Irish couple’s Burmese food oil venture boosts local village
Idea for peanut and sesame oil import business hatched on Burma honeymoon
John Jenkins and Katrina Crawford with their Bayin sesame and peanut oils. The oils are imported from Burma
Listening to problems children had in getting to school led to idea of a social enterprise to benefit Myin Sine village and school, funded by profits from oil import business.
Bayin sesame and peanut oils are produced in the small village of Myin Sine, in the midwest of Burma (also known as Myanmar). The nuts and seeds are grown, picked, then put in a giant barrel, where the oils are extracted naturally.
Unlike most other oils, Bayin Oils are cold-pressed, which is more difficult but requires less equipment and produces a richer flavoured oil.
The name, the Burmese word for “king”, originates from a rumour that co- founder John Jenkins is a descendant of King Thibaw, a former king.
“If the rumour is true, my great-great-grandmother would have been the princess of Burma, who went against her family’s wishes and married a stable boy. When we went to Myanmar for our honeymoon, I had pictures of my grandmother with me, and everyone we spoke to said that the only people who had their pictures taken back then were related to the king. So we think she had to be a great-granddaughter or maybe a cousin of the king.”
During their travels through Burma, John and Katrina took notice of the abundance of sesame and peanut oil produced there, and the variety of ways the oils can be used to cook.
On the same trip, visiting a village school, they listened to stories about the two-hour journeys through wide and fast- flowing rivers that children had to make to attend their classes.
“We sat down with our native tour guide Joe and started talking about what we could export. We mentioned the oils, and Joe jumps up and says that his mother’s family owns an oil farm. So he takes us to her house.”
John and Katrina left Joe as their business partner in Myin Sine, while they registered the business in Ireland back in August 2013, organising a space to bottle and brand the raw product here.
They then began looking for delivery companies that would ship the oils to Ireland, something that proved more difficult than they had anticipated, as Katrina explained.
“Because the sanctions in Burma had only been recently lifted, there were no existing delivery routes between Myanmar and Europe, let alone Ireland. We called everywhere asking if they could help, but no one knew how.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade inferred that it would be too difficult to set up and not to bother. Eventually we contacted [a company called] Emerald Freight, who agreed to do it for us.”
There were also difficulties in transferring money to Burma. The first time they tried, the money disappeared. Katrina went to Bank of Ireland to enquire what had happened, but was told she would have to pay €200 per bank to trace the money, and that up to 10 banks could have been involved.
“Luckily we had met the deputy governor [of Burma’s central bank] Winston Set Aung at a conference in London, and we called him to explain the situation. We don’t know if it was a coincidence or not, but the money turned up two days after that.
Massive supportAung Soe
“Would we have started the business if we knew it was going to be this difficult?” John wonders. “Maybe not. We’re always hitting new walls and something new is always challenging us. It’s kind of enjoyable though, that problem-solving.”
“There are moments when you have called everywhere,” Katrina says, “and you think that you’ve hit a wall and reached the limit of your capability. But someone always comes to help, or gives you advice or you find a way around it. The lows are low, but the highs are so high because you’re the first person to do it!”
Currently the business is bottling in batches of 2,000- 4,000, depending on demand, with the oils stocked in stores such as Nolan’s of Clontarf, Thomas’s of Foxrock and Field & Vine.
The business is getting a boost, as SuperValu is set to sell Bayin Oils from this month.
If the current momentum continues, they will look at working on the venture full-time – currently both have full-time jobs outside of the Bayin business. They are also looking at supplying the UK market.
Back in Myin Sine, they also plan on building a playground for the school this year, and have an eye on sponsoring a child through college.
“I think social enterprises is the way to go with all businesses. When you think about what a difference a small amount of money makes to those children, it seems so obvious,” says Katrina.