YANGON — Boarding one of Yangon’s decaying buses is a step onto one of the cheapest modes of transport in Myanmar.
Just pennies can get you around the city and for a population that, on average, makes less than US $100 a month, every penny counts.
But sitting on the ripped seats, listening to the bus attendant call out stops, it’s clear that even here the trappings of the modern world are hard to get away from.
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Amongst the men without shoes, the monks clad in red robes and women dressed in long traditional skirts, there are more than a few hunched over one of the icons of the modern age — the cellphone.
Looking out the dirty bus window it’s also hard to miss the cranes and workers busily building a new addition to Yangon’s climbing skyline, while ads for internet and cellphone companies adorn billboards all along the city streets.
Just a few years ago, none of this would have been possible. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was closed off from the rest of the world with little to no foreign investment, no internet access and no freedom of speech for its more than 50 million largely impoverished citizens.
After decades of being closed off from the rest of the world, Myanmar began a process of reforms in November of 2010, when the government moved from strict military rule to a military-backed civilian government.
Then in 2011, the government freed thousands of political prisoners, began to loosen censorship rules and even allowed internet access for the first time.
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It was these reforms that brought more foreigners and Western companies into the country, including Canadian Rita Nguyen.
Nguyen came to Myanmar with entrepreneurial dreams, starting the first Burmese language social networking site in a country that was just coming online and just starting to access cellphones.
“Myanmar post, the government agency, were the only ones selling sim cards when I got here two and a half years ago,” she recalls of when she first came to Yangon. “My SIM card that I used cost me $350. That was actually the least painful part of the equation. Setting up my 3G was a week of running around in circles, going from one office to another, signing papers that were all in Burmese.”
Today, a SIM card will only set you back a few dollars and rather than one government cell or internet carrier there are several, including foreign companies that have been given licences to operate in the country, making internet accessibility easier by the day.
“It’s a society that’s coming online probably when technology is the cheapest it’s ever been and it’s really a game changer. So that excites me and it’s just happening so fast,” Nguyen says.
It’s that rapid change that has launched Nguyen into her latest venture in the country. She’s started the first customer loyalty program called Jzoo.
In Western countries, loyalty programs like Jzoo have been around for years and provide consumers a platform to earn points towards products as rewards, while merchants use that valuable consumer information to better their marketing tools and, of course, retain customers that might go somewhere else.
This is the same concept but in a very different market.
“You’re not talking about a society that has been exposed to the evolution of products. You’re dumping them in. In many cases this is the first time, literally the first time, that a mom or a woman has ever touched a tablet,” she says.
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Justin Sway is an Australian businessman who recognized the incredible transformation going on in the country and after selling his business in Australia was actively looking for another venture in the technology sector to invest in.
“I’ve been all over the world literally in the last two years and there’s nothing like this anywhere else on the planet,” he says. “I think in Myanmar there’s nowhere on the planet you’ll see something change so quickly in the next two or three years.”
For Sway, deciding on Yangon was a bit of a homecoming that he is grateful for. He was born in Myanmar and had not been back to the country in 40 years.
“I love it. One mbecause I’m from Myanmar so I’m very grateful for the opportunities my family’s been given but I’m also very grateful for the opportunity to work with my own people and be a part of their growth. That’s what really excites me,” says Sway.
Both Nguyen and Sway are enthusiastic about the immense change underway and the rapid switch from an entirely offline to a fully online society, but they also recognize that there are challenges to overcome.
Not only are they having to tailor their businesses to a market that has had very little exposure to technology but they are also having to tailor their hiring approaches to the reality of a population that’s just now coming online.
“It’s not as simple as in Canada where you just put up a job posting and you hire… there’s just no people who understand this business model, there’s not enough people who understand technology there’s just a skills shortage across the board,” says Nguyen.
“So, it’s not quite as simple as me saying I need to hire 25 people. What you actually really do is you hire 25 kids and you train them.”
“Look, it’s hard to find people whether it’s here or whether it’s in Australia or America. It’s always hard to find people.
“It’s probably a little bit harder here because there’s a certain level of training that you’ve gotta provide and a lot of that’s because a lot of the Myanmar people haven’t been exposed to the outside world… but the talent is here.”
Both Sway and Nguyen are looking to the future and believe the rapid influx of investment and the rapid growth of technology in Myanmar are vital. They also believe that it’s these changes that will really help bring about better lives for people in the country.
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“You are looking at a country where you are going to see about 19 million people get lifted out of poverty status in the next five to 10 years. So, there’s just this enormous swell,” Nguyen says.
It’s hard to imagine a change as rapid as that giving so many people a shot at a better life, but many in the country see the incredible changes as just that — a chance to change the prospects for a population that, for so long, lived in abject poverty and fear of their own government.
Melanie de Klerk travelled to Myanmar as a recipient of the 2015/2016 Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellowship.