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Daw Sandar Aye is promoting OSH in Myanmar’s ginger sector

As the Treasurer of a local ginger cooperative, as well as the head of her household, she wears many hats as she pushes for safety and health at work.

Daw Sandar Aye is 55 years old. She was born into an agricultural family, in the same village where she lives today, in Lawksawk Township of Shan State, Myanmar.

Her parents were farmers, so she decided to attend Yezin Agriculture University to continue her career in the sector. Afterward, she married and had three sons. Sadly, her husband died seven years ago; she is now the head of her household as well as an employer.

Every day, she wakes up before 6 a.m. She washes her face, prays, and goes to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Then, the day labourers arrive around 8 a.m. Daw Sandar Aye allocates daily tasks, oversees the work, and then comes home to do house chores before lunch time. In the afternoon, she goes back to the fields.

Her income comes from ginger, in addition to rice, mango, avocado, and corn crops.

An NGO wanted to create a plot for demonstration purposes, and she had extra land.

In 2017, a project officer from Winrock International, an American NGO, approached Daw Sandar Aye and asked her if she would be interested in getting involved in their project, which aimed to improve the value chain in the agricultural sector in Myanmar. 

She took the opportunity just to help out, but she ended up learning a lot from the project, including modern farming techniques, which she passed on to other farmers in her community. Using new technologies and methods, they were able to get rid of pests and improve their crop yield.

In 2018, the Vision Zero Fund project teamed up with Winrock International to roll out occupational safety and health (OSH) training courses for ginger farmers in Myanmar. Daw Sandar Aye learned about cooperatives and the advantages of working as a collective. Her interest in OSH and passion for farming led her to become a founding member of Shwe Chin Sein (which means “Golden Fresh Ginger”), a local ginger farmers’ cooperative.

Today, Daw Sandar Aye is the Treasurer and a member of the Board of Directors of the cooperative. Since completing the Vision Zero Fund training, she has started implementing OSH practices in her farming activities.

Before the training course, she grew ginger in the traditional way. Now, she grows it on a commercial scale. This year, she grew 2.5 acres of ginger. And, like many other farmers, Daw Sandar Aye plants other crops in addition to her main crop, so her OSH knowledge also spills over into other areas.

As a trusted communicator in her community, she shares her knowledge with other farmers, including how to produce healthy ginger, alternatives to using pesticides, and good OSH practices.

The Shwe Chin Sein cooperative is not like most cooperatives in Myanmar.

Since its founding in 2018, members have been trained on OSH principles and best practices. Farmers take breaks from the sun, carry manageable weights, and wear proper protection when handling materials. There have been no reported accidents, illnesses, or diseases.

It hasn’t always been this way.

Before the Vision Zero Fund training course, farmers would carry heavy loads of harvested ginger, resulting in back pain. They worked in the hot sun and in rainy conditions, risking heat stroke. And they would feel dizzy after applying pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers without any protective clothing.

Some of the main risks involved in ginger production are:

  • Using farm machinery and tools 
  • Falling from transportation vehicles
  • Working in intense summer heat
  • Spraying harmful chemicals

Much has changed for the better. Now, when village farmers complete training courses, they redistribute the knowledge to other farmers.

Workers don’t drink cold sodas anymore. Instead, they reach for water and fruit-based drinks, like lime juice, to ward off heat stroke. They wear long sleeves and pants to reduce exposure while spraying chemicals on other crops. And they’ve completely stopped using pesticides in ginger farming, instead focusing on manual weeding and other safe alternatives for pest control, as well as safe fertilizers. Their ginger is safe for the producers to produce as well as for the consumer to consume.

The ginger they produce now is of a higher quality, and they produce more of it per year. 

Daw Sandar Aye always carries bandages and medicines for herself and her workers – just in case. To her, OSH is all about keeping workers healthy and safe, and making sure that they can show up to work every day. She also has good intentions of ensuring safety for the consumer.

“If they don’t get sick, get into accidents, or get injured, the whole workplace and business can continue as normal.”

Empowering farmers to do business globally

The project helped ginger farmers in Myanmar establish market links and gain direct access to buyers, allowing farmers to gain awareness of global markets and prices for themselves. This means they are now empowered to do business directly with processors and buyers that offer fair deals and align with their objectives of sustainable, safe, healthy and fair conditions for Myanmar farmers.

Alongside the chairman and other members of the Board of Directors, Daw Sandar Aye explored international and national market opportunities. Not long after, with help from Vision Zero Fund, Shwe Chin Sein entered a partnership with Snacks Mandalay, a domestic company and main exporter of processed foods.

That market link, alongside meeting OSH standards for export, is key to improving livelihoods in the country. Plus, now the ginger is high-quality and free from harmful chemicals. In another major step forward, this year, Shwe Chin Sein sent a sample of ginger to a buyer in the United Kingdom. The international buyer placed an order for 50 tons of ginger. 

Unfortunately, due to the current political and health (COVID-19) crises, all exports are currently suspended.

Daw Sandar Aye looks forward to business getting better over the years, and toward a future in which her cooperative routinely exports fresh ginger to other countries as well as domestically. The group is currently saving up to buy more land to build extra storage and a processing facility.

Daw Sandar Aye participates in the Marketnext and Marketplace Event organized by Winrock International as a representative of the Shwe Chin Sein Ginger Farmer Group.

Daw Sandar Aye listens carefully to the trainer during a demonstration session on good harvest and post-harvest practices.

Daw Sandar Aye actively participates in the demonstration session on post-harvest practices.

“If you think only in a commercial way, you cannot achieve success. Ginger should be safe, fresh, and residue-free.”

Leading her household and the ginger cooperative

Originally, Daw Sandar Aye was supposed to be the chairwoman of the Board of Directors. Her peers pushed her to take up the leadership role. But with some many competing priorities at home, primarily related to her role as a mother of three, she didn’t feel she had enough time to take up the task.

“It’s not a problem, but it’s a struggle sometimes.”

As a woman who owns her own farm and now actively participates in a cooperative that requires field visits, task delegation, and other activities, she is still finding her balance. 

In her role as a member, however, she remains committed. She tries to increase awareness among farmers about market access for the ginger sector, which is sometimes lacking. For example, if the market price for ginger falls, some members suggest using chemicals. She knows, however, that weeding by hand produces better crops overall, even if it is more difficult than simply spraying the field. 

The cooperative is still very new, and members still have a lot to learn about certain aspects of the market. She views her leadership position as a way to contribute, foster equality, and do her share of the work required to improve ginger farming and farmers’ livelihoods in her community.

And now, she is a steadfast advocate for OSH. As a founding member of the cooperative, a woman who is also the head of her household, a caretaker of both her family and her land, Daw Sandar Aye is a remarkable and unconventional leader in Myanmar’s fast-growing ginger sector.

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These impact stories were produced with the financial support of the European Union.