Tech sector sizzles in Myanmar

-A +A

FROM navigating gridlocked city roads to playing a favourite national sport, new home-grown apps are blossoming in Myanmar as cheap mobile technology ignites an Internet revolution in the once-isolated nation.

Myanmar web surfers were once paradigms of patience and ingenuity, as they dodged and weaved through the former military regime’s communications blocks in decrepit backstreet Internet cafes.

But commuters in Myanmar’s biggest cities can now be seen tapping away on smartphones as an online awakening sweeps the country, fuelled by the loosening of junta-era restrictions and foreign telecoms firms unleashing a flood of affordable SIM cards.

Big brand names like Facebook, Google, Viber and Instagram have rapidly expanded their presence in the country, lured by the growing market and web-savvy local entrepreneurs are also seizing the chance to create Internet ventures in Myanmar style.

“There are so many things I want to do — I think about it not as business, but as a way to find solutions to problems I face,” said Ei Maung as he demonstrated his prototype traffic app in a car inching through the congested streets of the commercial hub Yangon.

“Yangon commuting is worse than bad. It’s terrible. You waste countless hours queuing in traffic every day,” he told AFP.

His Cyantra: Crazy Yangon Traffic app went live in June, and allows smartphone users to share traffic problems and view potential snarl-ups on their driving routes.

Internet access has already increased exponentially since the country began to throw off the shackles of military rule.

Just 1% of the population was thought to be online three years ago, as the democratic transition began, but the loosening of web controls and greater access to affordable phone cards has opened the Internet up to millions.

On Saturday Norway’s Telenor launched SIM cards costing just 1,500 kyat (RM4.89) in Mandalay — a far cry from the US$3,000 (RM9,780) a card could cost under military rule — ahead of a wider rollout in Yangon and Naypyidaw.

The move comes after Qatari firm Ooredoo began selling its SIM cards at the same price in August, throwing open the mobile Internet floodgates.
An estimated 25% of people are already online and the Myanmar Computer Federation expects around half of the population, over 25 million people, to be surfing the Net in the next three years.

Social media giant Facebook has dominated the Myanmar web to such an extent that it is the first — sometimes only — port of call for web users.
The booming tech scene has also given the country a chance to showcase local passions, from checking personalised horoscopes to a game that allows armchair sportsmen to play virtual “Chinlone” — a beloved traditional cane ball game — with a quirky owl avatar.

And while connections often remain glacially slow, online entrepreneurs are now grappling with the dilemma that has tormented web-based firms the world over — how to turn clicks into cash.

Mobile money — using the credit bought to top up mobile phones to make payments for other goods and services — helped by the flood of affordable SIMs now entering circulation, could help.

It is seen as a vital potential tool for the vast swathes of Myanmar’s largely unbanked and rural population, to access anything from loans to retail payments.

David Madden, whose Yangon-based Code for Change group seeks to promote and support budding techies, said that unlike in the West where web design began with a focus on computers and laptops, Myanmar Internet consumers will be primarily using cheap smartphones. — AFP

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on Sept 29, 2014.