Kathryn Cave (Myanmar) - Rangoogle: Any Philanthropist's Dream…

In 1851, after trying unsuccessfully to clean up the smog in Bradford, Sir Titus Salt decided to build a model town for his mill workers. The aim was to better workers' lives and maximise production, by providing a school, bathhouses, hospital and church.... and banning drink. In many ways it was a dream project, delivering lasting fame (Saltaire was named after him and the river Aire), altruistic satisfaction and good capitalist sense...

Now the opening up of emerging markets appears to be giving large multinational companies similar opportunities. Take Google and Myanmar for example. Since 2004 Google has made bold commitments to philanthropy, whilst Myanmar has just emerged from a repressive military dictatorship. A match made in heaven? Last week, Google's Eric Schmidt was the first US executive to travel to the post-regime country... and used the opportunity to speak extensively about free speech.

It really is win-win. Myanmar can progress and Google can profit. And when the people of Myanmar are Googleing freely like the rest of the world perhaps Google could make bid to rename Rangoon Rangoogle? The potential is incredible, and few places offer the kind of completely untapped clean slate boasted by Myanmar. As one interviewee from own research put it, "Burmese companies are just at the nascent stage of their development and most of them don't even have access to the World Wide Web. Think about how much IT it would need to just bring them so that they can compete at the world stage." It is every philanthropist's dream...

Not surprisingly the foreign move into Myanmar has been rapid: USAID resumed work in the country last November with a visit from President Obama. There was a sponsored delegation of executives from Cisco Systems, Google, HP, Intel and Microsoft. And Google itself has been especially hard at work. On Wednesday it unblocked its app store to allow access from within Myanmar. On Thursday it launched a local version of its homepage: Then on Friday Schmidt presented himself at Rangoon university, championing free speech and progress, "Try to keep the government out of regulating the internet," he said to students, "The answer to bad speech is more speech. More communication. More voices... If you are a political leader you get a much better idea of what your citizens are thinking about." It seems the perfect move for Google to make.

Of course, Google is by no means the only company showing an interest in Myanmar, or offering up its philanthropy. Earlier this month, Cisco stated that it is planning on  setting up two technology training academies in the region. This is clearly smart thinking, as one local respondent from our survey explained, "IT is very popular within Myanmar as a commodity. However, there is poor infrastructure and grounding in the basics to be able to understand and develop the new and novel applications Myanmar needs to address its problems. Much is needed in the areas of education, training and development of standards."

The biggest opportunity in Myanmar though, is telecoms. The country has a population of 60-million, but mobile phone penetration is estimated at only 5%. Through two new licenses, the Myanmar government is reportedly hoping to achieve a mobile penetration rate of about 80% by 2016. Foreign companies are circling in droves.

All this interest means things are beginning to take off very quickly. Local banks are keen on forming joint ventures with foreign banks. Technology entrepreneurial awards are starting to spring up, offering start-up capital for new ventures. Whilst events like BarCamp, a gathering that originated in Silicon Valley, claims to be opening up the country via social media, facilitating the freedom of speech that Google champions.

This should be a good time for the country. As John Naing a Systems Administrator for Citrix Systems who plans to move home from the US put it, "For IT in the country, there is actually nothing really solid, almost no companies that are doing IT as a main business.... I think it's very open for any companies who start doing business."

It seems the only problem that could arise is if Myanmar doesn't take to all this philanthropy. Back in Saltaire, the spirit of rebellion is evident. Today this formerly dry town blows a raspberry at its founder by proudly calling its pub ‘Don't Tell Silas'...


By Kathryn Cave Editor at IDG Connect


Read IDG Connect's spotlight on Myanmar here.



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