Myanmar – land of the digital leapfrog! More phones than people! It’s all true, but stating that something is, is not the same as stating what it means. Does it mean that digital infrastructure is changing millions of lives every day? Yes, we’d say so. Does it mean rapid adoption of mobile applications by a great proportion of Myanmar’s 50-60M population? No, not really. Is there a range of startups successfully taking advantage of digital leapfrog Myanmar? There’s less of a “range” and more of a “few”. This post tries to lift the fog on Myanmar’s leapfrog headline and uncover some truths to success in this now famously digitising economy.
Let’s start with some basics from a macroeconomic perspective. Myanmar has the lowest income per capita of any SEA country. When incomes rise, people have a greater ability to consume. To begin with, most of this consumption is taken up with better food – meat and sugar consumption increases. But until incomes rise beyond around USD 3.5K (Indonesia today), people don’t tend to spend much more on non-essentials. At around USD 5K (China in 2010/11), things have changed significantly: people buy pets, vehicles and other luxuries. Myanmar is at USD 1.5K on average. That means the average person is giving one thing up to get another. Evidencing this point, one study of rural solar home systems (in Sub Saharan Africa) found people who bought the systems would then consume less meat and sugar.
This leads us to two observations: 1) let us think more about 10-20M then 50-60M people if we’re selling even a low-price product, because a lot of people just can’t afford new things. 2) If people are going to sacrifice nutrition to buy your product, it’s going to have to more value than a balanced diet. That’s some real value we’re talking about – in the example above, people with a solar lantern have clean light inside the home and avoid smoke and fuel costs and danger of fire. Even Candy Crush can’t compete with that. Unless selling to the very low income, people may not need to give up sustenance for your product but the concept remains: all decisions include giving up the next best option (opportunity cost) so you have to deliver tremendous value to have people choose your product / service. Indeed, the Irrawaddy recently stated that minimum wage earners spend 85% of their income on rent.
The next issue is best expressed in plain terms: if someone with limited education or need for an electronic device suddenly has one, they’re going to receive less immediate benefit from it than your average urban college kid because they simply won’t appreciate how to maximise its utility. People often talk about “customer education” – upskilling the customer to use your product. The conversation goes like this: “OK, it’s a good idea, but will people use it?”, “Yes, we just need to make sure we do a lot of customer education.”. That’s fine in principle, but education in general has huge free rider issues, as any garment factory owner can attest to. Example: If factory A provides training at a cost of $10 per person per month, factory B could hire the person for $5 per month more salary after they have been trained Factory A. In other words, customer education is expensive and there’s little guarantee you’ll see a return on your investment (you could teach customers to use your ride hailing app, but then they’re better equipped to use all ride hailing apps).
How then, do you create a product for the mass market that people will use? Let’s consider Bagan innovation Technology (BiT) (not an EME portfolio company). BiT have around 14M users of their Burmese language keyboard. They got into the market early with a solution that everyone needed. They also have a bookstore. To drive people to the bookstore, they leveraged monks and monasteries – places and people of education. Finally, they have a fortune-telling app that is growing exponentially – BiT tapped into something people are already spending money on and made it cheaper and more efficient. In summary, to reach millions you have to offer something useful, better than the alternative and that people find true value in. The key is “people”: unless you fully understand your customer, you can’t know what they will value.
A final point on reaching scale in Myanmar. In fact, in Southeast Asia because this isn’t unique to Myanmar. There is a lot of reason to consider offline and online approaches to reach or maintain customers. Tech has leapfrogged, but trust is catching up and offline approaches are easier to trust in (see a person, touch a product, go somewhere to get service, etc.) Just look at Shop.com.mm with their agent model or bricks and mortar shop, or BiT who initially reached customers through monks. The same is happening in Indonesia with Bukalapak agents or Storeking in India. People often don’t want to consider the expense of being offline and there’s little hype around opening shops (versus launching apps) but in markets where trust is limited and exposure to technology is still new, there’s a good reason to go beyond Facebook marketing to scale. That reason is: unless you innovate in how you reach and maintain customers not just your product, you’re unlikely to succeed in this economy.
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