UPDATE: Since I visited Myanmar in October 2015, Pomelo has undergone a restructure. Some of the original team members have started a new social enterprise called Hla Day. I encourage you to pay them a visit on Pansodan Street in Yangon – it will be my first port of call next time I’m in town!
Unlike in neighbouring countries, the fair trade scene in Myanmar is still relatively niche. As a result, Pomelo stands out like a shining beacon for anyone wanting to buy ethical souvenirs or keepsakes in Yangon. Sourcing handmade products from a number of producer groups spread across the country, Pomelo works with around 40 different co-ops and artisan collectives who, in turn, provide support and enterprise development opportunities to some of the country’s most disadvantaged, including former sex workers, those living with HIV or a disability, as well as small, family owned SMEs.
Pomelo first launched back in 2012 as a small-scale craft store in downtown Yangon. After sensing a gap in the market, expat Rachel Storaas and her husband started the company with the hope of creating more opportunities for artisans. Since then, Annie Bell, founder of Helping Hands, local partner Mar Tin Su Su Mar and a team of dedicated volunteers have shaped Pomelo into a successful social enterprise.
The Pomelo Philosophy
An important part of Pomelo’s vision is to showcase the different regional tastes and skill sets of Myanmar – and that definitely comes across in the wide selection of products on offer. From a visitor’s perspective, this is both an ambitious and vitally important objective. As tourism becomes more widespread in the country, finding ways to encapsulate the multidimensional, multifaceted nature of Myanmar and its rich, complex history is becoming more important – especially since foreigners are still restricted in their movements to some parts of the country. Pomelo’s mission to give a voice to disempowered ethnic minority groups, and create equal opportunities for geographically, politically and socially isolated producer groups, speaks to the heart of the fair trade movement.
Having stuck to the main tourist trail, I myself found it difficult to get a good grasp of Myanmar’s cultural and social complexity during my short visit. Handicrafts and handmade objects are powerful vehicles for cultural expression, and I loved being able to learn about different places and people through the objects at Pomelo. This is especially true of the less-accessible Chin and Rakhine States, where some of Myanmar’s most intricate textiles are made.
In a word, Pomelo is vibrant – both literally, in the bright range of products they stock, and metaphorically, in their underpinning philosophy and progressive attitude towards fair trade. They succeed in putting a fresh spin on products you might find sold in other parts of Southeast Asia, too. The use of recycled vinyl, for example, is common throughout Vietnam and Cambodia, but here in Myanmar, producers have access to unique materials – including the quirky ‘Foods that should not be eaten together’ posters, which convey certain food and flavour combinations that, superstition has it, must not be consumed together for fear of illness or death (e.g. rhino and ginger). For Pomelo, the HSN HIV Group has upcycled these salvaged posters to make placemats and coasters.
Another material you’ll find no shortage of in-store is longyi fabric. Various groups re-purpose the material in different ways, cutting yardages into western-style clothing, or using scraps to fashion soft accessories like mobile phone cases and cushion covers. Pomelo also stock a beautiful range of hand-woven, fairly traded longyis sourced from Chin State if you’re in the market for the real thing.
I am particularly fond of a jewellery range stocked in store that is made using old Myanmar coins. As the story goes, when the government devalued the Kyat and phased out coins, rendering many people’s savings useless, some enterprising artisans started using their loose change to make handicrafts instead. As Pomelo say of their range,
“Each item sold represents someone’s story of commitment and desire for improved livelihoods through artistic expression, creativity and hard work” – Pomelo.
Behind the scenes, Pomelo is helping to train disadvantaged artisan groups in the areas of product design, financial management and English language, contributing to a more sustainable handicraft industry for Myanmar. I look forward to seeing the country’s fair trade sector blossom over the coming years with Pomelo at the helm.
You can find the Pomelo store, open daily from 10am, next to Monsoon Restaurant on Thein Pyu Road. Check their Facebook page for new product updates, producer stories and exhibition announcements.