Published on 11 Oct 2021

From textbook to workbook

Keen to apply their textbook knowledge on a social enterprise project, four undergraduates from Nanyang Technological University’s Nanyang Business School (NBS), learnt that sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Business undergraduates (clockwise) Wang Jieying, Priyangka Rakappan, Lee Xingqi, and Sai Shein Htet,  – all members of the Business Solutions student club, were pleasantly surprised one morning when they received an invitation from Bamboo Builders to work on a service project over their December 2020 holidays. 

Bamboo Builders is a social enterprise that works with rural and urban schools in Southeast Asia, such as Myanmar and Vietnam, to equip and empower young adults with entrepreneurial skills, inspiring them to in turn set up social enterprises to help alleviate poverty and improve access to education. In October 2020, Bamboo Builders reached out to Business Solutions for strategy support for one of their social entrepreneurship initiatives. Business Solutions which had built up capabilities in strategy consulting, believed that this would be a good learning experience for the club, and the four team members were selected through internal interviews.

One of Bamboo Builders’ beneficiaries includes a group of less fortunate Myanmar students who started TDG Origins, a premium organic honey business that channels 100% of their profits to support education.

Putting two and two together, Bamboo Builders roped in the team from Business Solutions to provide business strategy advice to help TDG Origins expand their business and break into the Myanmar market. It was no different from building a case competition, except with real hands-on experience, for the four Business Solutions student club teammates who have participated in local and international business case competitions, running the Asian Business Case Competition, the Singapore Business Case Competition, and conducting case training for new joiners. 

The process to incorporate TDG Origins

One of the main challenges that the students faced right at the beginning was getting TDG Origins incorporated in Myanmar. At that time, it was a non-registered company that was based outside Yangon where students in the rural regions packed the honey and shipped them for sale in Yangon. “Incorporation would allow TDG honey to be stocked in organic supermarkets and achieve a higher price point,” explained Xingqi. “Incorporation would also legitimate the business and put TDG in a better position to apply for grants,” Shein Htet added.

“Applying our first year Business Law knowledge but set in Myanmar context, we came up with eight different possible business structures before eventually recommending Company Limited by Guarantee (CLG), which is the same model as our biggest competitor,” said Priyangka.

With all the best intentions, they set out to get the paperwork done only to realise that the process was arduous. Besides the language barrier, there was a huge lack of information. “Honey in Myanmar is quite an obscure item, and after a lot of time spent searching, we learnt that it was filed under ‘sweet spreads’,” said Shein Htet.

Researching competitors and consumers

The obscurity of organic honey meant that looking for competitor information was challenging too. “It was not a process where we identified the competitors and then visited their official websites. We had to scrape together bits and pieces of information like ingredients and prices from all available online platforms, ploughing through all distribution channels just to find out who else was out there,” recalled Priyangka.

Besides targeting the domestic market, the team also researched and profiled the tourists and expatriate consumer groups. “We narrowed the group down to China, where our research showed that honey accounted for 66% of all sweet spreads and we recommended focusing on tourists from China,” said Shein Htet.

Midway into the project, the team made two presentations and received positive feedback before bowing out with a final presentation to the happy client.

Lessons that can’t be learnt in class

Compared with working on textbook case documents for competitions, working with a real case study was a whole new ball game. “In case training, we are given documents with most of the information that guided us along to get the research and project off the ground. Cases are also usually based on established companies where information is readily available. But working on TDG opened our eyes to how different things can be for smaller companies that need help in the legal and operational aspects of the business,” said Priyangka.

“At the start, the project seemed impossible when we couldn’t find any information. But we continued to dig and when we eventually found something, it was so satisfying. I now know that I can find any information that I need if I never give up,” added Xingqi.

Learning to take baby steps was a key takeaway for the team. “Initially we thought that we were going to make strategic recommendations that would make a huge change but as we went along, we learnt that what the client wanted and what we could realistically deliver, wasn’t macro. They were small changes that were no less important,” said Jieying.

Working on the project also brought fresh eyes to the notion of a social enterprise. “As much as they support social causes, social enterprises are still businesses, and they need strategy and research to remain sustainable as they work towards the social good in the long term,” explained Priyangka.

The founder of Bamboo Builders summed up the work of the team: "Working with NTU Business Solutions Club was a great experience. Their research was thorough and well-informed. Their insights were data-driven and useful for TDG."

L to R: Wang Jieying, Sai Shein Htet, Priyangka Rakappan, and Lee Xing Qi at the Finale of the Business Solutions Foundation Training Programme in January 2021