In 2014, when computer programmers and software developers gathered for the first time in Yangon for an event known as “Hackathons”, little did people realise that this small beginning would prove to be a turning point in the startup history of Myanmar.
The event was organised by Code for Change Myanmar, an initiative by a Yangon-based entrepreneur, David Madden, who is famous for using technology to resolve social issues.
In this first event of its kind, 76 young software developed apps and social tools to tackle matters related to agriculture, health, sanitation, politics, etc. Civil societies and NGOs presented burning social, economic and political issues to these youngsters to work upon.
The message, which came loud and clear from the event, was that youngsters in Myanmar have the potential to bring technological revolution in the country.
The Hackathons set the ball rolling. It became a catalyst for the change. What followed after that was regular workshops, seminars, lectures, meetings in which computer programmers, designers, entrepreneurs and tech experts came together to deliberate upon creating a startup ecosystem in the country.
After Hackathons, while people of Myanmar understood that technology and innovation could solve social problems, youngsters got encouraged to take up the challenge to innovate user-friendly and easy-to-use technology that can make a difference in people’s day-to-day life.
Consequent to these events, Myanmar’s first full-fledged innovation lab, Phandeeyar, was born.
What led the startup revolution in Myanmar?
The credit for Myanmar’s tech revolution goes to the connectivity revolution, which the country witnessed, in the last few years. According to an estimate, there were only 1% people who had access to the internet in 2009-11 and 99% people were unaware of the revolution in information and technology that swept across many developing nations then.
The startup prospects looked up only when in June 2013, the government allowed mobile service providers Ooredoo and Telenor to start their operations in Myanmar. Myanmar’s international bandwidth went up from below 15 Gbps, i.e., 0.3 Kbps per capita in 2012 to 70 Gbps (1.3 kbps per capita) in 2015.
With mobile connectivity came wide coverage of Internet facilities. With 50% people who have access to Internet connectivity, their exposure and information base have gone up many folds. Though the majority of people in Myanmar prefer social networking sites over other educational activities, however, youngsters who are driven for social change, have found a powerful tool to achieve their goal.
While the communication technology is evolving and transforming villages and towns of Myanmar, David Madden’s Code for Change Myanmar is driving youths towards tech entrepreneurship.
Incubators mentoring new ideas in Myanmar
Spread in six thousand square feet; it’s the first ICT hub which was developed in 2014 by Code for Change Myanmar. The literal meaning of Phandeeyar is creation place, and it is living up to its name. The sole purpose of this place is to take forward social innovation and for that, it has taken some initiatives. For instance, with $2million grant from Omidyar Network, an American philanthropic foundation, it has opened its first tech accelerator to provide an eco-system for new ideas to turn into a reality.
So when a young entrepreneur or a group of youngsters will come here with an innovative idea or project and if it’s selected, it will get all kind of supports, such as financial, technical and mentoring, etc. to help the concept materialise into a product.
Phandeeyar is getting support from some globally renowned companies such as Amazon Web Services, TODAY Ogilvy & Mather, Facebook, Microsoft Bizspark and PwC in one way or the other.
Though Phandeeyar is one of the top ICT hubs, there are many other incubation and training centers where a youngster can seek help and mentorship. Some of these are Sule Tech, AAT Business Park, Myanmar ICT Development Corporation Limited (MICTDC), Excellent Center and SME business Incubation Center, SME Development Department, Myanmar Computer Federation, etc.
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Besides these, many foreign companies support new tech initiatives of Myanmar youths through various financially supportive schemes, recently a private education institution based in Singapore, Lithan, announced to launch a TechUP accelerator program in Yangon to select five youths with new tech ideas.
While at one hand incubation centers are nurturing new ideas, startups already in the market are not only doing well but planning to expand into other areas.
Take the case of Yangon Door2Door for instance. Despite completion from other food startups such as ygnfood, SSDS Delivery and 26delivery.ygn, Yangon Door2Door is going to open new branches in two other cities. It shows that the country has a lot of scope for new startups to grow because there is a huge demand for new social startups.
According to an estimate, Myanmar has more than 200 startups, and a few of them are Bagan Innovation Technology, MySquar, Zwenexsys Intl, Bindez Myanmar Links, Rebbiz, code2lab Technomation, Studio AMK, Total Gameplay Studio, InnoWave Myanmar, NEX Lab, etc.
More risk capital, coaching needed for startups in Myanmar
Experts believe that there is no dearth of talent and startup ideas in Myanmar however the local investors don’t seem to be very encouraging. They think that investing in technology startup don’t bring quick returns for their investments. Today, the top best startups of Myanmar are dependent on foreign funding because the country lacks the active community of startup investors. Youngsters working in incubators want the government to relax the norms for external funding so that financial support will grow. Many experts also feel that training and mentoring facilities for the youngster is not adequate in the country. More and more incubators are required because it’s difficult for any individual to own a property and have the infrastructure in place to experiment.
Despite challenges, there are ample opportunities in startup domain in Myanmar. One of the positive aspects is that the youths of Myanmar are fighting all odds to live up to their social commitments. Considering the rising interest among youngsters towards tech innovations to solve social problems, the country is on the path of becoming one of the startup destinations in the world.