Myanmar’s Economic Revolution

By Jordan Coriza

Accion DAWN Myanmar group

On a grey day on the tail end of monsoon season in Yangon, Myanmar, a group of women gather in an office. Among them are many trades—fishing, carpentry, weaving, farming and manufacturing, to name a few. But the women all have one thing in common—they need financing to expand their businesses.

The financial services industry in Myanmar is so nascent that most entrepreneurs who need capital are forced to turn to informal arrangements such as expensive moneylenders. But these women have the benefit of participating in a group-lending circle. The circle provides very small loans, some as low as US$60, to help the entrepreneurs in the group build their livelihoods, one small step at a time.

Myanmar itself, meanwhile, has recently taken giant steps forward. With a new government in place as of April 2016 and trading begun on its first stock exchange in March, Myanmar is opening itself up to the rest of the world after 50 years of isolation. Foreign investors are racing to gain a foothold in Myanmar. The mobile phone market grew 300 percent last year alone among a population eager to connect. SIM card prices dropped dramatically—from US$2,000 to US$1.50 in 2014—and Myanmar is now the third fastest-growing mobile market in the world (after India and China).

But what does this mean for the country’s economy? Recently, banks have begun to team up with network operators to offer mobile access to their bank accounts through apps and SMS. The potential for this service, along with explosive growth of the industry itself, has huge implications for customers who may do business hours away from a bank branch, or who need to send money in the region but have no efficient means to do so, or who, like the women in the lending circle, need basic banking services in a country where mobile phone service is expanding a lot faster than banking.

Among the many new providers working to reach that underserved population, Accion partner DAWN, a microfinance institution focused on group lending for women, has been active in the space since 2002. Now, DAWN is poised to take advantage of the recent influx of foreign interest, investment and new business—and use it to better serve its 60,000-plus clients. DAWN is opening new branches for its growing base of entrepreneurs and introducing new products to meet their evolving needs. As DAWN and others across the region are seeing, Myanmar’s small businesses are improving alongside its economy.

Although the industry is young and the country’s public infrastructure is still developing, mobile banking providers and players such as DAWN are uniquely positioned to leapfrog years of seclusion in Myanmar with exciting new technologies and business models, designed with the shared goal of improving the lives of many people for a country in need.

This post originally appeared on The Wall Street Journal’s Multipliers of Prosperity, in partnership with the MetLife Foundation.

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