Geeks in frontier markets: Myanmar is a sexy place to be in right now

VP at Silicon Straits and Girl Geek Adrianna Tan shares what she has learned from working with startups in Myanmar and how you can navigate the market

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Unless you’ve lived under a rock in the past year, you’ve probably heard that one of the last ‘green fields’ in the world, Myanmar, is now slowly but surely opening up.

What does this mean for you, the culture warrior, startup advocate and geek god?

First, a few fun facts.

With a population of 60 million, the population of Myanmar is diverse, young and hungry.

There’s a lack of access to quality or modern education. Don’t expect to show up and be able to access a funnel of college or university-educated graduates with ready-to-go skills. If they exist at all, the standards (especially for computer science) are not high at all. Case in point: a typical way to look for and hire talent here is to run a programming school on the side (alongside whatever startup or business you are working on). Conduct regular classes, induct a class every couple of months; pick the best talent of the batch and offer them jobs. The rest of them end up with some variation of a skill which is highly marketable at the moment, and are happy to pay course fees for that: they can then go on to look for jobs elsewhere.

Quality varies. Like many developing economies, it’s all about the ones who ‘have it’ and the ones who ‘don’t’. Except it’s way more pronounced. Those who speak English well and who have had access to great education locally, regionally or internationally are in high demand, but are few and far between. When they are good, they can be very, very good. Yet there is very little middle ground. Expect to have to do a lot of hand-holding, and a lot of training on the job.

Skipping the PC + broadband ‘revolution’
The boat was definitely missed on this one, but on the bright side, mobile is potentially going to explode. We’re going to see an entire generation of new mobile internet users who will access web services solely on a mobile device.

A small step for telcos, a giant leap for Myanmar. A couple of years ago, a prepaid SIM card cost US$2500. Yes, you read right. Today, it’s still not the most efficient system: the SIM technically costs a few bucks, but demand outstrips supply by a long shot so you’re still going to end up paying around US$200 for it. Data and voice is expensive. For those reasons, mobile usage and numbers are really low. However, the licenses for new telcos were recently awarded, in a hotly contested competition to obtain the rights to operate in Myanmar. Telcos from around the world invested a lot of time, effort and resources into making sure they could be in the running for these lucrative licenses. Ooredoo, from Qatar, and Telenor, from Norway, emerged the winners. A mad scramble is currently underway to construct the cell towers and other infrastructure required to operate these networks. All signs point towards how this competition will drive down prices and improve service levels, opening up access to mobile services on an unprecedented level. Almost 60 million people can potentially, over the course of this year (2014), get online for the first time — and on a mobile device first.

Some quirks
Language: Burmese language text input is a challenge. There are two competing standards currently slugging it out for dominance. Between Zawgyi and Unicode, the latter is currently gaining popularity. It remains to be seen which standard will succeed.

Platform: This is frontier market on the doorstep of China and India. Wages are low. Chinese-made goods have a huge headstart; Chinese brands, especially of mobile phones, are popular. Not necessarily because of quality or choice, but because they are so affordable. With US$50 as an average cost of a smartphone here — it’s no surprise that Android rules.

Distribution: This is another challenge which will have to be addressed, and soon. There’s no Google Play store. Nor indeed any other app distribution store. Banking is under-developed; credit card and debit card and other electronic payment methods are close to non-existent. Payment gateways remain a stumbling block. Operator-affiliated payments is, at the point of writing, the way to go. Popular local apps rely on relationships with operators, such as local telcos, to collect payments on their behalf, if they are able to monetise at all. What I’ve seen happen is: if you run a popular app, as of this moment you probably monetise in a manual way by having your users send various messages or short-codes which are operated by your local telco partner, who will then bill on your behalf. Keep in mind that most of your users are also on prepaid plans.

Another aspect of distribution in this market: in lieu of an online app store, apps are pre-loaded, purchased and otherwise distributed by mom-and-pop mobile phone shops. These are shops which sell these phones, sometimes parallel imports from Singapore and Hong Kong and elsewhere; which also offer a myriad of other services. Purchase extra airtime at these shops, and someone will use his cheap feature phone to punch in a couple of mysterious numbers to get you the talk time you need, while earning some margin for himself. Tell them you want the latest and greatest Burmese music, and they will load their playlists into your phone, for a fee. Let them know you want a Burmese-language GPS app for your phone, and they will give you what you need. In a frontier market like Myanmar, where infrastructure is sorely lacking, enterprising individuals and organisations plug those gaps by offering what the market wants. Gaining access to this distribution network requires immense amounts of groundwork and local connections.

Also Read: New online map directory makes getting around in Yangon simpler

You can’t just parachute in and hope to succeed
If you are truly interested in this market, you need to think of this as a long-term investment. You absolutely cannot remote-control your work here. It’s all about building trust and relationships. It appears people here are resistant to the idea of foreigners with fixed ideas of what works elsewhere, coming here with absolutely no market research or interest in building local partnerships and relationships, and these types of ‘remote-control’ approaches are bound to fail, and fail very quickly. If being based infrastructurally or physically in Myanmar is an idea you are allergic to (and there are plenty of downsides to it), consider using Singapore as a base and jumping off point. Many businesses and startups which are based in Myanmar prefer to be incorporated out of Singapore for various reasons, mostly legal; access to a more sophisticated financial system and other services is also a point of consideration. However, if you don’t intend to spend much time in this market and do the requisite legwork, you should consider if you should even give this a shot at all. It’s a tough market, and how you approach relationship-building is key.

Also Read: Bootstrappers EP#02: Side projects give you confidence: EventNook’s Kyaw Lin Oo

Due to the surge in demand and the lack of supply (or quality of supply), real estate is really, really hard. If you’re looking for office space, retail space, or anything involving real estate — heck, even hotels are hard, as a visitor — you’re in for a rude shock. It can be very expensive, and very infuriating, most of the time a combination of the two. Additionally, archaic real estate practices mean that you typically have to fork out a full twelve-months of rent for whatever you take up: whether it’s a condo you want to live in, or mall space you want to rent, or office space you’d like to lease. That can be potentially damaging for small operations.

No better time to be here
Despite all of these setbacks, it’s still an amazing time to be here, doing tech in a market which is not only emerging, but which is also one of the last ‘frontiers’. Everything needs to be built from scratch. Talent needs to improve. But I am bullish because the amount of opportunities here is just absurd, especially if you know where to look. In recent years, top Burmese talent has returned from Europe, the US, Singapore and other developed economies to try to make sense of the opportunities present and to be a part of this sea change. The enthusiasm in every corner is infectious.

Also Read: Lamudi strengthens mobile play; sees Myanmar as critical growth market

Who knows for sure what will happen in a year, two, or even next month? That’s perhaps part of the charm. My sense though, is that Myanmar has come too far for it to backtrack too significantly on this progress; although history may have other opinions, based on prior track records.

In our work at Silicon Straits, we are here for the long haul, running and operating everything from Ideabox to Mobile Monday, with plenty other community events, programmes and infrastructure on the way.

There’s a heck lot to be done out here — in every single way—but that’s probably the main reason to account for why Myanmar is so goddamned sexy, right now, right here.

Adrianna Tan is the VP of Community & Innovation at Silicon Straits, where she heads up marketing and community management in Myanmar at Ideabox, Mobile Monday Yangon, and other projects. She specializes in launching and running startups in emerging markets and is passionate about social change through technology. She is also the co-founder of Culture Kitchen, a community project to bring Singaporeans and migrant workers closer through food and art experiments, as well as of The Gyanada Foundation, an NGO based in Singapore and India which sends girls from underprivileged backgrounds in Indian cities to low cost private schools.

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