Interview: U Chit Khine
Recent reforms have put Myanmar back on the international investor map. What potential does it have to reclaim its title as the “rice bowl of Asia”?
U CHIT KHINE: Recently we have noticed significant interest and increased investment from the international business community. Local investors are similarly expanding their investments, upgrading their facilities and enriching human resource potential in order to have better connectivity with the international marketplace. Restrictions are being eased on the regulatory side to encourage trade, and productivity has improved steadily. Therefore, it is likely that Myanmar will soon take a leading role in the global rice market. Our approach is to emphasise better quality rice, which is safe, tasty and encounters minimal chemicals during production. Our focus is also on parboiled rice, which is more nutritious. Myanmar is now equipped with modern parboiled rice mills and we intend to become a leader among global parboiled rice exporting countries.
As a result of decades of sanctions Myanmar finds itself economically weakened regionally. How important is the modernisation of farming techniques in the overall development of the economy?
KHINE: Self-imposed isolation, sanctions and internal armed conflicts have made it very difficult for Myanmar to gain economic prosperity, in spite of having rich resources. However, since 2011 the new government has been doing its best at a surprisingly fast pace. Several decades of political and economic isolation, aggravated by sanctions, weakened our institutions and human resource development. Farmers are still very poor, but now we are seeing new hope and opportunities. Investment and trade are successful tools for curing poverty. I always request that my business partners and foreign delegations increase their levels of trade and investment and engage with Myanmar, because trade and investment can be more effective and more results-oriented than aid donations. Doing business in Myanmar, especially in agriculture and agro-based industries, will contribute to narrowing our knowledge and capacity gaps, and help the country regain access to the international marketplace.
What approach must investors in the agriculture sector take to ensure that rural communities benefit from business initiatives?
KHINE: Long-term sustainability is crucial. We must value our environment and our rich biodiversity. Food security, food safety and nutrition security for our future generations should be prioritised and well planned. Myanmar is rich in high quality rice and wild rice species, many of which are indigenous. What we lack is the modern research and development, biotechnology and advanced scientific technology to sustain and support the rice seed industry. Good quality seed is a requirement for Myanmar, especially for smallholder farmers. Along with seed we also need investment in the fertiliser industry, supply and value chain initiatives, modern processing and good storage facilities, and cooperation with smallholder farmers under contract farming arrangements.
What obstacles do investors face in Myanmar’s agriculture sector, and how can they be overcome?
KHINE: The most pressing obstacle is related to land. Due to inefficient land rules and regulations it takes a long time to identify land that investors can use for productive purposes. The Myanmar Investment Commission is doing its best, but most of the problems remain unsolved. Therefore, foreign investors need very reliable local partners to help them tackle these challenges. Another obstacle is the insufficient availability of statistical data, market research and analysis. Without access to this information investors will take a long time to make decisions. Transitional countries such as Myanmar will continue to face challenges, but with sustained political stability, the implementation of pragmatic economic policies and increased public-private partnerships, we will strive to overcome them.
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