A couple dozen kids gather around an improvised football court on Myin Sine, a rural village hidden in Myanmar’s Magway region. It’s nearly 40°C and they disorderly run around in flip flops while they try to kick the ball over a dusty playground as John tries to explain to them the rules of the game. It’s the first time they see a football, or an European person.
For John Jenkins and Katrina Crawford the encounter was also full of firsts. They chose the off-the-beaten-track destination for their honeymoon in 2013 and even then, the philanthropic spirit that would later characterise their social enterprise Bayin Oils was there: they arrived with books, pens and toys for the local children.
Almost three years and another two visits to the tropical village later, they have managed to be the first entrepreneurs to bring Burmese food imports to Europe -cold pressed peanut oil and sesame oil to be precise-, a tough road that has been half-walked by many since the country’s sanctions were lifted in 2012 after a transition to democracy that begun as recently as 2010.
“We were not taking no for an answer” is the simple explanation that John gives when asked how did they pull that off. Same answer he gave to the UN representative that invited the couple over for a meeting during their third trip to Myanmar last Easter.
In fairness, you might wonder how a young couple with no previous start-up experience found the time, energy and drive to contact the Myanmar Ambassador to the UK and reached all the right people to make this happen. All of that while still working full-time jobs (Katrina as secretary and John in IT) and as they proudly mention, “without bribing anyone or doing anything shady.”
A remarkable determination was key, but it wasn’t the only thing that made this pair different. John’s Burmese ancestry was likely to be a subtle touch that charmed the locals and contributed to help them gain their trust. “It definitely helped”, John acknowledges and as he looks for a picture on his smart phone, Katrina explains that John’s family believes that his grandmother’s grandmother, who emigrated to the UK in 1935, was a Burmese princess. The royal inspiration lives on in their company’s name: Bayin is the Burmese word for king.
John then shows the digitalised black and white image of a glamorous young woman that could have easily passed Burmese blue blood to him. Then he finds an even older picture of an elegantly styled lady, his great great grandmother, and it’s even easier to agree with his family’s story. “Back in the day, only the family of the king was photographed”, he adds.
But you don’t need a crown to be treated as a Bayim in Myin Sine. Many of the couple of thousand inhabitants of the village opened their houses for Katrina and John, on one occasion they were invited for a cuppa in fifteen different houses on the same afternoon, and they went to all of them.
Among all the people they met, John recognises that they wouldn’t have been able to create the company without Joe (as they call him).
When we were in Malaysia for the first part of our honeymoon and when we said we were going to Myanmar, everybody told us that we had to meet this guy. We actually met him on the flight there, he had just finished working at a resort, and then he was going home and wasn’t sure what to do next.”
Joe toured the couple around his country and after a few days, when John and Katrina had already realised the potential of the peanut and sesame oils widely used for cooking in the region, they met again for dinner. Joe’s family happened to have a farm and was up for working together.
When Joe showed me the oils it stuck with me how nice they looked, bright and golden. It was all a bizarre line of coincidences. He’s such a good guy and we have complete trust in him.”
Goodness from Farm to Plate
Katrina explains that both oils can be used for seasoning or cooking and because of their higher smoke point they make fried foods extra crispy. And it’s not Bayin’s only positive feature.
The cold press process used in their production might be very time consuming and low-tech, but the resulting oils are delicate, aromatic and have a very pleasant taste. Compare to extra virgin olive oils for a reference. It also has no cholesterol and in fact, Katrina adds that the method of extraction preserves all of the peanut and sesame’s nutrients, and that both oils are associated with a reduction of the risk of stroke.
Sesamol, a natural compound found in sesame seeds is proven to reduce the risk of cancer.”
Before reaching the plates of Dublin food lovers, there was yet another mountain to climb: getting Bayin Oils to the shelves. John and Katrina agree that SuperValu’s Food Academy was a game changer. They were welcomed recently into the shelves of selected supermarkets and they have also joined the selection of a good number of artisan and independent food shops across Dublin.
Nolan’s in Clontarf was our first shop and they have been very, very helpful. I couldn’t speak highly enough of the Food Academy either. When I see a bottle of our oils on any shelf I still feel so excited.”
Other stockists include Mortons (Ranelagh), Thoma’s of Foxrock, Ballymaloe Shop Co. Cork, Fresh & Wild (Rathmines), Lotts & Co. (Ballsbridge), Dalkey (select stores), Small Changes (Drumcondra) and Nourish (Sandymount).
Social Enterprise and Business Goals
For John, supporting the village’s only school is such a gratifying experience that he dares to call himself “selfish”, just because “it feels so good to do it”. The couple wants to start a scholarship to help the children of Myin Sine and surrounding areas.
“They are the most beautiful children in the world” Katrina says and soon her smile fades when she explains that only less than half of them can go to school even though they love education and endure long distances and inconveniences just to go to class.
And as Bayin grows, they’ll be able to share their prosperity with those who harvest and process their oils. Now their aim is to gain presence in more shops and to enter the UK.
We also want to work on new products, for example raw sesame seeds and peanuts, but also a mix of nuts, dry garlic and beans that is used in Burmese cooking.”
Other ideas in development include pickled tea leaves, which they know will be “a tricky one” to introduce, but a very healthy ingredient that goes in hand with the current trend of pickled foods.
While they keep knocking doors and promoting oils, they’ve become “kind of strangely famous in Burma” where people read about them in the newspaper and their social enterprise has been accepted with open arms.
“Some kids from our first trip recognized us” Katrina recalls, as she says that she noticed that on their last visit they had reception on their mobiles in places in which it was non-existent the first time. A quiet sign of progress in the village where John unofficially introduced football back in 2013.
Gabriela’s passion for writing is only matched by her love for food and wine. Journalist, confectioner and sommelier, she fell in love with Ireland years ago and moved from Venezuela to Dublin in 2014.
Since then, she has written about and worked in the local food scene, and she’s determined to discover and share the different traditions, flavours and places that have led Irish food and drink to fascinate her.