Connecting Myanmar

by Rita Nguyen

I have been helping to organize a TEDx event here in Yangon which has given me a deeper appreciation for this amazing country.  With the theme of “Myanmar Connects”,  TEDxInyaLake aims to promote the world of ideas to Myammar via TED and TEDx talks, and in turn contribute Myanmar’s ideas to the world. While this goes well beyond technology, there is certainly an element of that. Which got me thinking about the changes I’ve witnessed in the past 3 years.

Back then I was running around SE Asia pitching a localized social network in Myanmar, a place where the mobile penetration was around 12% and limited to the wealthy elite as sim cards were still hundreds of dollars. Internet penetration was even more grim with most estimates sitting at below 1%.  Most people thought I was nuts.  Now, only a year after the foreign telcos have launched their services, mobile penetration has grown to an astonishing 45%. But what does that really mean for the tech scene here?  Yes, mobile penetration has seen exponential growth, and in the cities,  internet penetration and smart phone adoption is following, albiet at a slower rate. But you are still dealing with a largely disconnected society. Seventy percent of Myanmar citizens still live in rural locations and remember the amazing, exponential growth of mobile penetration? Not surprisingly, that’s mostly in the urban areas with only  21% of rural households owning a mobile device and while I don’t know what percentage of those devices are smart phones, I’m willing to bet it’s in the single digits. And unfortunately, the easy growth part is over…those who have been waiting for years to get a sim card now have one.  That doesn’t mean that the rapid growth will stop, only that the initial explosion is over and we will get to the harder to reach people and areas.

Then there’s the problem of content.  I’ve always said that just giving people a sim card doesn’t actually connect them to anything.  The past few years have seen an explosion of localized apps and online services but with almost no exception, they are targeted to the smart phone users, which is growing but still only a total addressable market of less than ten million people. And let’s not forget their limited purchasing power.  The local tech startups are also competing with the industry giants, which have now all localized their service offerings for this market.  In some case, those giants are spending enormous amounts of money to buy marketshare.  The chat wars are easy to spot: Beeline, WeChat and LINE, all “unicorns” battling it out with each other while a few local players attempt to play with the big boys.  Even Viber is losing all ground now that they aren’t the only chat app that a) offers voice calling and b) allows for account authentication.  It’s easy to be number one when everyone else is effectively blocked – something we saw happen in Vietnam a few years ago. Once the government stopped blocking Facebook, home-grown Zing took a major nose dive in market share.

So why am I here?  Well the story of how I landed here and why I stayed has been written and I didn’t write this to turn people off from coming here. Besides, it’s not all doom and gloom – let’s not forget that a couple of years ago the government said they wanted to get the mobile penetration to around 80% in three years.  Most people laughed and yet, only a year after the foreign telcos have launched their services, mobile penetration sits at over 45%.  In fact, there have been two other countries in the world who have been able to grow from below 15% to over 80% in three years: Vietnam and Russia.  Given the speed of adoption in Myanmar, there’s no reason to think that it can’t also achieve this target. This is the first time in the history of the world that a telecommunications infrastructure has been built data first and Myanmar will come online faster than any of it’s neighbours.  Being able to witness that firsthand is reason enough to be here.