it? Fair point, but it left us slightly open-mouthed. Then the real sledgehammer: sorry, no rattan export. We’re out of licences this month. Bad luck. Happily a different agent, presumably on a better salary, processed everything by the book for us, but not before a few painful weeks afloat on Advil.   

It’s no secret that running a small business in Burma requires one of Theseus’ golden threads. But you can’t buy those in the market. You have to head into the daily labyrinth with bare-handed persistence. There’s the constant frantic scramble for dollars; everything is paid for in cash, but they must be pristine, packet-fresh notes, from a post-2013 series. Anything else may as well be Monopoly money. You need a bank account with this bank for export, but that bank for mobile-money transfers. And a third for good measure. The monsoon causes issues for half of the year, every year; workshops get flooded, people get lethargic, ancient superstitions around what you can and can’t do during the rains put a halt on all sorts of things. It’s essentially an annual lockdown. The warehouse floods. The warehouse overheats. The warehouse has birds nesting and pooing in it. The warehouse landlord has cut the electricity cables so the dehumidifier may as well become a chickery. You get the idea.

There are times, if I’m totally honest, when I wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to come home, get a 9 till 5 and spend my evenings perusing my options on Deliveroo with The One Show on in the background. The thought never lasts very long, and frankly terrifies me, so is a useful periodic reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing. Why we choose to exist in an ever-present conflict between our complete conviction behind why we’re here and where we’re trying to get to, and the constant battle to get there, which sometimes feels like a battle of attrition.

And again, if I’m totally honest, living in Burma in general is an ever-present conflict. “How’s Burma?” people ask, the question which always stumps me. Where do you start? Usually with stock-phrases that I could have picked up on a travel website: it’s amazing, so beautiful. Incredible countryside, vibrant cities, friendly people. We feel so lucky to be there. These are all true, but I always feel like I’ve done the existence a disservice. As if I’ve described The Last Supper as a painting of some dudes at a table. Or brushed off the Arab Spring as “complicated”.

It’s really, really difficult to explain. Living there, you feel the full range of your feelings every day. It is incredibly beautiful. The light and the shadows it casts are magical. The bald kindness of people knocks you off your flip flops every day. But your feet are always dirty. You keep your handbag in a drawer because the last one got eaten by rats. My husband’s shoelaces got completely gobbled by the bastards like spaghetti, so he now has Kalinko shoehorn hoops for laces. The noodles from the shack down the road are the things dreams are made of. But I’ve had three parasites, most likely from there. We take deworming pills like dogs. There’s a little smiley worm on the packet laughing at your idiocy as a white person trying to make sense of the place.

The monsoon rains are the most dramatic, life-giving, soul-exploding, joyful things, but cause havoc and for many, total devastation. After the monsoon it’s dry and cool and you eat sashimi on the beach and wonder if there’s anywhere on earth you’d rather be. But just round the headland there’s a desolate fishing village where exhausted, sun-baked women with babies on their backs rake out the fish on nets to dry, and their husbands eat plain husky rice in shacks at the back of the beach, weary from a long night out at sea. There’s nothing more conflicting than watching bikini-strung tourists saunter in that direction, lemongrass-laced cocktails in hand, about to be in the wrong place in a catastrophically misplaced get-up.

We can now keep our bikinis for the privacy of our own home, as rents have collapsed and you can now rent a house with a pool for the price of a downtown shoebox 5 years ago. The Kalinko team are thrilled; our office is in the garage, so that means lunch time is swim-time. James is particularly thrilled - he’s a strong swimmer. That’s how he survived Cyclone Nargis in 2008. His parents didn’t, so he grew up in an orphanage. We have countless Burmese friends who, the more time we spend with, the more complicated we learn their lives have been. And despite unimaginably difficult scenes from childhood, and against all the odds, they still manage to run companies, launch restaurants, and support huge ecosystems of workers.

