The ‘Iron Man’ of Bago

In rural Bago Region, a high-school dropout has built up a thriving iron workshop that employs more than 100 people and in 2013 was declared the country’s best SME.

Words & Photos THOMAS KEAN | FRONTIER

WHEN HE was in grade seven, U Aye Win’s life turned upside down.

The death of his mother left his family in a tough financial position. Although his father, a trishaw driver, urged him to stay in school, Aye Win knew that his education would be an unmanageable burden.

By the time he was 18, Aye Win was running an iron workshop. It was a risk; he’d sold the family bullocks to raise the K1 million he needed to set up the business. But he had also done his homework, identifying five products – mostly farming equipment – that could provide a reliable income.

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A worker dumps scrap into the furnace at U Aye Win’s workshop near Payagyi in Bago. The thriving business produces around 300 items – including drain covers that are exported to Singapore. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

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“When everyone else my age was playing football, I would be working and running my business,” he told Frontier at his home in Bago Township’s Ywarthit village, just north of Payagyi. “The older people used to say, ‘Look at him. He’ll be successful one day.’”

They weren’t wrong. Today his business, AMK, employs 105 people and makes more than 300 products. Aye Win’s creations – everything from water pumps to decorative fencing – can be found within a 320-kilometre (200-mile) radius of his workshop, he says. He even exports drain covers to Singapore.

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The business received a boost in 2013 when he won a national prize for small and medium-sized enterprises, beating more than 30 nominees from Bago and other states and regions. The prize helped him catch the attention of businesses in the country’s industrial zones and more orders soon began flowing in.

Aye Win is proud of his achievements. A large photo of him receiving his prize from President U Thein Sein adorns a wall in his home, and another shows him with Kanbawza Group chairman U Aung Ko Win.

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Iron workshop owner U Aye Win. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

His path to success shows that a lack of education does not have to consign one to a life of struggle. In a country where most children don’t reach high school, this is a powerful message.

His secret is simple, he says. “Talent is one percent. Perseverance is 99 percent. If you’re honest, dedicated and try your best, you can be successful.”

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Aye Win’s workshop is immediately behind his home. The centrepiece is a tall, narrow drum from which charcoal-fed flames soar up towards the roof. Occasionally a worker approaches with a basket and throws in a heap of scrap, seemingly immune to the searing heat.

From there, the process is fairly simple. Once enough scrap has been melted, the furnace is tilted; a hole at the bottom is opened and a stream of molten iron pours out into a bucket. This is carried deeper into the workshop and poured into earthen moulds lined up on workshop floor.

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Piles of scrap lie on the ground in front of the building housing the home-made furnace – the centrepiece of U Aye Win’s workshop. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

The moulds have a small hole in the top into which the molten iron is poured; smoke rises from the ground while the iron cools, its colour changing from yellow-red to grey in a matter of seconds. The moulds are later lifted to reveal the object, which is then polished or painted.

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All of this takes place in an environment completely lacking in safety equipment. The workers dumping scrap into the furnace and carrying the molten iron are often barely clothed, let alone wearing boots or other protective gear.

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Workers use a mix of soil and sand to make moulds. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

At one point while taking photos, I was told by the supervisor to be careful where I was standing. Before I could look down, I smelled melting rubber; my shoe had brushed up against a recently poured – and still slightly smoking –mould.

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There’s little in the way of modern technology. So how does Aye Win compete with cheap imports? He has a few advantages, he says. One is location. Being outside an industrial zone means land is cheap. Wages in rural Bago Region are significantly lower than the city – a worker Aye Win pays K7,000 a day could expect K10,000 in Yangon.

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Smoke rises from the ground, under which lies moulds and recently poured iron. (Thomas Kean | Frontier)

He maintains the quality of his products by being selective in the scrap he takes. There’s no shortage in rural Myanmar, he insists, and dealers bring it to his front door. Because they save money taking it to Yangon, they charge him about 20 percent less.

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Aye Win has also continued to make products that are essential for the rural economy. Cooking stoves, parts for water pumps and tractors – even pieces of sewing machines, which are essential for generating additional income in homes across the country. 

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He’s saving up to buy better equipment that will enable him to diversify into other essentials, such as high quality nuts and bolts, and vehicle spare parts. Like so many SMEs, he’s finding it difficult to access the capital he needs to expand.

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“I still have many challenges. I want to upgrade my workshop and need more investment,” he says. “But if there’s a will, there’s a way.”

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