A Bay Area Flavor to Development in Myanmar
By: Michael Blakeley
I recently returned from Yangon, Myanmar (“Burma” to some) where my company, Nathan Associates Inc., is implementing a private sector development program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We are one of handful of companies that helping donors organize resources to provide much-needed development assistance in Myanmar following the end of the military junta and subsequent relief of sanctions by the U.S. and others in 2011.
During my visit, which preceded a visit by President Obama, I noticed a distinct “Bay Area-ness” to the approaches development practitioners were taking to encourage economic development.
For starters, there is no shortage of emphasis on “entrepreneurship” – something that is simply part of our DNA here in the Bay Area. In emerging economies like Myanmar, micro and small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) typically represent over 80% of all companies, and are significant contributors to GDP and employment. Most MSMEs were started and continue to be owned by individuals or entrepreneurs. The focus on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship is rooted in the simple reality that many individuals in developing countries go into business out of economic necessity. These “necessity-driven” entrepreneurs are to Myanmar what we in the Bay Area would call early stage investors. The sentiment of donors in Myanmar is that supporting entrepreneurship will not only provide economic opportunities, but will help create new companies that can fill the huge gaps of goods and services the country needs to develop.
Another Bay Area characteristic is the presence of incubators and accelerators to help individuals start businesses. Our firm is supporting an incubator started by a young couple from Singapore and others exist (Ideabox Myanmar, Myanmar Innovation Greenhouse and Project Hub Yangon to name a few). They are not all supporting tech-preneurs. One success story is a college student that started a tea house, which are about as common in Myanmar as a pizza joint here. With an extremely weak regulatory environment and limited access to capital, it may not make sense to invest resources in companies that will eventually operate in a growth-constraining environment but there they are.
We recently supported a hackathon in Yangon with 117 participants. You don’t get much more Bay Area than that! Lest you think that a country closed to the Western world for over 50 years could in short order produce an ecosystem of techies happy to lock themselves in a room for 24 hours, there they were. That wasn’t even the first, there have been several hackathons, barcamps and co-working spaces are springing up as well. Nathan Associates works with the whole ecosystem to support entrepreneurs and SMEs (small and medium enterprises) as part of our overall objective of supporting economic growth in Myanmar. Beyond the work in Myanmar, Nathan Associates also funds 4 fellowships for outstanding Myanmar graduate students to travel to the U.S. and participate in educational, policy and business training (similar to what we in the Bay Area call “boot camps”).
Across Yangon there is a Bay Area buzz, an energy, a vibration. I didn’t feel I was in the Bay Area but I could smell it. From a tech guru who is launching an innovation hub in Yangon to the fact that my car from the airport had wifi (when even some of the major hotels have only intermittent access), the Bay Area flavor is all around.
The bottom line for me is this: the Bay Area has been so successful at innovation, job creation and raising incomes it comes as no surprise that in Myanmar (and most of the world) people are looking here for solutions that address address huge and important problems. That bodes well for the future of our region as a player in the international development space and offers fantastic opportunities for us and for them. Embracing the best of the Bay Area’s ability to drive and support entrepreneurs as they create local solutions and business models is just what Myanmar needs as it makes this rapid transition. It is an exciting time for the people of Myanmar and I cannot wait to see what they will create.
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Michael Blakeley is the Managing Director of the Enterprise and Industry Development group at Nathan Associates Inc., a global consulting firm. He is an expert in international trade and business strategy, and has worked for more than 18 years in economic development and emerging markets for both public and private sector clients. At Nathan Associates Mr. Blakeley has designed and directed long term poverty reduction programs in more than 10 countries covering Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most recently he has served as an advisor for the firm’s portfolio of development programs in Southeast Asia, including managing an office in Thailand. Prior to his work at Nathan Associates, Mr. Blakeley owned and operated a trading firm that exported goods worldwide. He is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, part of several local organizations including the World Affairs Council, and previously served on the Board of the Foundation for Sustainable Development.