Harmoneat: Food for thought

A group of  former and current RMIT students are working to alleviate ethnic tensions in one of the poorest nations on earth, Myanmar. Alicia Barker writes.

In a country emerging from 60 years of civil war and where a third of the population live on less than two dollars a day, a food truck isn’t the first thing you might recommend to bridge the divide between different ethnicities. But Meg Berryman believes Harmoneat, a “food truck for peace” in her words, will reduce sectarian violence and civil unrest in one of the world’s most ethnically diverse nations, Myanmar.

The RMIT International Studies graduate co-founded the food-centric social business. The idea started as a joke with her husband Dave Hale, but has now grown into a crowd-funding campaign with over $30 000 to its name.

“Originally it was going to be a tea shop, a little restaurant where people could come and talk about tolerance and we’d serve food around the country,” Berryman says. It was her husband who then thought of a food truck. “And that idea just kind of stuck and now we’re here.”

Harmoneat hopes to sell dishes originating from different areas of Myanmar to the people of Yangon, in order to ease tensions between different cultural and religious groups. Myanmar is one of the world’s most diverse countries and has a long and bloody history of sectarian violence.

Once the Harmoneat truck is up and running in December this year, it will be a “social business” meaning the profits made will be re-invested into staff, supplies and other expenses to ensure it is self-sufficient. The business will not be foreign-owned, but locally-run by Yangon people and the Harmoneat team.

Berryman says the idea of using a social business model for the project was an approach borne out of frustration with the bureaucracy of large-scale charity organizations.“The social business for me is quite new,” Berryman says. “I’ve worked in the not-for-profit sector for 10 years and I was really drawn to the idea of making it something financially sustainable and building the capacity of Burmese people to meet challenges they face head on using social business.”

Berryman and Hale have brought in a group of RMIT International Studies students to work with Harmoneat. Most of the students involved have already been involved with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) or charity organisations dealing with refugees and international aid. Berryman says she understands the pressure facing young graduates and students to build their skills, and wanted to help students “gain access to opportunities to further their careers and interests”, while also growing Harmoneat’s volunteer base.

Emily Westmoreland, a second year currently on her semester abroad program in Chile, grew up in Myanmar and has a strong connection to the place. She says social businesses like Harmoneat are “the new wave of international development”.

“It’s a step away from the charity model which has been consistently proven to be unsuccessful,” she said. “I know that there are a lot that exist under the facade of doing good, and they do a good thing, but because [Harmoneat] is locally run, it’s designed to be self-sustaining. I think that it will do a really wonderful job without being a Western white saviour.”

This care to avoid condescension towards the locals is central to Harmoneat’s values according to Berryman. “In some of the projects I’m seeing here, some of the NGOs are sitting people down and saying ‘you really should be nice to each other’ or ‘you should really learn how to just get along’ and we know that that just doesn’t work here,” she says. “It’s not where people are at, it’s not really respectful.”

Instead Berryman hopes that the simple act of serving meals from different regions in Myanmar will help bridge the gaps created by differences in culture and religion in Yangon. Each meal will come with a small information card containing information about the ethnic origins of the dish and its recipe. “Even if it’s as subtle as drawing attention to the fact that this recipe came from someone’s grandma in the northern Chin state, while the person’s eating it they can reflect on that and maybe have a positive association with that state whereas previously they’ve had a negative association,” Berryman says. “Even if it’s something really subtle we will have achieved our mission and that’s building communities.”

Sectarian violence goes back decades in Myanmar, but more recently the Saffron Revolution in 2007, a series of anti-government protests led predominantly by Buddhist monks, saw mass-shootings of protestors by government forces, and then a wide-spread cover up of the events by the authorities.

In 2012, ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims were involved in the Rakhine State riots, with the Burmese army and police thought to have played a major role in targeting Muslim groups through large-scale arrests and arbitrary violence.  There were a reported 88 casualties, and an estimated 90,000 people were displaced by the conflicts. As a result, ethnic tensions are still at a high in Myanmar today.

Non-governmental organisations have existed for years in Myanmar using a charity based model. But Berryman says these organizations, based around providing aid and money nationally, just don’t work on a local level. What makes Harmoneat different, she believes, is its focus on communities.

“In a country coming out of 60 years of civil war, the trust between communities is so low and it plays out regionally; you can kind of see it in offices, between different groups and in the media,” she says. “And we were saying ‘who’s actually trying to change those individual realities?’”

