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We are still here! Let us send you tips for travelling through Myanmar and stories from the road …
Perhaps Sophia was always to work in farming. Although she grew up in Mandalay, her family come from Tangyan in northern Shan State – a rural strip of the country predominantly inhabited by the Palaung and ethnic Chinese. When her grandparents were brought by their children to the city, they continued to grow veggies in empty plots beside their house.
“I think it’s embedded in a lot of older people’s DNA. They love to grow whenever they see vacant land. Every time I’d go visit her I’d come back with big bunches of watercress. All these grannies just loving growing vegetables …”
Sophia describes her parents as “experimental”. She and her five siblings (four sisters and one little brother) were homeschooled with a focus on art and music. Sophia says she liked it. The competition was only with herself and they were able to progress through their studies as fast they could go.
After finishing her studies Sophia moved to Yangon and began managing a Polish NGO-funded project with NEED Myanmar (‘NEED’ stands for Network for Environment and Economic Development). Here the students were taught skills ranging from building mud huts to operating Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programmes. At NEED, Sophia met Caity, an Australian teaching at the school, and the two later splintered off to set up Kokkoya Organics in 2017. The original staff of Kokkoya were all graduates from NEED.
Kokkoya Organics began as purely an urban farm growing honest veggies delivered through a CSA system. It soon grew to become a hub for wholesome produce sourced throughout Myanmar: kimchi from the delta, coffee from Pinlaung, honey from Putao. During the lockdowns of COVID-19, Kokkoya was delivering up to 200 boxes of vegetables a week. Today, with much of the country effectively under martial law, business is trickier.
In response, Kokkoya have diversified. There is now a farm café and the team have discovered that they are “kinda good” at organizing events. The biggest of these was their Green Festival held in May 2022, incorporating film screenings, a farmers’ market, a recycle-repair station, lectures, compost making demonstrations, cookery classes and even a bicycle tour.
But the future remains fraught.
In July 2022, I sat down with Sophia at the café. We were surrounded by vegetables: corn, snake gourd, mustard, basil, squash, aubergine … Charlie the farm dog snuffled somewhere about our feet. On one table next to us two children in oversized sun hats hooted and caroled; on the other the Kokkoya team (all shareholders) played a game of cards.
We began talking about Sophia’s interest in acupuncture and here she highlighted a thematic synergy with organic farming. Before moving to Yangon, Sophia had acquired a diploma in acupuncture in Beijing, but now, she admits, is slightly out of practice. Perhaps there aren’t many people willing to let you practice on them, I ventured. She reprimanded me: “When you are first trying to insert a needle into someone, it must be yourself …
… In traditional Chinese medicine everything is interrelated, it has a more holistic approach while examining symptoms. Maybe when you have, let’s say, back pain, it could be because of your kidney or liver qi is imbalanced. What you see from the outside might not be the root cause.
Farming is somewhat similar. Right now commercial farming is putting in different chemicals trying to adjust the soil, thinking that they are going to be good for the harvest but actually we are depleting the soil in the long term. The soil is alive, there are connections between the organic matters and the microbes and the local ecosystem that we haven’t fully understood. Using artificial chemicals and pesticides breaks the natural balance. It is the same thing when you are looking at your health or nutrients you are getting. Taking multivitamins is not going to be the same as consuming fresh fruits and vegetables.
We try to take care of our soil, we do crop rotation. After we pull out the plants from one bed we will plant something different. And that will help to modify the soil. Different kinds of plants have different properties. In conventional farming there is only one kind of crop over a large space, and always the same kind of crop. For example in Shan State you will see a lot of corn and after corn they will cut everything and grow more corn again …
At Kokkoya we use some permaculture principles. We have incorporated permaculture into the farm design. We have the water cycle, and the things that we reuse and recycle, and try to maintain a good ecosystem. Ideally, it would be like a whole ecosystem that is working on its own. But in the system there is a problem that you don’t always get enough harvest. You have a working ecosystem but it is not planned for human consumption. So into this system we incorporate market gardening – biointensive planting methods. We grow crops closely together. These are different but not necessarily conflicting ideas.
