Start-up offers a Myanmar solution for betel-chewers

If you’ve walked around Yangon, you would have noticed red stains on the streets and walls and seen people spitting red juice that resembles blood from buses, cars, or while walking. These are the bad habits of betel nut chewers, which the country is trying to eradicate.

But staining the streets red and possibly spreading disease by spitting are not the only problems associated with chewing betel nut – it also causes oral problems such as red stained teeth, sensitive gums, and oral cancer.

After hearing many stories about these problems from betel chewers, Sam Glatman thought of making a product to reduce their gum sensitivity and stains on their teeth.

He founded Zingo Myanmar, which sells oral care products to treat the symptoms linked to chewing betel nut.

Zingo makes a chewing gum priced at K300 a pack and a mouthwash priced at K100. The company promises that betel-chewers who use the products properly every day will start to see results within two weeks.

Big market

Betel nut, or koon-ya, is a betel leaf with areca nut chewed for its stimulant and psychoactive effects. There are around 23 million users in Myanmar.

While living in an apartment near Parami Sein Gay Har, Glatman would always see a man of 27-28 who would sit on the ground floor throughout the day chewing betel nut. The young man whenever he saw Glatman would complain that he was lonely and couldn’t find a job. Afterwards he would smile, and Glatman could see that his entire mouth was black.

Glatman also met a taxi driver near Taw Win Centre who told him that he used to work on a cruise ship, but he had to return to Yangon to take care of his ill parents. He started to chew betel nut because it was a stressful time, and when he went back to the ship to resume work, they wouldn’t let him aboard because his teeth were in such bad shape.

Another catalyst for Glatman to start Zingo was the betel nut sellers, of which there is one on nearly every street corner in Yangon, more than 6000 in all. Zingo also helps betel nut vendors earn money.

“We know the dangers of betel nut chewing, but we’re not passing judgment on betel nut chewers. They have time and again reported to us that they have these oral-related issues, and we are keen to try to help them if they want to be helped,” Glatman said.

Building local expertise is another vital component of his enterprise, he said. He is trying to step back from a supervisory role as much as possible. The management team is 90 percent Myanmar, and in every department there is one or more senior Myanmar staff. Although it is made outside the country, Zingo is a local product, designed in Myanmar, for Myanmar.

“Zingo is not a product imposed on Myanmar by a foreigner saying, ‘do it our way because it is better,’” Glatman said.

Yangon launch

Zingo had its official launch on Wednesday at a Yangon hotel. But, it had been in the market since a year ago when they first started testing the product in Shwe Pyi Thar township to gauge customer reaction.

“We wanted to start in a place where there are a lot of betel chewers but also in a slightly less central area so that we could learn more about the risks, such as the wrong sales pitch. We would rather test it in a slightly more forgiving area than in, say, Sanchaung, where word of mouth could spread quickly if the initial reception was bad,” Glatman said.

So if you live in Kyauktada township, you’re not going to see corner shops flying the Zingo banners just yet due to faster consumer response and municipal laws. After asking if they sell Zingo, a betel nut seller on Seikkantha street replied that they only sell “Ruby cigarette.”

Since Shwe Pyi Thar is just 15 minutes from their office in Insein, it was considered the location with the best potential for strong consumer demand.

Now there are more than 1000 shops selling Zingo products in many townships in Yangon, except for downtown, as well as in Pyay, Bago, and Taungoo townships in Bago Region.

“We will never compromise on the quality of our packaging because we want to offer a world-class product to our world-class customers,” Glatman said.

He says he plans to expand the sale of his products across Myanmar and then possibly around Asia. For instance, chewing betel nut is also popular in India, but there is no product like Zingo on the market there.

Zingo Myanmar was also awarded the Innovation award of Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2018 organised by CCI France Myanmar, the French business group, last December.

Source: Myanmar Times

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