Then there are times when things are way too funny to ever consider going home. We recently had stair-gates made for the new house, beautifully carved, elegantly installed, safe-as-houses. Except that the rungs were horizontal, making them excellent ladders for our toddler. At the only prenatal scan I had in Yangon (rather than Bangkok) for said toddler, the sonographer insisted that I’d had a previous c-section, clearly denoted by the scar, which turned out to be the mark left by my rather tight underwear elastic. She then measured the head, declaring it a similar shape to Hey Arnold’s, moved the due date inexplicably by three weeks, and left her assistant to remove the scan jelly with one-ply loo roll, which disintegrated, forming a papier maché paste, before pulling my top down over her creation and announcing “ok finish!” before legging it. A friend's cleaner once machine washed all of his suits, which came out a suitable size for their cats. Our cleaner once ironed a hole in a silk top, so made an identical one from nylon to replace it. It sparked when you touched it, but tell me a sweeter gesture because I can’t think of one. ASOS now works (hurrah!), but it takes a month, and invariably the package arrives open with half missing, and the remaining items having quite clearly been tried on for size and rejected.

Sometimes it feels like things are roaring ahead. You have a meeting in an office that could be in New York. Eat a croissant that could have been made in Paris. Drink a cup of coffee that would make hipsters in Berlin go woozy. Days when you feel that Burma is on a one-way ticket to the first world. And then other days you feel like everything is slipping backwards, that you’ve totally misjudged the progress, and as it happens, you really have no idea what’s really going on. Add a tourism-killing virus to the mix and you wonder what happens next.

It’s like beachcombing. Sometimes, you find the most perfect pebble, so beautiful that you take it home and varnish it. There are the shells that seem so perfect on the top, but turn out to be smashed underneath. The most beautiful ones are often home to a sea snail, so best leave them be. Or they’re stinky as hell when you get them back to your room, so you chuck them back onto the beach and feel bad for having taken them from their pals. But regardless, aren’t you lucky to be on that beach? Is it ok that you are? Should you even be there? It’s not really your beach, is it.

There are days when you feel very far from home. Others when you absolutely know that you are home. But never a day without the conflict. The highs and the lows.

There’s also a tricky conflict between why we’re doing what we’re doing, and how we get there. I find myself filling in our marketing schedule for the next six months with things like “5 Small Bathroom Trends for spring” and “Caring for your Cane: The 101” and questioning if it’s all a bit trite. But it isn’t. It’s topical. Nobody’s pretending it’s weighty stuff, but it’s things we care about and think about. And snazzy videos and flashy GIFs are fun. Making them sits alongside thoughts of whether the shipment will leave tomorrow, or the following day. Of how wet the container will be getting sitting in the docks mid-monsoon. Of how the makers in the delta are given the flash floods on the forecast. There can’t be a hierarchy of weight or importance: both parts have to exist, and sit side by side. In conflict, perhaps, but still woven together. It’s just hard to reconcile them in my mind sometimes.

But one thing that I’m not conflicted at all about, is that the things our makers make for us are incredibly beautiful. And that the more we can sell, the more we order from them, and the more likely they are to carry on making, and to teach their children how to do it properly, by hand, in a way that lasts.

So could I ask you a favour? If we’re out of stock of something that you’re after, click the button at the bottom-right of the page asking us to let you know when it’s back. Bear with us. Even better, pick another option or colour that we do have in stock, and buy it now. Remember us when you’re about to buy something from a huge company. Know that every pound you spend with us is felt back at the source. That you really, truly make a difference to people’s lives when you buy from us. That whatever you buy will tangibly impact whoever made it, as we’ll need to reorder from them.

We’re working as hard as we possibly can to grow the company to where it needs to be to be truly impactful. And despite the challenges, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nothing like a pandemic to make you evaluate everything!

P.S. If you’ve read this far, would you like to move to Burma and work for Kalinko? Looks like you’ve got the persistence we need!




Creonte Laura
Creonte Laura

Are you seriously looking for help in Burma?

Shirley Ingham
Shirley Ingham

Sophie – just love reading all this – reminds me of my childhood in the Far East.

Bu more importantly – many, many CONGRATULATIONS on the safe arrival of little Douglas – the most wonderful news!
Much love,
Shirley xxx

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