From Malaysia to Myanmar, social ventures build homes and safe spaces

Communities in these countries are involved in building their own homes, creating a sense of ownership, and battling a culture of relying on dole-outs.

shanty in Irrawaddy
A shanty along the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar. Image: Michael Coghlan, CC BY 2.0

From building homes for indigenous people in Malaysia to opening up public spaces for women in Myanmar, a growing number of businesses with a social purpose are improving the lives of vulnerable communities in these rapidly expanding countries.

With the help of residents and volunteers, Epic Homes builds houses for mainland Malaysia’s indigenous Orang Asli people, with contributions from donors and corporate clients.

Epic trains the community in construction, and has built more than 100 homes at the cost of about 50,000 ringgit ($12,500) each. It plans to construct more than 10,000 houses for impoverished Orang Asli families, said founder John-Son Oei.

“The community is involved in the building of their own homes, so there is a sense of ownership, a sense that this is not just an act of charity,” said John-Son.

“Most of the Orang Asli live in inadequate housing because they have been forced out of the forests they once lived in, and have few economic opportunities and no land. A decent house helps in the transition.”

Having access to their own back alleys and safe spaces has led to greater social cohesion, and a change in behaviour. 

Emilie Roell, founder, Doh Eain

Across Southeast Asia, social enterprises are helping narrow inequality and create livelihood opportunities.

In some countries, legislation is encouraging such ventures: the Philippines is considering a bill to reduce poverty through social entrepreneurship, and Malaysia has a three-year strategy to help them expand.

Epic has also set up a crowdsourcing design platform that allows architects, manufacturers and technology firms to float affordable solutions for flood-relief housing, open-air classrooms, and outhouse toilets.

“Poorer communities have multiple needs, and there is no silver bullet solution for them,” John-Son told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This gives them options to choose from.”

As developing countries urbanise rapidly and governments struggle to keep up with the demand for affordable housing, solutions are increasingly coming from non-profits and social enterprises, aided by new technologies.

The US-based non-profit New Story and the construction technology firm ICON plan to use a 3D-printer to build 600 to 800 square foot (56 to 74 square metre) homes for people in El Salvador slums in 24 hours for less than $4,000.

In Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, social venture Doh Eain—which means Our Home—is helping residents conserve older homes, as well as open up public spaces for women and girls.

The company has restored about a dozen old colonial homes, which help families earn a higher income from rent, said Emilie Roell, Doh Eain’s founder.

It has also cleaned up half a dozen back alleys—typically used for dumping trash—and turned them into green spaces where residents can gather and children can play, with crowdfunding and donations, and the involvement of the community.

The initiative is important because it is creating safe spaces for girls and women in a city where violence against women is a growing concern, said Roell.

“Yangon has very few public spaces that people can use. Having access to their own back alleys and safe spaces has led to greater social cohesion, and a change in behaviour,” she said.

“It is making them think about the environment they live in, and how they can be involved in it more.”

($1 = 4.0140 ringgit)

This story was published with Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit to see more stories.

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