Start-up Interview: Harmoneat – Myanmar’s first Foodtruck

So here we go with our interview. Thank you so much for your time and I highly appreciate you doing it remotely and spending time reading through it. The first question is to introduce you a bit so could you let us know a little bit about you? 

My name is Meg. I grew up in Australia but have spent the last decade working and travelling across the world. I’m a development professional specialising in public health and gender, but I’m now delving into the world of social enterprise with Harmoneat, which I co-founded with my husband and business partner David. Aside from running Harmoneat and doing development consulting, I am an avid yogi, reader, blogger, traveller, cook and food-lover. 

After your short introduction. Let’s see where you’re coming from. What’s your professional background?

I’ve spent nearly 10 years volunteering and working for not for profits in the international development and humanitarian sectors. This work has taken me to some amazing places all over the world, though Southeast Asia has always had my heart. I studied International Studies as an undergraduate and have since completed a Masters of Public Health and a Masters of Development Studies. I have worked at all levels – with grassroots NGOs in the Philippines and Thailand to INGO’s like Oxfam as well as on policy issues for UN agencies and for the Australian government’s aid program.

Having spent a lot of time looking at the effectiveness and sustainability of traditional development approaches, I have come to realise the power of social business to empower communities economically. I’m not more convinced than ever of the power of social enterprise in tackling the big issues and I’m passionate about ending the reliance on charity and outside assistance for countries like Myanmar. 

Have you always been in, well, cooking and food? Trucks? 😉 How did you come up with the idea?

I’ve always loved to cook, and by extension, to eat! Growing up in Australia, we were exposed to lots of different cuisines from all around the world. I love how multiculturalism in Australia is expressed and celebrated through food, but I also really connect with the power of food to bring people together, to bridge divides and to celebrate our universality.

I knew that there was huge potential in Myanmar for the social business space to grow – and Dave and I both wanted to create opportunities for young entrepreneurs to experience first-hand the establishment of a new social enterprise. Both of us had been working on the national level peace process in our day jobs and we kept on saying how few initiatives there were at the local level to bring people together and really build strong, resilient, tolerant communities.

We settled on the idea of using food very early – it’s the one thing that we see again and again bringing communities together in downtown Yangon. Initially, we envisaged a cafe where people could come and eat food from across the country – a space where people could have difficult conversations but really a community of like-minded people.

Early on, Dave joked about having a ‘food truck for peace’ and eventually, that idea surpassed the tea shop. Food trucks in Australia are huge at the moment, and we think that people in Myanmar would love a new, fresh and innovative eating experience.

Before we start with Harmoneat in detail one more question about the “why”. Many people leave Myanmar for other countries around Southeast Asia. Why did you decide to do it in Myanmar? 

We talk daily with young entrepreneurs, activists and students who really want to make a difference in this country. It’s inspiring. I’ve never worked somewhere where people are so genuinely committed to improving their future. Social business relies on the enthusiasm and belief of people like this, so we realised there was an enormous potential to both economically empower people (our staff and our suppliers) as well as to build the capacity of young people to use social business as a viable alternative to relying on charity.

The key to facing these enormous social challenges – environmental degradation, huge foreign investment and ownership, peace – is strong communities. We wanted to help, even if in a small way, to build those communities.

Myanmar also has amazing, diverse food which we feel gets a bad reputation internationally. With the growing tourism market we felt there was an opportunity to showcase Myanmar cooking and use the revenue for a social purpose. I think there will increasingly be more and more tourists who want an authentic, local experience and to give back to the community too. 

Alright. Down to business. Why a Food Truck? Aren’t there enough cooking schools or food stalls out there?

Just to explain first what Harmoneat is. Harmoneat is a social business which runs cooking classes and other tourist services to finance the operations of a community food truck. Our mission is simple. We want to build healthy communities, through food.

First, on the revenue side. In actual fact, there are very few cooking classes that tourists can do in downtown Yangon. There are those offered by the larger hotels, but they are expensive and are often not connected to the local communities. We felt there was a market for a more organic, locally-led class which catered to backpackers, high-end tourists and expats alike. Social tourism is a growing global phenomenon and increasingly people want to know their tourist dollars are supporting local communities. We wanted to take advantage of that. Eventually, Harmoneat will offer a range of services and tours for tourists but we are starting by running cooking classes and market tours. We should be operational by September 2014.

On the social side of our business is our community food truck. We use the profits from our cooking classes to run community activities which focus on community-building through food. For example, we plan to hold cooking demonstrates from the food truck featuring ethnically diverse food. We also might have market days where we sell healthy, organic produce at a cheaper rate. The food truck will participate in events and be a resource for local people to come together, celebrate food, and discuss the big issues.

