Innovation Calls

From an Irrawaddy farmer to a banker in Yangon’s financial district, smartphone technology is changing the way Myanmar communications.

Pwint Htun was one of Prospect Burma’s earliest scholarship recipients, and has gone on to do extraordinary things for Myanmar, changing the face of telecommunications and revolutionising the way people are able to communicate. An advocate for digital and universal financial inclusion, Pwint has worked as an advisor to the Omidyar Network and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (World Bank). As well as her BSc in Electrical Engineering from University of Washington, she also holds a Masters of Engineering Management from Northwestern University, and Executive Education training from Harvard Business School. She recently co-authored a report on technological developments in the country called “Mobilizing Myanmar”. Prospect Burma asked Pwint to tell us why she thinks that technology and education is key to Myanmar’s future

As a Prospect Burma Alumus and as a Burmese-American executive in technology and innovation, I have been contributing towards the mobile connectivity revolution in my homeland since 2012.

“As recently as 2012, Myanmar was isolated and the third least connected country in the world. Rapid adoption of mobile phone technology over the past five years has dramatically changed the landscape. Today, mobile coverage in Myanmar reaches over 90 percent of the population with 54 million mobile connections for a population of nearly the same number. Teledensity (the amount of telephone connections in any given area) has surpassed 104% and is one of the fastest growing markets in the world. More than 83 percent of households in Myanmar have mobile phones. More than half of all adults have smartphones because it is possible to purchase a no-brand smartphone for less than $23. Even in the most remote areas, alternative energy sources is making it possible for people to access electricity. Villagers can use inexpensive solar panels to charge mobile phones; so a 35-watt solar panel costs less than $28 and can power two light bulbs and a mobile phone.”

According to Pwint, this dramatic uptake of mobile technology in the country, over a short period of time, is helping make great changes. Not least, access for people from remote rural areas is creating greater opportunities than ever before.

“Digital financial services could transform the lives of poor and marginalized peoples in Myanmar, providing a path out of poverty. Digital financial tools would allow them not only to securely hold money, make deposits and withdrawals and save, but also to connect to markets, create income-generating opportunities and transmit and receive funds from family members working abroad and to create a safety net.

“Myanmar is the poorest country in Southeast Asia with the most underdeveloped financial system in the region. Approximately 37.5 percent of the population lives below the global poverty threshold of $1.90 per day. Inaccessible financial structures have kept people—especially rural women, ethnic minorities, and farmers—in perpetual poverty. There are now skilled and highly motivated companies offering mobile financial services in Myanmar connecting urban and rural populations together and allowing opportunities for more capital to flow into rural areas. The combination of inexpensive smartphones, the rapid expansion of rural connectivity, technology adoption among a disproportionately high number of youth and the rural population, all combine to create a crucial tipping point.”

The development of technology is not only affecting businesses and workers, it can drastically alter access to education too.

“The average level of schooling that children reach in Myanmar is around year five. There is an opportunity to create a Myanmar language continuing education portal app for children who had to drop out of school for economic reasons. Smartphones can be used to target these children to continue to pursue education through self-paced learning; if ministry of education were to allow those dropped out of school to take self-paced learning through education app and youtube videos, and take standardized exams at a later time.

“In many developing countries, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) play an important role in development. They contribute to a large part of output, employment, and growth. There is also an opportunity to create online educational portal for vocational education training, entrepreneurial and occupational skills building delivered through smartphones to foster SMEs across the rural and urban population.

“As the telecommunications revolution, social networks and mobile financial services have proven, connectivity and mobile financial services are like glue that brings people together. Connecting an entire nation – both urban and rural areas – digitally and financially is a nation-building effort. People anywhere in the country are now connected with each other through voice, data and financially. It is now as effortless to talk, text with or to transfer money to a farmer in remote village in Irrawaddy, as to internally displaced persons in Kachin State, or to a business person in Mandalay. This new connectivity can lead to enormous opportunities to, for example, equalize educational and income opportunities for those living in rural areas. It can help bring about social transformation, and raise health awareness.

“Technology can be a driving force for change in education if only searchable, culturally relevant content in Myanmar’s languages are created. Overdrive, Kindle, Audible and the Great Courses apps have allowed ebooks and audiobooks to reach anyone around the world. Apps such as Voice Dream allows any written text to be converted to speech allowing accessibility for visually impaired and dyslexic learners. Technology like every tool is double-edged. If used properly, every smartphone can be a library and a source of knowledge connecting user with limitless educational resources.”

Pwint remains pragmatic about what the country needs for sustained change, and believes that ongoing investment in skills – such as the work PB does – is vital.

“Between the mid-1990s and 2011, less than 1 percent of the GDP of Myanmar was invested in health and education combined. While Myanmar may have received much donor generosity and attention from the world in the past year, my country’s most precious resource – human resources – has been left far behind for decades. I would like to appeal to donors to please invest in developing human resources of my homeland. Investing in human resources takes time, and those investments do pay off.

“If Prospect Burma hadn’t invested in me back in mid-90’s, I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to telecommunications deregulation, building up technology and digital financial services, that have brought change for people of my homeland.”