Frontier Markets to Discover: What Really Matters

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The recent political and economic reforms have made Myanmar one of the most attractive destinations in Southeast Asia for investors.

Myanmar 1

Few are the countries today that have undergone the transformation of the magnitude seen in today’s Myanmar, formerly called Burma till 1989. In 2012, at the outset of this change process, The Economist noted that “it doesn’t happen every day that a country of 60m people in the most dynamic region of the world is suddenly open for business.” Although today’s count indicates that the population is closer to 55 million, the message remains the same: a vast new frontier market with exciting opportunities has recently opened its doors to the world.

Myanmar, meaning ‘quick and hardy,’ is a traditional Burmese word used to replace the former country’s name in order to shred the remains of its old colonial heritage. Traditionally secluded from the outer world by mountains and sea, this resource-rich country is strategically located between India and China.

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Since long-standing trade and investment sanctions were lifted in 2012, Myanmar has quickly repositioned itself from a ‘rice bowl’ of the Southeast Asia as ‘the next tiger economy’. Big offshore exploration blocks opened up, the major oil players started rushing in, real estate prices sky-rocketed, the expat community expanded, and investment across all sectors soared in less than two years.

The telecoms story is illustrative of the country’s recent leap. Last year Myanmar was described as ‘the world’s biggest telecom desert,’ with less telephony usage than North Korea, or Cuba. In 2013, one person in 10 in Myanmar had a mobile phone, as compared to a 70 percent penetration rate in Cambodia and 87 percent in Laos. Myanmar is expected to reach 50 percent mobile phone penetration by 2014-15, and the country’s ambitious goal is to boost its telecommunications coverage to 80 percent by 2016.

Qatar Telecom’s (QTEL) Ooredoo won one of the two Myanmar’s telecoms licenses. Last year, Myanmar was one of the world’s last untapped telecommunications markets and now it is expected to become Ooredoo’s second biggest market after Indonesia. “We launched a new platform to enhance the 3G network in August 2014 and few months later we have millions of subscribers and counting. The pace of change here really stands out,” said Zeeshan Riaz, Head of Operations for Huawei MS – Ooredoo Myanmar. “It’s been like a roller coaster ride but we are thrilled to be a part of the process. We had to deliver a brand new service to a large consumer group, and at the same time satisfy quality requirements. Now we are managing the operations in good faith and keep the momentum going with high motivation level.”

Myanmar is abundant in natural resources inclusive of oil, gas, gold, silver, and biodiversity, to name a few – apparently only three countries in the world have more extensive tropical forests. Myanmar’s oil reserves are a subject of wild speculation and experts believe that they could match those of the North Sea or even Brazil. Optimistic projections expect Myanmar’s GDP to triple or even quadruple by the 2020. Equally important is the fact that country’s leadership has demonstrated a radical mindset shift in regards to the environmental issues in order to avoid common pitfalls of a fast growing economy.

These recent political and economic reforms have made Myanmar one of the most attractive destinations in Southeast Asia in terms of incentives for investors, labeled by some international investors as the best investment opportunity in the world (such as Jim Rogers, oilprice.com). At the same time, the Lonely Planet has ranked Myanmar as one of the top 10 countries in the world to visit.

Ease of interaction is often what ultimately determines investment climate in any market. Isolated from the rest of the world by natural geographical barriers and long-standing sanctions, Myanmar has had very limited business ties with the outside world in comparison to its neighbors. Considering these factors, ease of business interactions stands out in Myanmar, as does education level and English speaking ability across most societal segments in commercial hubs like Yangon. Buddhism drives the value system and interaction patterns which are characterized with humbleness, politeness and respect. However unlike in most ‘traditional’ cultures, there are very few protocols and rules of interactions and relationship building. People are open and easy to approach. They are business-minded and keen to establish ties with the rest of the world as well as import ideas, experiences and products that the country needs to take off. Most are sincerely patriotic and many have returned to Myanmar over the past two years with a vision of being a part of this process and making the country stronger, and not just in pursuit of personal goals.  Importantly, the recent reforms have a potential to bring millions out of poverty quickly. This potential is felt and experienced in everyday interactions, driving optimism and enthusiasm.

(About the Author: Ivana Beveridge is a Partner at Sunrise International Education)

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