When I was the coordinator for a project at NEED Myanmar, I wasn’t really involved in the teaching or the curriculum, but then I got interested by what they were doing. When Caity decided to start something up on her own she invited me to join her and I said yes.
At that time it was Caity and two other girls from the same batch from NEED Myanmar.
There are several reasons why Caity decided to start Kokkoya. One of the reasons was to empower more girls. We could see from our experience that there were many capable girls but they are not getting equal opportunities. We started as a girl-only farm at the beginning. It was also a very exciting idea to have a small piece of land which is productive and can be self-sustainable… we were inspired by examples from other urban farms around the world and wanted to prove that it will work here in Yangon too.
The students were from different parts of the country. From all the different states: Rakhine, Yangon, Shan … They were taught about permaculture and organic farming. It was a free course, so students had to apply and there was an interview. I think it was a 10-month course. Nilar, Bo Hein and Catherine are now working with Kokkoya. As for their classmates, some of them are working in agriculture some of them are not. I think it helped some of the students choose their future career if they are interested in farming. A lot of them are coming from agricultural backgrounds. For example Nilar’s parents have farms, Catherine’s parents are doing farming …
No, mostly conventional farming. After the course at NEED finishes some of the students go back and try to convince their parents to grow organic. Sometimes they are successful but most of the time they are not because there is not a stable market. It is very difficult to change the existing agricultural scene. Organic produce is usually pricier because of the time and energy that you need to put in. But one thing we realized is that farmers are happy to grow organic so long as there is a demand. So connecting farmers with the market was one of the things that we try to do. A lot of farmers know how to grow vegetables, they know their soil well – they are just not good at selling their crops.
For other small scale organic farmers, yes.
For the farmers, organic farming is a bit risky. If your land is in a farming area and all your neighbours are using pesticides and you are not, then all the pests will come to you. Ideally you need to start it slowly. The example that Caity uses is, when someone is starting to learn a new language, you won’t laugh because his or her grammar is wrong. You want to encourage them to try more until they slowly become perfect. Instead of pointing fingers at farmers who are not ‘perfect organic growers’ we want to encourage them to do more farming that is impacting the environment in a positive way. If there is no support they will stop doing it.
In organic farming there are a lot of experiments. Even for us, at the old site and here in the new site, some crops worked there but they just don’t work here. Even in the same region, because of the soil, because of the water … So it is constant experiments.
Sometimes the results are not as good quality as if we are supplying to restaurants or a hotel. That is why at the beginning we used the CSA method. It is a very friendly system for the farmers who are growing the crops because we can decide what is going into the box depending on what is growing in season on the farms. There is no waste on the farm, we don’t harvest too much or too little. The only thing is it would be a bit challenging for the customers: “I don’t know this vegetable, I don’t know what to do with it …”
It is much smaller now. We were delivering 150-200 boxes a week during COVID because everyone is staying home and cooking. But now we are doing like 10 boxes a week. That is why we do the café to have another source of income.
Right now it is about half-half. The ratio used to be 90% expats and 10% locals. But now it has changed. There are some local customers that have more knowledge about it, especially new parents who have just had babies and are much more conscious about what they are feeding their kids: parents who would buy the vegetables to make purées for their babies but not for themselves, that’s the funny thing.
But on the other hand, the vegetables in the wet market are so cheap. When we are selling one bunch of watercress for 500 MMK, most of the aunties would tell us that we are ripping them off because they can get one bunch for 100 MMK in the local market. But we grow them in different conditions. You go out from here a little bit and near the police station you can see how local watercress is grown: in a big field with all the run-off water from the neighbourhood that goes into the ponds. There are differences but people don’t see it. They don’t feel it.
