London-born Sophie Garnier moved to Yangon in 2015 and has since founded Kalinko, the first homeware brand to come out of Burma. Burma is a country with talented crafters in every village who have few opportunities to reach customers beyond their local towns. Kalinko helps develop products with them, exports them to their warehouse in the UK and dispatches them worldwide online through their website.
A note from Sophie
It all started with a stool. A bamboo stool with a cowhide seat, made by a couple in the very north of Burma. In times gone by, these stools were on every street corner and in every home, but today most people have replaced them with cheaper, factory-made plastic stools from China. There is only one couple left in the country making these stools, and hardly anybody buys them. So I ordered 50 on the spot and resolved to get them to people who would love them.
Since then, we have grown to work with over 150 families, stock hundreds of products, and represent as many craft skills found in Burma as we can. It hasn’t been easy. Burma is the 19th hardest country in the world to run a business in (coming in just above Somalia, Libya and South Sudan), and it’s rare to go a day without a challenge. But when you get an email from a happy customer saying how much they love their new cushion or placemats, and you send a message up to the villages that somebody 5000 miles away adores what they have made, it makes the tricky parts disappear.
I feel so lucky to be my own boss. It’s so fun being involved in every part of the business, and I’m very grateful to have people who are far better than I am to help with most parts of it. I learn every day from the people I work with, from which kind of wax you need to seal different types of wood, to why certain images work better than others on Facebook adverts. I also find that when you have your own business, there’s no such thing as separating work and life. Work is life is work, which is great! And understanding that is helpful. I’ll often have a burst of energy or inspiration on a Sunday and work away into the night, but might be tired and distracted on a Tuesday, so stop wasting time and do the shopping or some exercise instead. I think it makes much more sense!