Global viewpoint from Myanmar
A view from Graham Stewart

Global viewpoint from Myanmar

Few items can be more quickly discarded on arriving in Myanmar than an out-of-date travel guide.

Such has been the pace of change in the country formerly known as Burma that even guidebooks published four years ago will give you an entirely false perception of a market that, in the blink of a telecoms revolution, has changed beyond all recognition.

It’s not only the surge in car ownership or the proliferation of the previously absent ATMs on the streets of the commercial capital, Yangon, that the guide will have ill-prepared you. In place of the state-run media monopoly, you will now find a market for information stocked by 200 licensed weekly news journals – 20 of them major titles.

The printed matter piling up on the pavement newsstands is as nothing to the volume of data being shared across 3G. In 2013, SIM cards in Myanmar cost $1,000 each. You can now buy them from any street vendor for $1.50. And unlike in 2013 (when less than 5 per cent of the population had access to a mobile phone and seeking out a decent signal kept you fit), there is someone who can actually answer your call.

The majority of Myanmar's teens want technology styled in their distinctively Burmese way

So, what are they doing with their smartphones? Accessing social media is the special draw for the nearly half of Myanmar’s 51 million people who are aged under 24. In a country with an economy forecast to continue to grow at 7-8 per cent annually, their user data can surely only become catnip for advertisers.

They are also the generation choosing to communicate and share information through social media apps rather than e-mail. So you might reasonably expect Facebook and WhatsApp to dominate from one end of the Irrawaddy river to the next.

And they are making good progress. But Mandalay isn’t Manhattan. The vast majority of Myanmar’s teens and twenty-somethings want technology styled in their distinctively Burmese way. A good example is the gains being made by MySquar and its messaging app, MyChat. The country’s only Myanmar-language and design-based online platform has already won more than half-a-million users in its first 12 months, and is projected to add another five million by 2017. MySquar’s confidence is reflected in its opting for an initial IPO on London’s AIM stock market.

Can loyalty be built through the appeal of language and localism, rather than the universalism offered by the global market leaders? The evidence from Myanmar’s neighbours suggests it can. If MySquar can also sustain its local knowledge in its supporting gaming apps to entertain the parts that imported media cannot reach, then the guidebook to the world’s last great telecoms frontier will soon require another revision.

Graham Stewart is the managing director at Bell Pottinger Myanmar