By Mike Dugan

Summer 2018, Thunderbird Emerging Markets Lab (TEM Lab)
Myanmar, Snacks Mandalay

After one week of consulting for Snacks Mandalay, in association with Winrock International and USAID, myself, Jake Andersen, and Abhishek Singh have learned so much about this small spice processing company, and have sweat our body weight in the process.

Snacks Mandalay is a small, but rapidly growing, spice and food processor, drying and grinding ginger, turmeric, and chilis, and paving the way for Burmese agricultural technology. Its owner, Dr. Phae Phyo Aye, is a doctor of medicine and has a master’s in food technology, so it comes as no surprise to us that after two short years, he is setting a glistening standard for his whole industry despite being a small player. The remainder of his leadership team consists of three close friends he met during his doctorate, and you guessed it—they are all doctors too!

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Dr. Phyo (center) describes his ultra-low emission turmeric pre-drying step to the group. Jake Andersen (left), Alex Dahan – Winrock (right) Photo: Abhi Singh

There have been some long days thus far in the trip, from the 26 hours of travel to get from Phoenix to Myanmar (my longest travel time ever), to some double-digit work days, but we have learned so much about what drives this young professional. Like many other Asian countries, Myanmar has a collectivist culture and that is part of the core of Snacks Mandalay. Among Dr. Phyo’s personal aspirations for his company, he also wants to help the farmers that he sources from by sharing his technology to improve their yields and food quality so he can pay them more for their crops.

Their facility is also designed to take care of his workers. Food is provided to most of the staff from a dedicated cooking staff; there are several buildings for workers to escape the intense sun and rest during the day; housing is provided to workers who don’t live in the local villages; and there is even a sports court. Here, the workers can play Sepak Takraw, a handless version of volleyball that has been played in Myanmar for ages. Let’s just say it’s a tough sport.

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Jake Andersen (left) and Mike Dugan (middle) attempt to play one-on-one Sepak Takraw, coached by Hliang Min (right), the factory manager. Photo: Abhi Singh

Dr. Phyo, his team, and Winrock have been great hosts this past week and have shown us only a fraction of what makes this company promising and this country so special and unique. Myanmar has only allowed visitors for the last 25 years, and really opened up its borders in 2011 so there is a lot to learn and see about their culture. In fact, a large portion of the country is still off-limits to tourism. I’m not sure if I can say that I’m experiencing culture shock, but there are some interesting parts of the culture that I want to share with you.

Myanmar Attire

Myanmar has a traditional garment called the longyi, which is essentially a long skirt for all people and can be worn as standard business wear, perfect for the hot days (we’ll likely soon be sporting these ourselves). Going on that trend, sandals are also considered appropriate for business settings, even during some more formal meetings. This is because it is customary to take off your shoes before entering the office building.

Dining Etiquette

Much to our shock, the phrase “Can I get a box for the leftovers?” does not translate; taking leftovers home is rude in their culture.

Generosity of Culture

The country is filled with selflessness. As a Buddhist country, everyone is extremely polite, opening doors for people and frequently donating to the temples and monks. The landscape is dotted with temples and pagodas and we managed to find enough free time to stop at a rather unique one, the Jade Pagoda, which is made entirely from jade.

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(Top Left) Thunderbird and Winrock team visits Taung Ta Man lake in Mandalay. Photo: Mike Dugan
(Bottom Left) Thunderbird and Winrock team visits the Jade Pagoda, where some members showcase their intolerance to sunlight…et hmm…Mike. Photo: Abhi Singh
(Right) Traffic in Mandalay, consisting of cars and motorbikes that share the road and frequently cause jams. Photo: Jake Andersen

This week has been full of discovery and wonder, and with four more weeks to go, we look forward to continuing to work with Dr. Phyo and Winrock, and learning more about the mysteries the Myanmar culture and countryside has to show.