Part of the way Harmoneat will aim to try and change these “individual realities” is by hiring Yangon locals to run the truck. Berryman calls it “building the capacity of local youth”. With a population of roughly 5 million people, Yangon is home to Indian, Barmar, South East Asian and Chinese groups, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet.

Disadvantaged young people living in Yangon often cannot finish high school and are in need of jobs. Harmoneat is currently in the process of recruiting team members to help run cooking classes out of the kitchen the organization is looking to purchase.  “We’re really looking for people with diverse ethnic backgrounds with interesting stories [who] maybe don’t have the opportunity elsewhere to get these types of jobs, so our team in itself is going to be a shining example of inter-race and inter-ethnic collaboration,” Berryman says.

Yangon team members will be on 12 month contracts and Berryman hopes this will “economically empower” the local staff, and potentially encourage them to start their own businesses. Westmoreland says that while this plan goes against what many major charities do, it might change the lives of these Yangon citizens. “It’s a model that allows for the future to be in your own hands,” she says. “It’s about taking charge of your own future; it’s about giving an opportunity as opposed to giving money.”

Harmoneat’s month-long crowdfunding campaign began on May 20 and raised just over $30 000 but did not meet its ultimate goal of $56, 580. Despite not making enough money to buy the truck and get the project running immediately, Claudia Lang, first-year RMIT International Studies student and Operations and Food Education Manager, says the money raised will help to get the ball rolling. “It’ll be enough to hire the team and start buying our basic supplies. Once we hire the team we should be able to find other ways of sorting [funding for the truck] out,” she says.
Harmoneat’s Partnerships and Donor manager and second-year RMIT International Studies student, Maddie Gange, says it will be part of her role to apply for grants to make up the extra money to get the truck up and running, and to create partnerships with like-minded businesses back on home soil.

Social business is not foreign in Australia; there is a ‘Social Enterprise Awards’ and many large organizations like the Salvos and smaller businesses like Good Cycles, a Melbourne cycling shop that trains people in bike-repair to help get them into employment, exist here already. Lang says that even though the idea of “social enterprise” was very different from the standard charity model, Australians would embrace Harmoneat and what it’s trying to achieve.

“I think the whole food truck idea is something we can relate to. It’s a fun way to approach peace building, I think,” she says.

Harmoneat also plans to run cooking classes for tourists out of a kitchen, which will be purchased with its crowd-funding money, from September this year. The Yangon team will teach backpackers about Burmese food and culture and show tourists “Myanmar is about more than Aung San Suu Kyi”.

Myanmar has only just opened up to tourists, and the burgeoning market is mostly focused on higher-end travelers. Berryman hopes Harmoneat’s cooking classes will help introduce tourists to a more realistic and true version of Myanmar; a country that is struggling with its identity after the mass shootings and cruelty of the Saffron revolution. “There’s a lot of culture, ethnic diversity but also a lot of cultural history that people need to be aware of, we think that’s important,” she says.

Of the 274 contributors to Harmoneat’s crowdfunding campaign, most were Western who weren’t familiar with Burmese food or culture. “We’ve promoted Harmoneat as something tourists can go and experience later on when it’s finished as well so it’s something they can engage with in the future as a customer,” Lang says. Tourists won’t be able to work with Harmoneat as part of a ‘voluntourism’ holiday, a trend that’s become fashionable with Western travellers in nations such as Vietnam and Thailand. No tourists will be working as volunteers in the truck, and Harmoneat won’t be asking for handouts from travellers.

One of the biggest challenges facing the project in Myanmar is gaining approval from the Burmese government. Street vendors are a large part of life in downtown Yangon, but since 2011 authorities have been restricting street trade in order to clean up the city’s image. Berryman says getting the all clear from the government will be the biggest challenge to face Harmoneat in its early stages. “I think we’re going to have to face the red tape with the government in terms of getting all the approval necessary and making sure that the money in that process is going to the right people,” she says. “Burma’s still quite corrupt and it’s difficult to know sometimes where your money goes.” She also said Harmoneat will be careful in choosing their suppliers in order to make sure they’re not contributing to the existing problems of corruption and exploitation in Myanmar.

The Harmoneat team hopes that if the Yangon food truck is successful, similar projects might spring up around the country and around the world. As the project gains momentum Berryman says she and her partner don’t want to be the only ones behind the steering wheel.

“We have no interest in being the owners or the face of this project. We think that if we can demonstrate that this works in Myanmar, it might work in other conflict affected areas. We think Harmoneat might become a movement.”

By Alicia Barker

Picture via Flickr user Jose Javier Martin Espartosa  

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