Bokashi Myanmar is growing!

A quick summary of everything that’s happened here at Bokashi Myanmar this past year — it’s a LOT!

We recently had a visit from our bokashi colleagues from New Zealand and Belgium, and they were amazed that we’ve done – and learned – so much this year. When you’re in the middle of it all you don’t always see that. Often we’re busy just working out how to move forward we forget to look back at all we’ve achieved.

Let’s go back to this time last year, March, the days getting hotter, the Yangon air getting smokier and smokier. We had our new yard up and running, and employed the first of our expanded yard team.

Every day since then the yard team goes to off to collect organic waste from our local markets, usually around half a ton, comes back and processes it all into compost. We sell the compost when it’s ready, and in the couple of months it takes to be ready, we grow food in it. Not a lot, just for ourselves and our neighbours, but the yard looks beautiful. And our bananas are famous for tasting so good! The compost is truly excellent.

Our next target was to join the Yangon Farmers Market, which we did in May last year. We’ve been there every Saturday morning since, it’s a great spot to meet our customers, talk about bokashi, stock up on organic food. At the time it forced us to get organised with a lot of things like brochures, packaging, signage, pricing, transport. More challenging than you’d think, but like everything we do it gives us a chance to learn and in the end we get good at it. Now we really enjoy our Saturday mornings.

Next target was to get ourselves into the hotel food waste business. We were invited to take part in the Hotel Expo in Yangon last June, and that was a completely new type of experience for us. Training hundreds of chefs how to manage their food waste, talking on stage, talking with the many, many people that come to an exhibition like that. Can’t say that it led to any business directly, but in hindsight it was really valuable for us to meet the market and structure up our hotel food waste service, which is now taking off.

Monsoon forced us to fix our office (leaking roof! flooded yard!) and upgrade our methods. Again, all good training for us, as we now know how to succeed regardless of the weather.

Monsoon also brought personal challenges, half the team got chicungunya and while we struggled on, it wasn’t always so easy to keep things moving. We used the season to prepare our new range of training programs for households, gardeners, and hotel staff, as well as educational visits from schools and community groups. Rebuilt the website, worked on our social media.

All these many types of training seemed quite a lot to take on, but we have so many people asking for help that we realised we needed to structure it up. We set up the training sessions, started inviting people, scheduled regular time slots, and haven’t looked back since. Our trainings are popular! And they are also a good source of income for us, much needed.

We now run household workshops in our bokashi yard a couple of Sundays per month (in both English and Myanmar), and gardener training every second Tuesday. We are running customised hotel training sessions on site at hotels around the country and here in Yangon, and other types of specific training onsite as requested. And while we’re always trying to improve what we do, we generally get very good feedback from customers too. That makes us happy!

Once the rain stopped, we started with school visits at our bokashi yard, groups of 30-40 from a number of different schools. Mainly international schools at this stage, although next season we plan to actively invite groups from local schools.

To be honest, we were a bit nervous about starting up the school visits as none of us are educators. But we are passionate about what we do, and the subject is really very important so we made it work. And we get great feedback from teachers, parents and students.

For us, it’s important to put everything in context. So we talk about food waste, and about landfill. About dry leaves, and burning, and air pollution. About what the soil needs to be healthy, and how we can help. Why protecting the soil is so important to our future, and how all of this relates to climate change, and our ability to grow healthy food for the future.

If that all sounds quite heavy, it’s not. We divide the kids into a number of small groups, and keep them moving. With hands-on tasks at every station, like looking for bugs, digging in the compost, making leaf soup and planting seeds and plants. Our yard rabbit usually bounces around and steals the show though, sticking her nose into every activity and wrecking the kid’s concentration.

Our hotel ambitions have taken time: hotels in Myanmar are struggling financially and while they often have a good will to do the right thing, it takes time to get the wheels turning. Now they are starting however, and a couple of high profile hotels have taken the lead to show how food waste can, and should, be managed. Laguna Lodge, Ngwe Saung Yacht Club, Rosewood, and Boulder Bay Eco-resort: well done for refusing to send one more bag of food waste to landfill!

