Eleven years, 40,000 women empowered: WORTH in Myanmar

September 30, 2021
A WORTH group meets in Myanmar in 2017. Credit: Brian Clark/Pact

Growing up in a rural village in Thaton Township, Nan Cherry Kyaw had an example of female leadership to look to that many other girls in Myanmar did not: her mother. Her mom was treasurer of a local WORTH group.

WORTH is Pact’s signature model for women’s economic empowerment. It brings women and older girls together in groups of about 20 to save money, access credit and start small businesses. Unlike micro-lending and many other development programs, WORTH provides no capital or seed money. Members are required to make small savings deposits at weekly meetings, and when groups’ funds grow large enough, members may begin taking loans, which they use to start small businesses. Groups elect officers, receive literacy and numeracy training, and learn the fundamentals of running a small business. For many members, the knowledge and income they gain are life-changing.

Nan Cherry Kyaw’s mother’s WORTH group chose the name Phont Phyo Toe Tet, or Development. Pact helped launch the group as part of our Swan Yi (Empowerment) project, which first brough WORTH to Myanmar in 2012, with funding from The Coca-Cola Foundation.

Eleven years later, Swan Yi and its later iterations Swan Yi II and Swan Yi III are finally coming to a close. Together, they have empowered 39,412 women in Myanmar, exceeding the program’s targets and improving the livelihoods of families and communities in hundreds of villages in eight townships in Yangon, Mandalay and Sagaing regions, and Mon State.

Swan Yi introduced improvements that will eventually mean greater impact for WORTH members around the world.

And the projects’ impact is far from over. Many of the WORTH groups started through Swan Yi are still operational – a testament to the model’s sustainability. Today, Nan Cherry Kyaw serves in the treasurer role that her mom once held, and she runs a successful grocery shop that she started with a loan and skills she gained through WORTH.

“Business startup training equipped me with new knowledge on how to start a business, record various types of materials and make the business plan. I was also motivated by the success of other businesswomen and got the opportunity to learn various business ideas from them,” she says. “At my shop, I sell clothing, stationery and prepaid phone cards. I also provide mobile money transfer services. Every day, my business earns 8,500 to 10,000 Kyats as profit.”

Swan Yi incorporated an advocacy curriculum rooted in empowerment principles, educating WORTH members on topics including labor laws, domestic violence, divorce, and children’s and land rights. Continuous self-learning helped women to develop business literacy and numeracy skills to start, manage and sustain their businesses. Later project components included creating a healthy physical environment at the community level by improving water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in schools, and promoting improved waste management practices through a participatory community action planning process.

Nan Cherry Kyaw and her shop. Credit: Naw J Belle/Pact

Swan Yi III had the benefit of building off years of WORTH programming in the region and used this latest iteration of the project to adapt and improve certain components to make the WORTH program more impactful for its members. The changes it introduced will eventually be standardized across Pact’s global WORTH programs. Three unique elements of the Swan Yi III project were:

Development of township-level grants for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs): Pact Myanmar established township-level MSME revolving funds and township-level MSME development groups in November 2020. The total fund amount started at USD $10,000, with USD $5,000 coming from Pact as MSME Development Grants and USD $5,000 as a matching contribution from 30 WORTH groups for group businesses. Pact supported these WORTH business groups by building their skills in organizational capacity, leadership development, fund management, meeting management, record keeping, group business plan development and networking. These trainings supported the WORTH group businesses to transform from informal to the formal MSME sector and access government banks and opportunities for other loans. This helps WORTH businesswomen increase their economic resilience.

Digitization: In response to Covid-19, Pact Myanmar shifted to training through an e-learning management system (Zabai-LMS). Pact provided continuous and effective support to empower WORTH women in expanding their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge through the LMS portal. Zabai e-Learning courses on digital literacy, financial literacy and entrepreneurship strengthened the women's technical capacities in financial management and business management and made them ready to grasp new opportunities to receive economic relief and business support funds.

Recycling-based MSMEs: Swan Yi III focused on sustainability and waste reduction in communities it served by building connections between recycling-based SMEs and WORTH groups to create new income generation opportunities for women. One WORTH group that makes recycled products such as mattresses went on to start its own training course to help young people launch their own recycled products businesses. Called Pan Tee Latt, or Creator’s Hand, the group was interviewed on national television on International Women’s Day.

“By making these products from waste, it not only helps families to earn extra money, but it also helps our environment,” said Daw Lai Win, a group member. “We women can show the world that we are turning waste into gold.”

 Nan Cherry Kyaw says she also proudly shares what she’s learned to inspire a new generation of women entrepreneurs.

“I want to encourage other women that if they have a business idea, do not be afraid to establish at once.”