On International Women’s Day, we meet Naw Wah Khu Say, a young woman entrepreneur from Karen (Kayin) State in Myanmar (Burma). She leads a social enterprise developing a dried, instant version of a traditional Karen soup called "talapaw".
In a small brick and wooden house on the outskirts of Hpa-An, Karen State’s state capital, the Initiative Youth Gathering Group (IYGG) team is hard at work. Bustling and well-organized, wearing gloves and hair nets, each person is focused on their task: roasting and pounding rice, chopping and drying bamboo shoots, picking and drying basil, and weighing and packing produce. The air is filled with the aromas of cooking and the sounds of work and chatter.
The team is making a dried, instant version of a traditional Karen soup called "talapaw" in Pwo Karen language, The idea is the brainchild of Naw Wah Khu Say, 21, and her colleagues at IYGG. Talapaw is a staple dish in Karen communities in Myanmar. Recipes differ from place to place but generally include rice powder, bamboo shoots, and herbs. IYGG markets its talapaw under the brand name “Tuu-Ru” which means “traditional culture”.
"We started from the ground up."
Naw Wah Khu Say launched IYGG as a social enterprise in 2021 with four friends while studying together at a community academy in Hpa-An. “When we started exploring this idea, we thought about all the things we could produce and noticed that there were no instant versions of talapaw on the market,” she explains. “If you go to Shan State, you can find instant Shan noodles, but there was no equivalent in Karen State. Talapaw is a popular traditional dish found all over Karen State, so we thought it would be a good choice.”
Naw Wah Khu Say, and her colleagues conducted market research to test their idea. “We went around the markets and researched what people wanted. We asked local women and traditional culture groups how to cook talapaw because no one on our team knew how to do it well. We started from the ground up.”
When they began product development, the challenges soon became apparent. “We disagreed a lot in the beginning,” reveals Naw Wah Khu Say. “We have tried to make our talapaw close to the traditional version. We use dried bamboo shoots, rice powder, dried basil, pepper, chicken powder, salt, and fish paste. One of the biggest challenges was drying the ingredients fully so they wouldn’t go moldy. We tried many methods until we got it right. Now our talapaw has a shelf life of six months.”
Next, they began consumer testing. “We sent samples to many people and requested feedback,” explains Naw Wah Khu Say. “Most of them said that it tasted good and encouraged us. Some weren’t so happy and said that talapaw should only be made fresh. Others said we should include fish or seafood, but we think it will be too expensive. We took all the feedback on board and adjusted the product where possible.”
"I was struggling and it was a difficult time."
After six months of preparation, they launched the product. They received a small amount of funding from a local organization that supported them for three months as they sold locally. But the situation became difficult as the funding dried up and Naw Wah Khu Say’s colleagues left to pursue other opportunities. “I was the only one left,” she reveals. “I was struggling, and it was a difficult time. We started together and dreamed together, but sadly they couldn't stay to the end.”
Naw Wah Khu Say became aware of a microloan program to support social enterprises operated by Community Partners Myanmar, a Community Partners International (CPI) partner organization. She applied and was successful. The loan has enabled her to get the product back up and running.
“When we first launched, we sold about 200 units per month. About six months along, we are selling about 500 units per month," she confirms. "We mostly produce to order to reduce the stock in hand and maximize the shelf life. We have distributors in Hpa-An, Yangon, and Myawaddy in Myanmar and Bangkok and Mae Sot in Thailand. We also market directly through social media.”
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Naw Wah Khu Say is keen to continue growing the business. “I’d like to reach a monthly sales target of 1,000 units in 2023. I want to expand our production facility and recruit more staff. I also want to focus on marketing and brand promotion to increase sales. I plan to sell to Yangon supermarkets in the next three years. When I have better manufacturing technology, I'd like to produce more varieties of dried talapaw and dried versions of other Karen dishes under the Tuu-Ru brand.”
The microloan helped Naw Wah Khu Say weather a difficult period, and she has now started repaying it. “So far, I have repaid about 40% of the loan,” she confirms. “It helped me to develop and improve the business. I can now sustain it without any external support.”
Launching and sustaining a business in the current economic climate in Myanmar is no easy task. The collapse of the tourism industry, rising inflation, and the turmoil following the 2021 coup present many challenges. “The political situation and economic downturn are affecting us,” Naw Wah Khu Say agrees. “Our main target customers are travelers and tourists, but numbers have dropped in the last two years. If people can travel more, it will help my business.”
"Women have to push back against social norms and participate equally in leadership and entrepreneurship."
As a young woman and an entrepreneur, Naw Wah Khu Say has experienced discrimination. “When I was in high school, and the girls sat at the front of the class, the boys asked why we were sitting in front of them. They made us feel we were doing something wrong and, because of social norms, we couldn’t respond.”
“Some people think that young women have less capacity as leaders and entrepreneurs,” she confirms. “They don’t take me seriously when I first visit or communicate with them because they see not only a woman but also a young person. But I will never give up because of discrimination.”
“Women have to push back against social norms and participate equally in leadership and entrepreneurship,” Naw Wah Khu Say asserts. “There have been improvements in the last ten years. Today, women can earn income and become independent. They have opportunities to participate in leadership and other fields. But discrimination still exists.”
“We buy raw materials from women’s organizations and individual women to support them. We also have a leave policy to support female employees during their periods separate from their annual leave allowance. I want to do all I can to promote equity for women.”
In closing, Naw Wah Khu Say shared a message for other girls and young women interested in entrepreneurship. “I would advise them to choose their own way, or others will choose it for them. This advice has helped me. My father passed away many years ago, and my mother is the head of our family. At first, she tried to discourage me from launching this business because she was worried I would fail. But I went my own way. Although I’m not yet successful, she believes in me and sees how hard I work. So, follow your own path. Others will understand you one day when they see your passion and entrepreneurial spirit.”
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