Jes Kaliebe Petersen is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Paywast, Afghanistan’s largest social media property—an SMS-based social network with +1.5 million users. Paywast also helps organizations, governments, and enterprises create outreach and digital solutions that connect and empower Afghan citizens. Jes is based in Yangon, Myanmar and tweets at @kaliebe.
Writing this, I am sitting in one of the tens of new cafés that have sprung up in Yangon over the past year. The setting would not be out of place in most international cities; great cappuccino, free Wi-Fi and playful banter between the staff while customers—roughly a 50/50 mix of local and international—shuffle in and out as part of their daily routine. The growth in coffee houses is symptomatic for the progress Myanmar has seen recently. The country, in anticipation of the parliamentary elections due this fall, is full of optimism of times to come.
Since the current government instituted a series of reforms in the beginning of the 2010’s, international interest in Myanmar has soared. Few areas have seen as rapid embrace by consumers as the mobile industry. While this is not unusual in developing countries (I have previously written about the impact of this in Afghanistan), the pace with which people adopt smartphones and 3G data service is unprecedented on a global level. Until mid 2014, only one mobile operator—government-owned MPT—was providing mobile service. SIM cards were prohibitively expensive at more than 250 USD/piece (prior to 2014, they could go for higher than 1,000 USD!), and Internet service was not available in most locations. Two GSM licenses, granted to Norwegian Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo a year earlier changed this. Both launching in the summer of 2014, Myanmar residents could suddenly purchase a SIM card for just 1,500 Kyat—less than two dollars. With Android smartphones at the lower end of the spectrum retailing for 65 USD or less, mobile service and—not least—Internet access, was now within reach of most citizens.
With the infrastructure, regulatory framework and private sector investment in place, as well as a burgeoning tech startup scene to boot, there does not seem to be much stopping mobile in Myanmar from becoming a home run success story. There are, however, still areas that can improve. While the bigger cities and more densely populated areas have adapted to the new digital reality in what seems to be no time at all, the rural parts of the country are still lacking in connectivity, and the mobile operators are struggling to keep up with demand for coverage. In some areas, international donors are subsidising the construction of cell phone towers in order to provide mobile service for underserved communities.
The efforts of donors, aid and development organisations go beyond investments in telecom infrastructure. Many NGOs, both local and international, are looking to mobile technology to improve delivery of aid projects and capacity building and enable better—and perhaps in some circumstances, also safer—distribution of aid. Under the umbrella term ICT4D (Information and Communications Technology For Development), organisations worldwide has invested heavily in building technology solutions for development. The definition of ICT4D is fluid, and one might argue that any technology, app or mobile service that helps people to communicate, live better or work more efficiently is essentially furthering development goals, whether commercial or provided by the aid and/or development community. Players in the local tech community have already taken initiative to develop apps for health and governance purposes. Ooredoo, one of the mobile operators, recently launched MayMay an app providing health tips and guidance for expecting mothers. MayMay is a partnership between Population Services International, KoeKoe, a Yangon-based app agency, GSMA and Ooredoo.
As not long ago, Myanmar was largely closed off from Internet access, and even basic telephone service for all but the wealthiest, the country is set to be one of the first real mobile-first nations. Most countries have undergone a connectivity evolution starting with clunky desktop computers and dial-up modems, over fixed line or cable connections and laptops, to finally migrating to mobile phones and tablets for personal use, connecting to the Internet using 3G or 4G. Myanmar, along with a small group of developing nations that have for various reasons been shut off from the global connectivity grid, have the luxury of not being bogged down by a 1990s era technology hangover. This means a unique opportunity for the government, but also for humanitarian and development organisations, to embrace the mobile revolution to provide efficient services to the population—whether this is public services or international aid.
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