Hotels are important, because they generate an awful lot of food waste. One of our goals is to divert as much organic waste as we can from landfill, and hotels need to be seen to be doing the right thing by their customers. The problem for them up until now has been lack of a good method, but now when they see the bokashi method working at these hotels we’re hoping there will be more incentive for them give it a try.

We’ve also had many discussions with industrial food waste producers, and have recently signed a contract to take care of one ton of fish waste per day via a Japanese waste management company, DOWA. We weren’t at all sure we could actually handle fish waste (it is notorious for smelling bad), but after some tests we realised we could compost it really well using our methods. It’s a very nice low-tech solution that solves the landfill problem while also doing something good for the soil. Win-win in other words.

Meanwhile, we’re constantly having meetings with people, helping families and community groups get started with bokashi, talking at panel discussions and to school and other groups. For us it’s a fine balance between doing things that make money as we are self-financed and need to pay the bills like any other company, and doing things that bring education and inspiration to the community.

A BIG highlight on the presentation front was in February this year when Inda from our team did a talk at TEDx Yangon. The theme: Organic waste is not trash. And it was fabulous!

Don’t ever underestimate how much work goes into arranging a TED event; it is a huge undertaking. And the speakers this year were all extremely interesting, as well as being very brave to do what they did. The whole event was a privilege to be part of.

Leaves. We want to #stoptheburning as it is destroying the air we breathe here in Yangon and all over the country. We’ve started an awareness campaign and are doing what we can to encourage people to think twice before they burn, consider alternative ways of using the leaves. We suggest methods for very simple composting that anyone can do, run training sessions for gardeners, and even pick up truckloads of leaves from around the city if they are bagged up for us.

We use a lot of dry leaves in our compost process, so are continually on the lookout for more. Bottom line is that we all need to start seeing dry leaves as the valuable resource they are, as a way to feed the soil, and not a trash pile to be gotten rid of.

This leaf thing will be a super long-haul project, but we feel we have to start the ball rolling. We print and distribute brochures in Myanmar and English, we work with our supporters in various parts of the city to coordinate leaf collection efforts. The media has picked up on the story on a number of occasions, tv and print, and school groups at ISY and others are now joining the campaign. Like everything, we have to start somewhere, and get the ball rolling. A big change in mindset is needed on this one.

Our priorities for this year are really just to move forward on all fronts. Our team is growing in strength by the month, and even in size, although we are now around 10 people if you include the three of us who are foreigners.

We’ve now got the hang of bookkeeping and have done two annual tax returns. We have some structure in our plans and budgets (not a lot, but a big improvement!), and our packaging, graphics, marketing and social media is coming along really well. We are outsourcing all the paperwork to do with HR which is a relief, and are teaching ourselves new skills all the time.

Our main strengths are passion, energy and resilience. We all believe totally in what we are doing, and why. Believe me, we get tired, the whole team is working way harder than we probably should and one of our challenges this year is to learn how to have days off. It is actually not that easy to start something new like this, change the mindset and behaviour of a country, and we sometimes get very frustrated and sad. But the resilience thing is good to have; we generally bounce back pretty quickly, and decide to just make it work. We specifically do not let fear get in our way.

Financial goal for the year is to reach breakeven, so we can go on and grow. Social goal is to go on having fun, and enjoying what we do, because it is a whole lot of fun being part of the Bokashi Myanmar team. Development goal is to keep learning, getting better at what we do, growing our skills. And always remember our why; that by saving the soil, we can save ourselves.

We have everything we need, now it’s just to make it happen!

BREAKING NEWS: We just got featured in a brilliant YouTube video on what we’re doing with food waste here in Myanmar. Check out The FOOD WASTE MAN!

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