Four years ago, Myanmar was the land of US$2,000 SIM cards. Today, more than half of all adults in Myanmar have smartphones because they cost only US$23 and data costs pennies. Mobile money has the potential to disrupt entrenched structures that have kept most people—especially women, ethnic minorities, and rural farmers—in deep poverty.

Mobilizing Myanmar, a research report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explores the momentous transformation underway in a once-isolated country where cell towers are now sprouting faster than bamboo.

The research team, led by Pwint Htun, conducted a country-level diagnostic that leveraged data from the Central Bank, Ministry of Communications, the three telecommunication companies operating in Myanmar, Facebook, Viber, a survey of 7,500 households, and recent census data from the UNFPA. They also talked with more than 150 people in rural and urban areas about their mobile phone usage, financial lives, challenges and hopes.  

Their findings reveal an ideal environment for a smartphone revolution to connect the poor with economic opportunity.  Digital Financial Services (DFS) would allow them not only to securely hold money, make deposits and withdrawals and save, but also to connect to markets, create income-generating opportunities and transmit and receive funds from family members working abroad.

Download the report here.

Enabling mobile financial services for Myanmar is my contribution back to the people of my homeland. I’m absolutely thrilled to be witnessing real life examples of people transacting to get money home safety.”  –Pwint Htun

Imagine the Possibilities

The Root Seller

Early mornings, as thousands of Myanmar day laborers stream over the border at Three Pagodas Pass to work in Thai factories, Tin Moe Sway stakes out a prime spot selling roots, fruits and curries-to-go. She earns 200-300 baht a day (US$5.70 – $8.60)—enough to afford a dual-SIM 3G phone that cost her about US$40. She saves to send money back home, carrying the cash on her body because she doesn’t have a bank account.

How DFS could help: Mobile money for remittances.

The Village Leader

Daw Kyi May, a rice farmer who has a fourth grade education, is a force who organized a women’s savings group in her village. Members pay two percent interest on loans, rather than outside lenders’ rate of 10% per month. With their savings, the group built a granary to store their harvest until prices are highest. With her mobile phone, Daw Kyi May calls dealers around the region to check what they’re paying.  Before mobile phones, she could only compare prices with dealers within walking distance. Now, the market has expanded. “We have a lot more power.”

How DFS could help: Savings group app; online sales of crops, digitizing agricultural value chain and extension services.

The Urban Migrant Workers

Many Myanmar migrants working in construction, cleaning, factories, fish markets and farms in Thailand are targets for robbery and assault by gangs, drive-bys and corrupt officials who threaten jail and deportation.

How DFS could help: Mobile wallet instead of carrying cash; remittances; ability to remit into interest earning saving account for themselves; app to activate crisis-network. (Currently they have no one to call in a crisis.)

Photo Credit: Paula Bock

Text excerpted from “Mobilizing Myanmar” report.