Myanmar recently crawled out from under the rule of military dictatorship, but tensions in the Southeast Asian country remain high and corruption is endemic. However, new infrastructure could be about to unleash a generation of technology talent itching to make its mark.
The nation ranked 157 of 177 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index last year, and Internet penetration is negligible: fewer than a million of Myanmar’s 60 million population have regular access to the web. That’s not surprising when fiber-optic installation costs up to $1,500, and the average salary is around $83 per month.
But Qatari telco Ooredoo is set to change that, having this month rolled out an extensive UMTS900 mobile network accessible via affordable SIM cards, which it claims is easily scalable to 4G. “At present around 10% of the country’s population are reported to have mobile phone access,” says group CEO Dr Nasser Marafih. “Ooredoo has committed to making this 97% in five years’ time.” From a staff of ten last year the firm now employs a thousand – 80% of whom are Burmese.
Myanmar’s geography presents enough problems alone. It’s twice the size of the Philippines – 261,000sq miles – and suffers heavy monsoons that wreck its already fragile infrastructure. Even in good weather, 70% of its people don’t even have access to power. But the country has a population of over 60 million and high literacy rates. And a small but vibrant startup scene is beginning to appear, particularly in its largest city and former capital, Yangon.
One movement pushing for progress is Code for Change Myanmar, whose founder David Madden hopes to pounce on Ooredoo’s plan by incubating Myanmar’s tech talent via hackathons and other events. Madden claims that there is plenty of talent in the country, which has had to get creative and resourceful due to lack of opportunities otherwise. “This is a good combination,” he says.
“(The mobile network) is a game changer,” adds Madden. “Myanmar will rapidly go from having one of the lowest mobile and internet penetration rates globally to having almost 60 million people connected – to each other and to the world. The opportunities that this creates for the tech sector are massive.”
Another startup incubator is Project Hub Yangon, founded by well-travelled duo Allison Morris and Pete Silvester. Since 2012 the venture, which includes a co-working space, has gathered over a thousand people to share their entrepreneurial experiences.
One success has been Bindez, a firm founded in 2013 by locals Ko Htet Will and Ko Ye Wint Ko, who alongside Rahul Batra, an Indian former Google employee, secured a five-figure seed investment to build a Burmese-language search engine. Google launched its own version there in March 2013. But, argues Batra, the accuracy for Burmese speakers’ searches is still only around 60%. Many results do not filter out adult material, for example.
The reason for this is that the unicode from which fonts are rendered and put out on technology platforms, does not apply to Burmese, which uses a system called Zawgyi. For example, if Burmese people are posting to Facebook in their mother tongue, to western eyes their words will come across a garbled mess.
“It has been denting the local economy for a long time,” says Batra, who got wind of the project while on a trip back home. “But there’s been a lot of conversation in the past year, big companies and officials coming here to get a future use of unicode. There are forums, the media discusses it. There’s a drive to push content in unicode. But that’s in the future. It doesn’t change what has been coded in the past ten years.”
Batra complains that his time in Myanmar has been littered with roadblocks, most of which have come from corrupt officials and cronyism. “With the search engine it has almost reached the stage where I would think twice about saying we are building a search engine. Why would the local ministries talk to other people but not to a young Indian guy who had no money to bribe them? It is almost that simple.”
But he, and a swathe of young entrepreneurs, are soldiering on with Myanmar. And with Ooredoo’s network set to change everything, perhaps a new wave of Burmese businesspeople can help break down social barriers that have held the country back way before computers were even commonplace. “It’s one of the powerful things about tech,” says Madden. “It doesn’t have much respect for vested interests.”