Solutions to start up again: from an NGO in Myanmar to Boston’s MIT

In the agricultural area of Magway, in the heart of Myanmar, they have always produced peanuts, beans and a sesame seed that is in great demand, particularly from the Indian and Chinese markets. However, the earth, which is usually prepared for sowing in this period, is dry and sandy, despite the presence of one of the largest rivers in the world: the Irrawaddy. This hostile and difficult land is one of the areas in Myanmar most exposed to climate change, and there is always a risk that too scarce a monsoon season could lead to the loss of part of the harvest. Lastly, a large number of peasants don’t have access to credit. In the current months, measures to combat Covid-19, which have limited travel and complicated almost any operation, have made this situation even worse. This is true for the wide-scale sowing of monsoonal rice - which represents 80% of Burmese production and that starts in this period, with harvests in September and October - and it is even more true for the dry zones in Magway. As Government and microfinance institutions have suspended loans, numerous farmers are not able to even invest in seeds.

To solve the atavistic issue of funding and to improve the harvests, Cesvi, a non-governmental organisation based in Bergamo (Italy), which has worked in Myanmar for years, has created several credit facilities to support the poor peasants in this area. Its objectives are guaranteeing that they have access to credit through a specific fund, and providing training courses on the quality of seeds and technological innovations with a view to improve product quality to international standards.
It is a mutual investment of the Italian Cooperation (Aics - of around € 2 million over three years. A fair amount for these parts. However, Covid-19 risked blocking everything for months, which also meant producing using traditional systems and without access to credit.

To avoid this, Cesvi has applied the now extremely common webinar system, which has replaced face-to-face meetings with an audience. The peasants don’t have computers, but they all have mobile phones and, with the help of their children, can access a specific facebook platform, where they can attend hour-long courses. In terms of microfinance, the project has progressed through the same type of web meetings. Dr. Myo Ming Aung, agronomist and local coordinator with a wealth of experience in the field - holds his meetings from the Cesvi office in Bagan, kilometres from Magway. However, the peasants are getting used to this bizarre form of communication, which enables the flow of information not to be interrupted. And therefore not the cash flow either. It is obviously not the same thing, but it is a new front that has not been intimidated by Covid-19. And not even by the whims of Magway’s climate.

At Boston’s MIT, the hotbed of innovation, they are also under pressure from Covid-19. However, as always, they are rolling up their sleeves. On a number of fronts. We are told that at Washington University, they have developed a line of diagnostic medical ultrasound simulators. These devices, multifunctional computers, are used to train fellows, residents, and medical and pre-med students in performing ultrasound procedures.  The course has now been adapted to the urgent nature of the pandemic, enabling, for instance, diseased organs to be scanned and compared them with healthy ones: hearts with varying degrees of contraction, for example, to get an idea of heart function. As the two hearts are displayed side by side, and the heartbeats are synchronised, it makes it easier to spot the dysfunction. As we are increasingly witnessing, a way for doctors and engineers to work together.

Another front is art: Samantha Farrell is the assistant to Vladimir Bulović, the director of MIT.nano, as well as a professional musician. You can listen to her in this podcast ( she explains how music helps her concentrate, makes her productive and puts her in a good mood even at times of social distancing. She sustains that art plays an important role and that musicians, directors and artists are needed now more than ever to overcome this difficult time.