A company of my own’: the rise of Myanmar’s tech pioneers

“It’s always been my ultimate goal to have a company of my own,” says Htun Khaing Lynn, or Zack, as he prefers to be called.

Last September the 22-year-old engineering graduate from Myanmar’s eastern Shan state co-founded online truck-pooling service Kargo, which connects individuals and businesses who need to move goods around congested Yangon.

Cars have flooded Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial centre, since restrictions on imports were lifted in 2010, causing mayhem in a city with almost no public transport. Kargo, which now employs seven people, aims to reduce the number of vehicles on the roads, making life easier for both commuters and businesses.

Zack belongs to Myanmar’s growing cohort of young entrepreneurs embracing smartphones to provide a range of services. In 2015 the country was named (pdf) by telecoms giant Ericsson as the fourth fastest-growing mobile market in the world. Reliable estimates of mobile ownership in Myanmar are hard to pin down, particularly as many people have more than one SIM card, but it is thought to have leapt dramatically since foreign network operators entered the market in 2014, breaking the state monopoly.

Yangon was a thriving cosmopolitan city with one of the world’s busiest ports at its zenith in the 1920s but stagnated under decades of military dictatorship. However, since Myanmar’s civilian-led government took power in 2011 the city has been opening up to the outside world at a dramatic pace, creating opportunities for tech entrepreneurs to play a new development role.

Many of them are based at Phandeeyar, a tech and innovation hub on top of a Yangon highrise which provides seed funding and business advice to Burmese startups in an open-plan office complete with ping-pong table and 3D printer.

Jes Kaliebe Petersen, director of Phandeeyar’s startup accelerator, says these businesses not only create jobs and economic growth but are also helping to spur more profound social change.

“They solve real problems, whether it’s facilitating payments because you don’t [have] a bank account, facilitating logistics and transportation, helping you to get access to information or a place to stay,” he says. “They help democratise access to these kinds of things.”

That includes vital services such as education and healthcare. Social enterprise Koe Koe Tech, for example, has developed an app that provides information to pregnant women and helps people arrange telephone consultations and delivery of medicines to remote rural locations. Its explicit aim is to reduce mother and child mortality rates in Myanmar, which are among the highest in the region.

Barriers on the ground

However, Yangon’s digital startups are plagued by the same infrastructure gaps their platforms are designed to mitigate, says David Madden, Phandeeyar’s Australian founder. These include poor roads, a limited banking system and unreliable power – in 2015 just 30% of people in Myanmar had access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

Zack points to Yangon’s e-commerce sites, which struggle to get goods to people quickly because of slow transportation, as an example of clever tech hitting realities on the ground.

Even more pressing is a lack of investors, say both Madden and Petersen. Bureaucratic barriers are high, and international investors remain cautious about the country’s political stability, particularly as fighting has intensified between the nation’s military and ethnic armed groups. The World Bank and IMF have just downgraded the country’s growth forecast.

To get around these obstacles, Myanmar’s startups tend to register in Singapore and look to south-east Asian angel funding for their initial cash injection. But experts say a longer term solution requires a different approach from the top. “Momentum and investor interest is going down. The new government needs to watch out and focus more on economic policymaking,” says Vikram Kumar, the IMF’s country manager for Myanmar.

Meanwhile, Phandeeyar is trying to plug the gap by offering seed funding to promising startups. None of them have yet raised $1bn – a mark of the big league, achieved by the likes of Flipkart and Airbnb – but many are optimistic.

“My mum doesn’t know what I’m doing, why I don’t go to Singapore or join a big Chinese company with a good salary,” says Nyunt Win Aung, co-founder of GoP, an app that helps Burmese people find cheap package tours in a market catering largely for foreign travellers. “I think the future will be better.”

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Source: The Guardian

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