3-minute read

How a Regional Friendship Used Honey to Transform Lives


Gabriel Tan

Gabriel Tan is Founder of Bamboo Builders, an educational social enterprise that equips and empowers young adults with social entrepreneurial mindsets and skills to become effective change leaders in society.

It was June 2019, and my first time in Myanmar. I was there not as a tourist, but as a Project Mentor for Bamboo Builders, a social enterprise I founded in 2017 that empowers young people to change communities through social entrepreneurship.

Over the next 10 days, our team would receive Social Entrepreneurship training in Yangon, before going into a rural village to start a social enterprise with students there. As the Project Leaders conducted our specialized training, I sat at the back of the room and observed the participants, whom we call Builders. Represented in our team was an interesting mix of five different nationalities, coming together for a common cause: to improve educational accessibility. Those who had English as their first language were naturally more outspoken and participative. However, the Builders from Myanmar were mostly reserved and shy. Except one. She was trying really hard to speak English and to connect with the other Builders. There was fire in her eyes. Her name was Thae Su.

A stand-out by any measure

As the days passed, Thae Su steadily grew in confidence. I guess it helped that we try really hard to create a supportive environment for personal growth. She also became more open, which enabled me to get to know her better. She told me about her work at Thant Myanmar, an environmental consulting company, and her dreams to become an environmentalist. Her drive and passion inspired me. 

At the end of the trip, we built a budding honey business which sold out 70 of its tester products in an hour! The students were ecstatic and the teachers hopeful. Bamboo Builders was one step closer to alleviating poverty through improving educational accessibility! Yet, I was already thinking who would lead the next trip to work on the second phase of business-building: strengthen the students’ business so they can sell their products in Yangon.

No prizes for guessing, Thae Su was chosen and offered by the Project Leads to lead the next trip, to which she excitedly said “yes!” This was the official start of our friendship.

A friendship blossoms

Thae Su (middle) and Gabriel (right) taking in the sights with another friend

Over the next six months, we worked hard together to support the students in their new-found start-up. Thae Su handled the local co-ordination and execution, while I worked to recruit a second team of Builders to launch the next stage of expansion. Because both of us held day jobs, numerous post-dinner calls would start as work discussions and end as personal conversations late into the night. It was through these calls where we got to know each other on a deeper level, and we became fast friends.

The next trip in December 2019 was momentous because we finally got to see each other again! However, it was also during this trip where we had several disagreements. One of them was regarding the product’s packaging. Amidst heightened stress and lack of sleep, small disagreements become fertile ground for heated arguments. Nonetheless, I was thankful we managed to resolve our differences amicably. The bold openness in sharing and understanding each other’s opinions was only possible because of the strong relationship we had built over the earlier few months. Overcoming these disagreements only strengthened our friendship and we continued to forge on.

Today, TDG Origins is a profitable honey business in Yangon, selling more than a hundred bottles in its first six months in operations. Profits from this social enterprise support 44 needy students, allowing them to afford basic necessities like food and stationery for lessons. It also provides five teachers additional income. These things matter because, according to the teachers we talked to, 80% of the rural high school students fail their national examinations. As a result, parents encourage their children to get a job rather than go to school. (This doesn’t help the cycle of poverty at all!) To make matters worse, the best performing students leave their village for better-paying jobs in the city. This brain drain leads to teachers teaching subjects they have never passed before! It is no wonder the failure rate is so high!

My friend, poverty is real. But so is international friendship. TDG Origins would not exist today if not for the friendship Thae Su and I share. This makes our friendship all the more special. I’m thankful to have met Thae Su and am so glad our values and passion aligned. I think it is symbolic of Southeast Asia’s interconnectedness, and representative of the ASEAN spirit. I believe creating more international friendships would create a more harmonious region.

To find out more about contributing to TDG Origins, click here.

Do you have a friend like that too? Someone who is from a country, culture and community different from yours? Someone whose life experiences you can’t always relate to? How did that friendship grow into one that serves others? Write a blog about it! Click here to pitch your story.

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