Myanmar is undergoing obvious and substantial changes in its policies of reform, and the country is facing new economic opportunities. While studying the usage and perceptions of financial services in Yangon, I found myself encountering small changes that will herald a new era for financial services in Myanmar – mobile phones.
Having worked in Myanmar for over three years, I anticipated seeing how the country had changed in the past year since I’d been gone. I’d been told that most changes were at the policy level, leaving little to see on the ground. But upon exiting the airport I was greeted with an unexpected site – a row of new taxis flanked by drivers all chatting on new mobile phones. Only three years ago, the mobile phone penetration rate of Myanmar was one of the lowest in the world – around 5% – with exorbitant prices of US$2,500 or higher for a SIM card and basic handset.
Moreover, the phones they were using were new – touch phones, phones like those we’re all familiar with. As the days progressed, I found that in shops and malls and on every street in Yangon, phone users and phone sellers had sprung up. This should be promising for anyone interested in mobile payment platforms.
Historically, phone calls have been key to Myanmar’s informal payment systems. Using an informal agent system called a ‘Hundi Network’, money could be transferred from one person to another – essentially on credit – by one agent promising the other for repayment. But with cell phones in hand, agents are no longer bound by landlines and people may soon no longer be bound by agents.
While I was in Yangon, the first telecoms licenses were issued to Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo. The news was electric, with rumors flying about how rapidly new infrastructure could be built in the country. With the role of phones already historically connected to money transfers, and the continued explosion of mobile phone usage, mobile payment technology is the clear next step. It’s only a matter of time.