Even with the first-mover’s advantage, the frontier markets are not for the unprepared entrepreneur. In such young ecosystems, venture money is far out of reach and there seems to be a palpable missing layer of mentorship and education.
So is the case in Yangon, Myanmar where there are less than 100 tech startups (this number is loosely based on a past interview with a local entrepreneur) — most of which are run by first-time founders hacking their way in the dark. Different circles of the tech community, including designers and developers, are often working in silos, which can slow a growing ecosystem in desperate need of knowledge transfer.
Enter Phandeeyar (meaning ‘creation place’), a community tech hub in Yangon, whose vision is to use technology to foster change in Myanmar. All their projects have long-term social impact in mind, and they work with not just the business community but also change agents such as civil society organisations, independent media and social enterprises. Phandeeyar’s main offerings are currently a co-working/venue space, workshops and hackathons.
Using technology to educate locals on the general election
The most recent, called ‘Create-a-thon’ connected various creative communities together for a weekend to work with voter education groups that are far from tech-savvy. In a rare moment, designers, illustrators, video producers and animators came out of their silos to help voter education-focused groups digitise their campaigns. This was all done two months ahead of the 2015 General Election, a highly-anticipated and pivotal time for Myanmar.
Speaking to Yan Naung Oak, who heads up Phandeeyar with Founder David Madden (see the team here), we learned that their vision to create nation-wide change is built on a foundation of promoting more transparency through open data.
“There are a lot of community initiatives coming up, like trying to map the floods and we’re working with developers and building apps and platforms for all these things. We’re working with UN organisations that focus on mapping and meteorology to have live updates on a map and crowdsource that to people on the ground.”
What’s more is Oak and the Phandeeyar team are creating a soft landing for local independent media as they shift into the digital realm. “There’s a lot of data available, especially with the census coming out in May, so we’re getting journalists from news agencies to come by and we give them data journalism workshops.” Having partnered up with global NGO Internews to do media training in Myanmar, Phandeeyar also draws from their network by connecting journalists with developers and designers.
Lucky for Phandeeyar, the local government has been particularly enthusiastic on experimental projects that invites talent and technology from abroad. While they don’t deal directly with government organisations, Phandeeyar collaborates with the NGOs that do and he cites policy issues plaguing the startup world as an example. “We organise meetings with big tech companies from abroad like Google, Microsoft and HP which helps guide the Myanmar government with tech policies and they hold meetings with startup founders in our space,” said Oak.
Having always been in the business of connecting people, Oak studied economics in the US and worked in Singapore for a number of years before returning to Myanmar as he was drawn to the political reforms unfurling over the past two years. There, he grew passionate about tech startups and ecosystem building which led him joining his friend Madden to work on Phandeeyar.
Evolving out of Code for Change Myanmar, which saw 150-200 participants in the early days of 2014 — Phandeeyar was created out of the need for a physical space to house these weekends.
Building a vast network to support an incubator
Armed with community connections that run the gamut of NGOs to creatives, one can deduce that Phandeeyar is building an army. And that hunch isn’t far from the truth.
“This year, we’re laying a lot of the groundwork but next year we’d love to have a full-scale incubation program. It’s in the works. We want to have the talent pool of developers and designers that we already know companies in our incubator program can tap into. We’ve already formed linkages with foreign investors from abroad, which is better than starting fresh without community initiatives already up and running.”
Operating just like the startups that they support, the Phandeeyar team has been running experiments via their hackathons to see which initiatives and communities to target.
Teaching startups in Myanmar how to tackle the local market
Besides the upcoming incubator, which is something Myanmar startups sorely need, Oak said they’ve been thinking about launching a media platform to publish reports on the local ecosystem.
This will lend to Phandeeyar’s mission to leverage technology to educate local entrepreneurs and grow the ecosystem. As perspectives about building a startup in Myanmar are still quite skewed based on international tech media and what works in the western world, Phandeeyar has a lot of re-educating to do.
“A lot of people who are technically talented in Myanmar, their idea of doing a startup is whatever they read on TechCrunch and whatever comes out of Silicon Valley. We’re definitely of the vision that this region is different and Myanmar is different so it’s very important to understand what the needs of the market are,” said Oak.
He believes that the opportunity in Myanmar goes beyond its many problems that remain to be solved, but is in the fact that the country has been leapfrogging from having 6 million smartphone users to 20 million within a year. In a frontier market that’s completely skipped the PC and feature phone era, Phandeeyar is an active force in supporting entrepreneurs that are unnaturally attracted to the challenges of starting up in Myanmar.