This doesn’t seem like a place for entrepreneurs.
At the centre of Yangon, there stands the giant gold Shwedagon Pagoda. In the early evening, the people of Yangon gather after work, climb the steps and circle the base flames with candles and pray. There is a serenity here that reflects the place as I experience it for the first time. Calm, gentle and unassuming.
Indeed, the world view of the people here seems so removed from what we know in developed markets. Here less than 1% of the population has access to the internet and only 5% have a mobile phone. It wasn’t long ago that people needed buy a SIM card on the black market for prices up to $2,000. Here, the average teenager does not send 3,300 texts per month, nor does a YouTube channel about Minecraft walkthroughs have more than 5.5 million subscribers.
If I imagine myself in 1992 before I had a mobile and only the the first taste of the internet, I could not imagine the screens of apps that I use on my iPhone, that I run a global business entirely in the cloud on a tiny budget, that I only watch video over the internet, that I stream any song I feel like wherever I happen to be, that armies of people help me get stuff done via crowdsourcing, that I measure how much I sleep and move via an internet-connected device on my wrist.
But peel back the first layer in Myanmar and the changes begin to show. There are cellphone towers going up all over the place. Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo have just been issued licenses to operate mobile networks and fast 3G is coming. By the middle of the year, everything will rapidly shift. The people of Myanmar will not experience the ‘slow’ crawl of progress that we did. No dial-up modems with HTML 1.0 websites viewed with Netscape browsers. No desktop PCs with VGA monitors. No. Straight to fast wireless connectivity through powerful yet cheap Android smartphones.
Not only does the technology have no legacy habits to hold back adoption of the new stuff, but there is little in the way of cable networks, retail chains, banking products, media companies. I’ve been thinking a lot about what technologies like Bitcoin would do in a place like this.
Peel back another layer and you see that there are people in Myanmar that already understand this. This weekend I was at Barcamp Yangon. It is the biggest Barcamp in the world and had more than 8,000 registrations.
Here we see the emerging cultural overlay of entrepreneurship. Here find an army of young people wearing sloganed t-shirts hustling to share what they know with their peers.
Most impressive was the talk by Thar Htet called Myanmar needs Entrepreneurs (You). He kept a packed crowd (by the time he was done there was no standing room left, never mind the seats) enthralled with what will happen to Myanmar if people step up to entrepreneurship and what it will take to grow an ecosystem.
As soon as people like Thar Htet get involved at the grassroots and start talking about ecosystems because they are passionate about them, the on-switch is truly engaged. Here is is slide, introducing the themes. You realise that it is more than the technology that will be booting up pretty quickly.
I’ll leave you with a parting thought from Rita Nguyen, the founder of Myanmar’s social network, Squar.
“Sixty million people falling out of the sky–you’re not going to see that again in our generation.”