ICT in Myanmar: Creating Opportunities for Aid and Development
International interest in Myanmar has soared, since government reforms took place in 2010. The country has signalled its readiness to reintegrate with the world economy in order to achieve sustainable economic growth and materially improve the lives of its people. According to the Asian Development Bank report, the country’s growth is estimated at 6.8% per year with linear increase in demand for infrastructure services, including ICT-related services, both for consumption and production uses.
One of the areas of rapid development, embraced by consumers, was the country’s mobile industry. Until 2014 Myanmar’s internet, mobile, and telephone usage rates were Southeast Asia’s lowest. There was only one mobile service provider in Myanmar, the government-owned MPT with the SIM cards costing as much as 250 USD and internet not available in most locations. Norwegian Telenor and Qatari Ooredoo were granted GSM licenses, which sparked the growth of the sector. The prices of SIM cards dropped to less than two dollars and Internet became accessible to most citizens.
Digital technology played a significant role in enabling Myanmar to jump the usual development track and further accelerate growth. With the infrastructure, regulatory framework and private sector investment in place, as well as a growing tech startup scene, Myanmar mobile industry became a home run success story.
Yet managing the economic boom with the influx of capital and infrastructure to ensure equitable distribution and equal access to new opportunities is a challenge in itself. There is still significant potential for development, especially in ICT infrastructure. While larger cities and densely populated areas have adapted the new digital reality in almost no time, the rural parts of the country still lack connectivity and mobile operators are struggling to keep up with demand for coverage. In some areas, international donors are subsidising construction of cell phone towers in order to provide mobile service for underserved communities.
According to Jes Kaliebe Petersen, an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Paywast, Afghanistan’s largest social media property, 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, 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 organizations, to embrace the mobile revolution to provide efficient services to the population—whether this is public services or international aid.
Although there is unprecedented growth in use of mobile technologies for various sectors including humanitarian, education, agriculture, rural areas of Southern Shan and Kayin still face constraints with mobile network coverage and data access. With this in mind, MEDA is implementing a project to reach 25,000 women farmers and entrepreneurs in these states. Funded by DFATD, the initiative plans to increase access to new opportunities in rural areas of the country, targeting women in select value chains with high growth potential, through the use of ICT development to overcome traditionally male dominated systems of credit and farmer extension services.
Research shows that mobile technology could boost farmers’ productivity enough to increase agricultural income by US$138 billion by 2020 across global markets, while access to mobile phones empowers women and leads to multiplier benefits for the household as well. A toolkit for developing appropriate interventions for women farmers, developed by the GSMA, demonstrates the potential for designing mobile agricultural services targeted specifically at women.
And as the enabling environment gradually improves to foster private sector development, the potential for new economic opportunities for rural women and men also grows rapidly. Activities will focus on achieving women’s economic empowerment with the proven benefits to the larger household and community.
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