At the beginning we had more expats because they are more exposed to the idea. Maybe in their own home country they have tried different kinds of CSA so they know the concept. But it was a bit more difficult for us to reach the local market because they are not used to vegetable boxes. They cannot cook what they like, they have to be flexible and sometimes a lot of people don’t know how to cook things that they are not used to so there is a lot of customer education involved. We were sharing personal box posts, also trying to find new recipes to share.
But now, I think more people come to us because now we have a café and people in the city like to have somewhere to relax and especially those who live in apartments want somewhere open and not just a park but somewhere green to relax and people can bring their kids. It’s also why we chose at the very beginning to stay close to the city centre to be part of the community.
Our vision is for a world where all farming is impacting the environment in a positive way. We originally used the word ‘regenerative’ but it is very hard to translate into Burmese so we changed it to an easier, understandable word.
It’s a vision. A vision can be big!
We are trying to change individuals one at a time. It is not like everyone has to buy from us but if there are more people trying to grow in ways that are more environmentally friendly, then the more people that are doing it then the better impact there will be for the planet. We are also trying to do more educational projects such as school visits.
Yeah, we do. We’ve had some crazy amount of kids coming into the farm. It was before rainy season and we had to put them in to different groups: one does farming, one does plants, one does cooking. And then we’d switch them every one hour or something like that.
We have an internship programme, also. And then, right now is a really shitty time but when we used to buy more from our farmers, ‘influencer farmers’ we used to call them: they are influencing other farmers to grow organic because there is a demand. When we were ordering 20, 50 kilograms of cucumbers then one farm cannot do it and they would ask their friends to help. But then, because of the situation now, many of them had to stop because there is no market.
Caity is like the brain of Kokkoya: she thinks, she does a lot of the strategic planning for Kokkoya. I deal more with the day-to-day kind of things: accounting, communications, a little bit of everything. Sometimes, if required on official documents, I am the managing director. But I really hate all these titles. At Kokkoya we want it to be more flexible. We do have departments: we have the café and the head of café; we have the farm and the head of the farm. But they need to communicate with each other and don’t need to report to a superior but can go directly to their colleagues. We want it to be more flexible than a top-down approach. Which is not easy.
Caity and I sometimes feel that the two of us are making all of the decisions and we don’t want that. We want the team to be able to make decisions and be responsible for their actions.
My dad did. At the beginning he wasn’t very sure of what I chose to do but then he said, “OK if you want to do it’s fine”. My parents are unconventional, they are already different from other parents so they are not against what I chose to do but they are sometimes a bit concerned about if I can have a decent income – which it is not! I am not getting a fixed salary. But I am getting fresh vegetables from the farm! Luckily my parents do not need me to support them.
There is no social security in Myanmar so people are not getting enough pensions. Almost everyone of our team has to support their families. I am lucky that my parents are not pushing me to do things that I don’t want to do. They are quite supportive. Concerned but supportive.
When I was trying to explain to my art teacher who is very close to our family back in Mandalay he is like, “I hate Yangon, in Yangon everyone lives in small boxes. How can you stand living in Yangon?” And then, two months ago he visited the farm and he said: “Now I know why you don’t want to go back to Mandalay!”
They are not so mobile now so they haven’t visited. I have told them what I do but I don’t think they can imagine this.
Sometimes I get depressed with the situation. But sometimes it seems OK … We do have people visiting and telling us how great we’ve been and we feel much better for a while. Especially now it is very difficult to predict what is going to happen in the next few years.
We have more plans for the farm. Monsoon is our low season, like in tourism, so we will try to use this period of time to do some training for our staff. Right now, with the current situation we won’t be able to survive just on selling vegetables. We are trying to develop more programmes, shifting to the educational side, the internship programme, also. I think that is where we are going to focus more in the future. More education and sharing knowledge.
We have to be! I am not a very optimistic person but if you are in farming you have to be optimistic. You are planting seeds for a harvest sometime in the future which is unpredictable. There are no pessimistic farmers. We just have permanent worry lines.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
The Kokkoya café is open from Wednesday to Sunday 10AM – 5PM. Veggies and other food can be ordered anytime at kokkoyaorganics.com.