It almost sounds too good to be true. In remote areas of Myanmar, a portable soy milk machine that runs without electricity, is cheap and delivers life-saving proteins and vitamins to malnourished orphans.
One family from Vancouver has made it their life’s work to keep the milk flowing.
VANCOUVER, Canada–Rick Chase, an entrepreneur consultant, was introduced to Burmese culture four years ago when he worked with refugees fleeing conflict in the region to settle in the Greater Vancouver area.
After meeting these refugees and hearing their stories, Chase made short trips to visit the refugee camps.
“What struck me was how much smaller the children were here compared to at home in North America,” Chase said, which lead him to create a more long-term program to serve people in Myanmar.
The stunted growth Chase observed is the result of a lack of protein in the diet. To combat this, he looked into the issue and the idea of importing portable machines to create soy milk.
Why soy over other crops such as biofortified rice?
“Soy is less expensive and also rice needs the extra step of being fortified with protein, and even then it is inferior,” Chase said. “The Myanmar get plenty of rice, but very little protein. Soy protein is the best source of protein on earth and it also contains Omega 3 fats.”
The next thing they knew, the Chase family, including their three children, were moving to Myanmar.
The country is in the midst of major political reform, which in the last month saw a visit from President Barack Obama and countries like the U.S. and Canada reopening diplomatic relations for the first time in decades.
Opposition political leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi is finally free from her 21-year house arrest and trade partnerships are blooming.
However, Chase and his family came to the country before there was any talk of reform.
“Even a month before Canada announced they would be opening an embassy in March, there was no word of it, and they actually directly said no changes would be made,” Chase said.
While Chase says they never felt immediate threats to their safety, there would be moments with strong reminders of where they are living.
“All of the sudden in town you might see a bunch of military tanks and you know to just mind your own business,” Chase said. Luckily though, under the current calm, the military and the government are holding what seems to be a stable truce.
Despite these reforms and massive foreign interest in economic investment and trade, day-to-day life for the country’s impoverished remains very poor.
Chase feels it is as important as ever to push the projects he is involved with.
In addition to the benefits of protein in the soy milk, Chase is also able to make fortified soy cookies with a formula from a Canadian company called Sprinkles.
“The formula is very beneficial and prevents and cures beriberi in children, a Vitamin B deficient disease that can lead to death,” he said.
Chase’s goal is to feed one million Myanmar people, orphans especially, in five cities across Myanmar by 2015.
The machines he has introduced are a Canadian invention called Vitagoat soy food processing machinery. They are inexpensive to set up and can be run without any electricity, which means a Vitagoat can be used not just in urban areas, but in refugee camps and the middle of the jungle.
One machine can produce enough milk to provide 15 to 20 grams of protein and other nutrients for between 600 and 1,000 people a day.
In order to reach his goal of one million people, Chase works with NGOs to receive funding for the project. His backers include World Vision, Orphan’s Hope in Seattle, and Myanmar Healthy Foods Company, owned by Mr. Sein Thaung Oo, whose brother was the former Vice President of Myanmar, and Austalian NGO Grace Works has a machine.
There are other NGOs working with Chase, but because of the still fragile political situation, their names cannot be mentioned in this article.
On the ground is an NGO called World Concern Myanmar (WCM), whose program director, Jacob Engelage, met Chase randomly in Yangon and one day over coffee, discussed the soybean processing program, which Engelage felt matched well with WCM’s mission.
“The main emphasis of World Concern Myanmar is in health and food security. These two come together in nutrition,” Engelage said via e-mail. “Increasingly we also emphasize child protection, and in this project we see all elements come together very nicely in a sustainable way.”
At the moment, WCM has 12 people who have applied to own and run a soybean processing unit in the larger Yangon area. Local production of the machines is also expected to start soon, after which they will place the first batch of processing units. In the second stage, they will place another seven in different parts of the country. The machines also create spin-off jobs for people in Myanmar.
“The operators of the soybean equipment will gain the opportunity to run their own business and provide for their families while also contributing to society,” Engelage said. “This can be transforming.”
While daily life in Myanmar is not always easy for expatriate families, Rick says his family has really embraced their new home. His wife enjoys teaching at an international school and he says his children are happy to integrate.
“They are learning Burmese and enjoy playing with their Burmese friends,” Chase said. “As well, having come from Vancouver, a multicultural city, we were always around people from many different nationalities so that exposure has made it easier to adapt here.”
The rents keep going up and up in Yangon, says Chase, and many expat families who have lived there for a while are feeling the crunch that happens when a poor country makes changes, but he says lightheartedly that at least renewing their visas is no longer a minor nightmare.
“We used to have to go to Bangkok in Thailand and the first time we had so much trouble,” Chase says. “We still have to do it every 70 days, but now it’s a breeze!”