Interview: David Madden

In what ways can technology act as a catalyst for social development initiatives?

DAVID MADDEN: This is one of the big opportunities for Myanmar. The country has a lot of catching up to do, but there’s enormous potential to use technology to accelerate change and development. In two years Myanmar has gone from having just a few million people connected to the internet to over 50m active SIM cards on the market. Most of these are in smartphones that are already consuming data. This connectivity revolution can be harnessed to help address some of the major issues facing the country. To do this, a few important things need to happen. First, organisations that are trying to tackle Myanmar’s major social development challenges – especially the government – need to recognise the potential for technology to help them achieve their goals faster and more efficiently. At the same time, tech companies – both local and international – should see the significant opportunity to use their skills, products and services to meet the critical needs of the country. Second, those involved should look at examples, both of existing solutions and of initiatives that failed. An important element of the digital leapfrog is that Myanmar doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel; it can build on the learning of others.

What finance opportunities exist for tech entrepreneurs in Myanmar, and how do they compare to those in more developed nations?

MADDEN: Access to financing is the biggest challenge facing all entrepreneurs in Myanmar. If the government wants to harness the entrepreneurial energy and talent of the Myanmar people, then opening up the banking sector should be a top priority. Finance is a particularly acute problem for tech entrepreneurs. A few founders have been lucky enough to have family or friends with money, but most of the start-ups that have raised seed funding have had to get on a plane and talk to regional investors. This is largely why we created Phandeeyar Accelerator. There’s some real talent in the Myanmar start-up community, but it’s very hard for them to get that initial cheque that they need to enable them to focus on building their own products, rather than building apps and websites for clients. In other countries, including elsewhere in the region, the tech ecosystem includes networks of investors, incubators and accelerators, and venture firms focused on early-stage companies. There’s no shortage of money in Myanmar or in the region and the opportunities here are significant. We’re hoping that Phandeeyar Accelerator inspires the development of financing options for Myanmar start-ups.

Beyond finance, what unique challenges do tech entrepreneurs need to navigate in Myanmar?

MADDEN: Finding talent is hard for everyone, but finding technical talent is especially hard. Also, Yangon’s property market is not kind to fast-growing start-ups. Power cuts hurt everyone, but they’re really painful when you need that power for IT equipment. Mobile phones might be enough for many small and medium-sized businesses, but tech start-ups need a fast, stable connection, and the internet service provider market has been much slower to open up than the mobile operator market. An especially serious challenge is payments. Myanmar’s banking industry is still very underdeveloped, which makes digital payments tough. Another category of challenges comes from the early stage of the market. Right now, the internet in Myanmar is mostly just Facebook. Tech start-ups are having to do a lot of education about how technology can help businesses and consumers. Making arguments about the efficiencies that technology can bring can be hard when labour is relatively cheap. Despite all of this, there are start-ups making progress. This is a testament to the drive and resourcefulness of Myanmar’s tech entrepreneurs.