Why Myanmar?

by Rita Nguyen

I very often get asked this question – what bought me all the way here to start a tech startup of all things back in 2013, and more recently, what keeps me here.  I find that the Letter from the CEO section of the business plan I originally wrote in 2013 still explains why I’m here better than anything…so here it is:

The development of our business model came about when I visited Yangon, Myanmar in early 2013. It was immediately clear that there was something special happening in the country. The locals were young, energetic and motivated. The government was determined to pull Myanmar into the 21st century and the people were clearly eager to help. Over the course of several months traveling to Yangon, I started to notice something amusing. In downtown Yangon, the street vendors began to remove all their random wares from the shelves, and they started filling their stores, tables and kiosks with mobile phones. The digital revolution had arrived in Myanmar.

The very idea of developing a tech start up, especially a consumer- focused one at such an early stage of Myanmar’s infrastructure development is a bold one. While there are clearly accessibility issues today, there’s no doubt that this is going to correct itself rapidly. Myanmar’s re-emergence is occurring at a time when bridging the digital divide is cheaper and easier than ever. This is a country that will come online faster than any other nation we have ever witnessed. Not only that, Myanmar will go straight to the smart phone, largely bypassing desktop and feature phone adoption as was seen in other countries.

The company was formed to capitalize on the massive opportunities presented by recent reforms in Myanmar. Virtually overnight, an untapped market of 60 million consumers has opened up. Infrastructure gaps have been – and continue to be – a central focus of the reform. However as the technology of access and distribution improves rapidly, major problems remain in engaging with these new consumers.

As for the question of why I stay…I guess the best way to explain that is to take an excerpt of my current business plan, which I’ve posted below.  But the short story is that the country is going through a time of exciting and unprecedented change and I still want to be part of it. I will write much more openly about what I’m doing in the coming weeks and months but this sets up the basic framework for why I’m still here and launching a second venture.

In 2012 there were over 190 million people in Southeast Asia who belonged to the middle class, meaning they have the ability to make purchase decisions based on a level of disposable income. Research shows that Southeast Asian consumers are impulse buyers with a growing preference for early adoption. They are also increasingly affected by the consumption trends of their northern counterparts China, Korea and Japan, where brand identification is slowly becoming a primary driver in consumer behaviour. As manufacturing moves south from China’s hub cities, we are also seeing countries like Myanmar and Vietnam become literally closer to the products that their growing middle class are buying, setting a precedent for a rich consumer ecosystem.

With a combined population of over 150 million people and economic expansion exceeding six percent annually, the spotlight of consumer growth is on Vietnam and Myanmar. Vietnam has the fastest-growing middle and affluent class (MAC) in the region. Business operators have tapped Myanmar and Vietnam as Southeast Asia’s new growth frontiers, as Vietnam’s consumer population will rise from 12 million to 33 million between 2012 and 2020 while Myanmar stands to have a consumer class that is the same size as Malaysia and The Philippines by 2030. Consumers in Vietnam and Myanmar are rapidly developing purchasing power making them increasingly attractive global business prospects. Their MAC segment is expected to double in size by 2020 according to BCG.

And yet Myanmar is a country that has no consumer-friendly banking, no common e-payments system, no credit ratings, not even reliable postal, telecoms or logistics networks – digital or otherwise. There is literally no central data. The government recently carried out their first census in 30 years. International market research companies like Nielsen are still sending out foot soldiers to interview villagers selling shampoo sachets in remote areas. A consumer-led initiative like Jzoo, which doesn’t even require our members or partners to have a mobile phone poses one of the simplest solutions to bridge the information gap – both to the citizens as well as back to decision makers.

Stay tuned for some exciting times… 🙂