Myanmar: A burgeoning start-up ecosystem

The GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator’s presence has grown stronger in Myanmar over the last two years, now with three (Kargo, Greenovator and Neh Thit) of our 35 Innovation Fund portfolio start-ups being Myanmar-based companies.

Myanmar has seen unprecedented growth in its technology and telecoms sectors over the last six years. This critical moment began when the government liberalised the telecoms sector in 2013, leading to a significant drop in SIM card prices, an explosion of smartphones usage, and an undeniable shift in the country’s economic and social fabric. Importantly, mobile technology has played a critical role in this change. The technology has also been an indispensable tool in powering Myanmar’s tech ecosystem. Working with the three start-ups we are funding in the country, we have had the chance to gather some learnings about this ecosystem. We wanted to share some of them in this blog.

Brad Jones, CEO of Wave Money, a joint venture by Telenor, giving a talk to entrepreneurs from Founder Institute Yangon (Credit: Phandeeyar)

Attracting local, regional and international start-up investors

Attracting funding is one of the biggest challenges in any tech ecosystem and Myanmar is no exception. Fortunately, there has been a promising development in the market with more organisations, commercial or otherwise, setting up funds in the country. Here are some of the most active funds we’ve come across:

  • Luminate, a global philanthropic organisation backed by Pierre Omidyar (co-founder of Omidyar Network and founder of eBay), supports the Myanmar ecosystem by funding Phandeeyar and various initiatives in the country. While Luminate provide equity and grants funding, these deals are rarely publicised.
  • SeedMyanmar, started by Vulpes Investment Manager, provides seed stage investment in the country. It has seven portfolio start-ups, notably Kargo Myanmar, an on-demand delivery and logistic platform (and one of our GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund portfolio start-ups); Bindez, a Burmese language-based social insight and media monitoring solution; and MMTutors, an on-demand platform for educational services.
  • BOD Tech Ventures, set up by a local entrepreneur, has actively been investing in start-ups such as Yangon Door2door, MMBusTicket and building ventures of their own like Get.
  • Emerging Market Entrepreneurs (EME) Asia runs a Myanmar-focused fund, in addition to publishing insights on Myanmar’s tech ecosystem. Two of its first few investments include CarsDB, an automobile classified site and Joosk, a digital animation and illustration studio.

 

In addition to the above organisations, a number of regional and global funds have also been investing in Myanmar start-ups, like Frontier Digital Ventures and 500 Startups.

Developing talent and building a community

Needless to say, talent is the most important asset in any tech ecosystem. Talent needs to be developed and retained. Since the opening up of the country, more and more training organisations have sprung up carrying different objectives, frameworks and cost structures. A couple of programmes stand out in the way they are supporting start-ups building capacity and knowledge:

  • Phandeeyar organised Myanmar’s first two public hackathons along with the support of mobile operator Ooredoo’s Ideabox Myanmar start-up accelerator. The tech hub organises workshops, events and hackathons, both in support of technology start-ups and technology advocacy for civil society. They currently run Startup Challenge, Founder Institute Yangon and Phandeeyar Accelerator.
  • one to watch runs a 100-day accelerator programme, named “Enterprise”, which covers both tech and non-tech start-ups. They are one of the two programmes in Myanmar being supported by DFAT’s Frontier Incubator Programme which provides training and mentorship to accelerators and incubators in the region.
  • Impact Hub Yangon is home to many socially conscious enterprises in Myanmar. The GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund portfolio start-up, Greenovator, is one of their members. It has run various initiatives including a hackathon in late 2018 supported by Ooredoo Myanmar and UNDP. Impact Hub Yangon is the second local incubator supported by the Frontier Incubator Programme.
  • Samsung’s Tech Institute has supported over 800 students through their Android training programmes in conjunction with Myanmar’s government universities across the country.

 

Students of Samsung Training Institute post a group photo with the jury of their final presentations. (Photo credit: Samsung Myanmar)

Infrastructure and support from mobile operators

As the local tech ecosystem is shaping and growing, the underlying infrastructure needs to be in solid condition. Communication and payment infrastructures specifically are crucial for start-ups to operate. In Myanmar’s case, the liberalisation of the telecoms sector has provided more affordable communication infrastructure for most parts of the country. Beyond communications, the mobile operators have been working on implementing mobile money platforms so that their customers can transact easier across various parts of the country. According to Telenor’s mobile money joint venture Wave Money (which currently claims over four million unique mobile money customers), close to 40 per cent of the people who transfer money in the country, do so using mobile money.

As of the end of 2018, Myanmar’s four mobile network operators have over 27.5 million unique mobile subscribers combined, more than 73 per cent of which had access to mobile internet by the end of the year 2018 (source: GSMA Intelligence).

The Ecosystem Accelerator programme is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Australian Government, the GSMA and its members.

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