As a small business owner with a disability, Ko Moe has faced many challenges in keeping his business afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic and Myanmar's political and economic crises. But he's not giving up. With support from Community Partners International (CPI) and local partner the Myanmar Deaf Community Development Association (MDCDA), he is determined to return his business to profit.
Sitting in his small hair salon in Yangon’s Insein Township, Ko Moe reflects on the challenges of sustaining a business in Myanmar over the last two years.
“In 2020, I had to close my salon for two months because of COVID-19. I returned to my hometown and reduced my expenses to around 2,500 kyat ($1.25) per day. I went to people’s homes on request to cut hair,” he explains. “When I opened my salon again, there were very few customers. My landlord agreed to waive the rent for a bit and offered a monthly contract as I tried to get the business back up.”
Ko Moe is transgender, choosing to live as a man since the age of 15. He is also disabled. “I became disabled when I was one year old and still have difficulty standing unaided,“ he explains. “As a child, I felt shy and depressed about my disability. I kept to myself and didn’t play with other children. But I always wanted to work and earn a living like others."
Alongside COVID-19, the coup in February 2021 has plunged Myanmar into an economic crisis. “The prices of raw materials such as shampoo, hair care products, and hair curling cream are rising daily. I have fewer customers because people have less money to spend on non-essentials. It is having a huge impact on my business. I’m just trying to keep afloat with less income and profit.”
Ko Moe came to Yangon from Kachin State in northwest Myanmar in 2014 and trained as a hairdresser. He worked for others for five years and then opened his own salon. “I came to Yangon with the help of a disability network to join a hairdressing course,” he reveals. “When I opened my own salon three years ago, I helped to train others.”
In May 2022, Ko Moe joined a course organized by MDCDA and supported by CPI to help hairdressers and tailors with disabilities to expand their skills and strengthen their businesses during these difficult times.
“I learned new techniques,” explains Ko Moe. “Before the course, I could straighten hair and do basic hair curling but not as well as I wanted. Using these new techniques, my customers are happier with the results. It is helping me to retain business.”
“I also learned about business plan creation and value-added services. This taught me that I needed to increase community awareness of my services. I’ve started to do some promotional activities to bring in more customers during the rainy season. In addition, I received hairdressing equipment that is really useful for cutting and styling. This will help my business to be more sustainable.”
Ma Wai Wai Aung, Project Manager at MDCDA, elaborates. “Disabled people are really struggling right now,” she confirms. “We are helping them with training but also seed funds, equipment and supplies to help them set up or relaunch businesses. We help them to improve their services and products and find new customers and markets.”
“As a disabled person myself, I am happy when I see them skillfully managing their own businesses and providing for themselves and their families.”
Ko Moe’s business is not out of the woods yet but, with a business plan in place and more promotional activities, he believes there is light at the end of the tunnel. He is tracking his income and expenses against his business plan targets and, so far, he is on track to meet his six-month objectives. “I’m truly grateful for all the support I have received. I will try my best to make my business successful. With continued support, people with disabilities can get through this crisis.”
He is also keen to encourage other young disabled and LGBT+ people. “I want to urge them to be brave,” he says. “With dedication and the right spirit, they can reach their goals. I will support them as much as I can.”