As Myanmar slowly opens its doors to the world, can it also leapfrog some of the biggest failures in development?

One of MEDA’s newest projects to launch in Asia is in Myanmar, also referred to as Burma.  A country in the midst of transition and change is slowly reducing barriers to foreign trade and influence, and opening its once closed borders to global firms. Myanmar now finds itself in the crossroads at the 21st century’s technology boom, with global powerhouse neighbours such as India and China, the country has a unique opportunity to learn and apply lessonsburma blog pic learned in the entry to a globalized economy and marketplace. Managing the economic boom that will result with the influx of capital and infrastructure to ensure equitable distribution and equal access to new opportunities is no small challenge. And many international donors, such as the Canadian Government are seeking to provide support by facilitating economic growth in less developed areas, such as the country's ethnic states.

MEDA’s project, funded by Global Affairs Canada, focuses on reaching 25,000 women farmers and entrepreneurs in two of these states – Southern Shan and Kayin. MEDA plans to increase access to these new opportunities in rural areas of the country, targeting women in select value chains with high growth potential. 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. As in other countries, women farmers in Myanmar have less access to land ownership but are able to access inputs, seeds, and extension services. However, gender differences in access to land and credit affect the relative ability of female farmers and entrepreneurs to invest, operate to scale, and benefit from growing market opportunities in their respective communities.

One approach MEDA plans to test in Myanmar will utilize ICT development to leverage the growing economic opportunities for women in the country and leapfrog traditionally male dominated systems of credit and farmer extension services. While this may seem far beyond the scope of one of the poorest countries in Asia, due in part to proximity to India and China, Myanmar is on a rapid pace of growth with a burgeoning class of entrepreneurs, many of whom brings skills learned abroad and the optimism for social change not unlike entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. Research shows access to mobile phones empowers women and leads to multiplier benefits for the household as well.

In fact, mobile technology could boost farmers’ productivity enough to increase agricultural income by US$138 billion by 2020 across global markets. 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. The most successful of these efforts will need to:

The bottom line? If customers don’t value the service, they will likely not pay.

On a recent visit to Myanmar, MEDA met with a few entrepreneurs that are designing new solutions for rural populations. Here are some of the most exciting new solutions currently in pilot or to be piloted in the next few months.burma blog pic 2

At this point the main limitations to launching some of these innovative products are the regulatory environment, a lack of liquidity and small network of agents, and limited telcom coverage in rural areas. And as Myanmar is one of the fastest growing markets for smartphones in the world, the range of mobile-based services offered through phones becomes exponential.   Examples of mobile based technology replacing cash based payment systems have already become successful in Kenya, Tanzania and the Philippines. Coupled with the widespread access to smartphones, Myanmar sits on a golden opportunity to become a global leader on increasing economic opportunities through technology.