In my final year of university, I took a mandatory course on business sustainability. As a business major, I found this course was quite boring because of its slow pace. However, our final project influenced me in such a tremendous way that I eventually decided to join MEDA’s work as an intern at its Myanmar office.
The project in Myanmar was on the unsustainable nature of the global cocoa market. Chocolate prices had skyrocketed in recent years due to a depleting supply of cocoa around the world. This was due to the inequalities of the value chain. A value chain is a multi-step process where value it added to a product at every stage of production. Most of the world’s cocoa is produced in the Ivory Coast and Ghana where farmers earn low wages on very small pockets of land. As a result of having so little cocoa to sell at a time, farmers have little power in the negotiation process of their crops and receive a lot less money than they deserve. More powerful intermediaries, such as transporters, processors and multi-national cocoa organizations, end up with more than 97% of the money made from selling the actual chocolates. As a result of such inequalities, cocoa farmers are forced to abandon their trade in exchange for jobs that pay more. This could result in the end of cocoa and chocolate as we know it.
The more I learned about the cocoa trade the more uneasy I felt. Farmers have the most laborious and, arguably, risky, job compared to the other players of the value chain, and to think that they earned the least was bewildering. Upon doing some quick googling on other markets, such as coffee and tea production, I realized that these inequalities were equally prevalent in other markets as well. Similar injustices are present in the coffee bean, coffee, tea and palm oil industries. I started doing research to see if anyone is trying to fix these issues and sure enough, I found MEDA.
Through connecting with various alumni working in the sustainability sector, I applied for an internship with MEDA to join their “Improving Market Opportunities for Women” project in Myanmar. The project is a five-year plan aimed at helping rural women to have better access to agricultural markets. This includes connecting women to sources of credit, empowering them to have more say in farming decisions, teaching them better farming strategies, and more. As excited as I am about the project itself, I wasn’t able to find much information on Myanmar.
Though Myanmar’s a country rich in natural resources, its political situation makes the nation sensitive to change. After being conquered by the British, then Japanese, and then the British again, Myanmar finally became independent. Shortly after gaining independence, its newly elected democratic government was overturned in a military coup. It was then controlled by a somewhat -socialist military dictatorship which resulted in many human rights atrocities and complete economic isolation from the rest of the world for the next twenty years.
Recently, my BBC World Service app started popping up with articles on Burma and its political reform. Their very first functional, democratic government is led by none other than the revolutionary, Aung Sun Su Kyi. All of a sudden there’s an influx of foreign direct investment, of excitement around the country, and most importantly, of hope.
As I’m starting to get nauseous on this 18 hour flight to this unknown world, I’m hoping that this trip would not only be step back in time, but also, a once in a lifetime experience to witness a change in history.