In this way, we are not competing with local tea shops or other food outlets, rather we want the truck to be a moving beacon of trust, tolerance and peace. A space that encourages and allows conversation and brings people – be they suppliers, consumers or partners – together. 

Following up the previous question with the obvious one: What makes you unique? 

Well, lots really! First we are a social business which means that we exist to achieve our social aim rather than purely for profit. In practical terms this means that any profits we do make will be invested back into the growth of our business. But it also means that we have to demonstrate a double and often triple bottom line.

Second, our products are unique for the tourism market. We offer locally-led, community-driver products and services for tourists that we don’t think have yet been addressed in the market.

Third, our team, who are all passionate about social business and community-building and are learning how to operate a social enterprise so that they may one day start their own. We are not interested in this being a foreign-led business, it has to be locally owned and operated if it is to be truly sustainable. We are just helping with the start-up capital and set-up and then we hope the team will take it forward from there!

If you would have to name the one feature that makes Harmoneat super mega awesome. What would it be?

We aim for all our food to be sustainably sourced – which means it’s local, organic and the proceeds are returned to economically empower suppliers and their communities.

Can you also give us a quick sneak peak into what’s in the making? What does the future hold for Harmoneat? What are your plans?

Our first plan to is to get ourselves economically viable as a business. Once we are sure that the revenue from the classes can cover our community-building activities, we might invest in one (or several) more trucks that can take tours highlighting the importance of healthy communities and demonstrating cooking as a way of bringing communities together! 

How big is the Harmoneat team now? You are still looking for support, right?

Currently we have 3 local staff supported by several Australian volunteers. We are still hiring the remainder of our team and are always on the lookout for people who want to assist us achieve our mission. At the moment, we’re in need of some mentors to work with our local team – in the business operations and tourism sectors ideally so get in touch if you’re keen to get on board! 

Now we know what’s on the horizon. Brief walk back: Was it easy to set up Harmoneat? Did you find investors easily? I assume companies haven’t all been that keen on spending money for a food truck in Myanmar?

Getting seed funding has been really difficult. It’s an untested concept and social business is still relatively new here as a model. We straddle the divide between not for profit and business so sometimes you suffer because of that! We ran a crowdfunding campaign to rase the start-up capital and raised nearly AUD 31,000 from our own networks. This, in addition to our own personal savings, will be used to get us set up. We’ll be doing another fundraising drive later in the year to help us get fully sustainable, I think that time it’ll be easier as we can prove the model is scaleable. 

What was the biggest hurdle to overcome when founding Harmoneat?

I face them every day! I think it’s easy to let the naysayers get into your head! Let’s face it, not everyone is going to share your vision. But if most people do, then go for it! 

How does an “average” day look like for you right now?

I’m trying to stay as balanced as possible as it’s really easy to just work 24/7 and you end up being really ineffective. I work 5-6 hours a day on Harmoneat and also on consulting work (to pay the bills) – that includes meetings, ordering supplies, researching, working with our volunteers in Australia and recruitment. I try and have some down time in the afternoon where I swim or do yoga or read. And if I’m really stressed out I’ll write a blog post to purge all my anxiety! 

What’s your impression on the start-up scene in Myanmar right now?

I think there’s just immense potential. I’m floored every day when I meet young entrepreneurs and it just excites me to imagine the growth in the start-up, but also the social business space.

I think there’s still some realignment that needs to happen in terms of foreign investors expectations – empowerment and development of local entrepreneurs needs to happen first and it needs to happen organically. You can’t force people to be entrepreneurs and you can’t expect the start-up space to grow overnight. 

Do you work together with any start-ups? 

As a social business, we have to work with lots of different people – both in the for-profit and not for profit space. Right now we’re not working with any start-ups but I work from the co-working space at Project Hub and I’m always on the lookout for great start-ups that can help our business. 

What kind of start-up / tech venture are you missing in Myanmar at the moment?

I guess business support services for social businesses in particular. There are a lot of unique challenges – legally and operationally, and it would be great if there were local consultants who operated purely on advising on the social business space. 

A bit crystal balling: What’s the next big thing? In Myanmar as well as on a global scale? 

Every business will become a social business (I’m a huge optimist!). 

Since we’re spreading the word here. What do you want our readers to know?

For more information, check out www.harmoneat.com

Famous last words 🙂 

Thanks for having us on here! 

That marks the end of our interview. I’m super happy and thankful that you took the time to do this with us! 

 

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