On behalf of the GSMA (the corporate hat I wear!), in July 2016 I traveled to Myanmar with my friend and colleague Ramat Tejani for the first time. I was there to conduct a mobile telecoms policy training workshop in Nay Pyi Taw, the new-ish capital, at the invitation of the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI). This workshop was on the topic of Mobile for Socio-Economic Development policy and the trainees were Myanmar government, private sector and multiple civil society stakeholders. However, before the work began, we took a mini-vacation in Yangon and its environs, and I saw a few potential opportunities for digital development in this relatively recently opened country.
Firstly, my friend Wayan Vota was right when he proclaimed in 2015 that Myanmar is going straight to smartphones. The entire time in country I saw only a handful of featurephones and the rest were all smartphones - many of them of the (gigantic!) phablet variety. I observed people of many different socioeconomic statuses using mobile phones, and the smartphone was still ubiquitous.
While we know from the GSMA's recent research that mobile access is not universal in the country - particularly for women and girls - strides are being made to address the gaps. But perhaps just as important as addressing the access gaps is the need to address what people can do with mobile once they have that access.
A recent article looked at the "struggles and strategies" for Myanmar innovation and cites four major struggles facing the development of the digital ecosystem: infrastructure, monetization, talent, and financing. They might have also added a generational gap, as it seems that in many cases the younger people in Myanmar are not only adopting mobile technologies faster but are also leading the charge for innovating within the context.
Convincing older people who are used to doing things a certain way, for example like paying in cash instead of using e-wallets or some other form of digital currency, is a significant barrier that has yet to be fully delved into. But again, we must bear in mind that this mobile market is just about three years old and of course it will take time to convince people, irrespective of their age!
Despite these struggles and a lack of strategies for how to address them (for now, anyhow!!!), I saw a few opportunities for digital development in Myanmar:
1. Local content - We've seen time and again that people tend to default to former colonial languages when creating tech in emerging markets because it's easier given the vast amounts of existing content to draw from and adapt. But also, the press are more likely to read about the innovation and spotlight the innovation if it is in a hegemonic language. This second point is one that is rarely spoken about as a hidden motivation for innovation design in emerging markets... for some reason mother tongue language development remains "unsexy".
Nevertheless, because many commonly spoken languages in Myanmar are unique, if more people are to have a reason to adopt mobile services, then offerings need to be in the languages that they read and speak. It may not always be cheap to create this local content, especially when funders often do not prioritize (sufficient) budget allocation for this task. However, I believe local language content development can support the creation of sustainable revenue streams through eventual content monetization as people come online and discover content made for them, that they enjoy, and may even be useful for their lives.
2. Families - It appeared to me that many of the innovations being developed in Myanmar at present are for highly individualized uses (e.g. ordering a taxi, car purchases, etc.). This misses out on a MASSIVE opportunity to create innovations that are geared towards families.
While it cannot be seen in the vantage point presented, each and every family member pictured in the photo above had their own smartphone - including the little girl! During my time in the two major cities of Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw, as well as to visits to smaller villages near Yangon, I saw families using their mobile phones together. But in most cases each person was on their own phone and discussing what they were doing with the people around them.
This sort of communal use is often overlooked because mobile devices themselves are primarily designed for individual use. Yet, as many countries increasingly grapple with issues like Child Online Protection, one way to make positive change in this area is to develop more innovations that enhance mobile-facilitated/centric familial conversations and interactions. We have already seen the consequences of not doing so in the West: people staring zombie-like into their phones and completing ignoring anything and anyone else around them. The potential to create a new experience that draws people together could help a new mobile practice to emerge - one which helps narrow the generational gap.
3. Tourism - With Myanmar becoming increasingly open, tourism within the country by locals and foreign nationals alike has also spiked. Given that this country is full of things to discover that many do not know about, it seems obvious that creating mobile innovations which target the tourism sector would be appealing.
Mobile innovations in the tourism sector could include creating ways to share information about where to take the best selfies and how to safely do so, training on how to become a tour guide for locals and foreign nationals, and even which places are favorites to visit and why, kind of like crowdsourcing where to go. Based on my observations, this is something that people would value in large part because they could then share their experiences with others online.
As digital development continues apace in Myanmar, there are bound to be other opportunities to emerge which push innovation outside of the Silicon Valley box. Do you know of any? Share in the comment section below!