JOHN JENKINS AND Katrina Crawford met their future business partner Joe while on their honeymoon in Myanmar.
The young native was asked to show the couple around Yangon, and although he was reluctant at first, he was coerced into showing the ‘lovely couple’ around.
They fell in love with the place, and began discussing with Joe how and what they could export to start a business. When they mentioned different cooking oils, Joe jumps up and says that his family have a farm in the rural village of Myin Sine.
They decided to export sesame oil and peanut oil – used for cooking, salad dishes and sometimes put in tea. In return they’d support the village through employment and education.
But they faced a number of obstacles in setting up their business, Bayin Oils. Myanmar – or Burma, as it had been called previously – had been closed off to the rest of the world for years, and had just begun to open up.
And officials weren’t quite sure how to deal with it.
Myanmar – previously Burma
Myanmar, also known as Burma, was effectively closed off from the world between 1962 and 2011.
The generals who ran the country during that time suppressed almost all dissent and stood accused of human rights abuses, prompting international sanctions.
Their current leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest at the time as leader of the opposition. Now, John, Katrina and Joe are hopeful that she will bring around real change.
John and Katrina returned to Ireland to register the business in August 2013, organising a space to bottle and brand the raw product here.
They then began looking for delivery companies that would ship the oils to Ireland, something that proved more difficult than they had anticipated, as Katrina explained.
“Because the sanctions in Burma had only been recently lifted, there were no existing delivery routes between Myanmar and Europe, let alone Ireland. We called everywhere asking if they could help, but no one knew how.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade inferred that it would be too difficult to set up and not to bother. But eventually they found someone to ferry the goods across.
Now they’re selling around 10,000 bottles of oil a year, and using the profits to help the village that grows the oil (all in their spare time, as both are employed full-time).
They say they’re the only business officially exporting from Myanmar – apart from trade across the boarder with neighbouring countries. They’re definitely the only business in Ireland to trade with them.
With Supervalu and various independent outlets stocking the oils, their next sights are on exporting to the UK and introducing two new products: a nut mix and pickled tea.
As well as that, they’ve invited their business partner Joe to Ireland for two weeks. The idea is that Joe will find products he likes here that they could, in turn, export to Myanmar.
“He been very cold,” John says, despite the sunny weather we’ve been having this week. (lucky thing he wasn’t here last week for the snow).
So far, he likes the way bottle caps on water bottles work, the footpaths – and Guinness.
Joe’s extremely passionate about the business. When chatting to someone at an event, after explaining the work he does, Joe was called ‘a real Myanmar entrepreneur’. But he’d never heard the word ‘entrepreneur’ before – now he loves the compliment.
He says that his family and villagers are extremely proud of what they’ve done with Bayin Oils – after Joe posted a picture to Facebook of the oils on the Supervalu shelves, he woke the next morning with hundreds of likes and comments in awe of their achievement.
For the 30-year-old – who’s the middleman between John and Katrina and the farmers, who are his aunts, uncles and cousins, as well as a point of contact for the Myanmar government – social enterprise is the way forward for Myanmar.
He gives talks to show people that they don’t have to keep giving and giving all the time to people, which is a Buddhist way of living.
“Teach them how to do things,” he said. “Teach them to do things for themselves.”
He said that after one of his talks, a man came up to him with tears in his eyes. “I did not know about social enterprise before. I did not know I could do this. Thank you, thank you.”
Now that they’ve forged a path and created a precedent, the Bayin Oils trio want other companies to follow their lead – and think of social enterprises that could benefit the two countries.
“There aren’t grants we can apply for here,” John says. “And they don’t have grants in Myanmar, but there are ways Ireland could be promoting that we’re the first place to do this.”