Updated on 27 May 2020
The history of Myanmar is full of twist and turn. After emerging from 5 decades of isolation, the country is often referred to as the last frontier market in Asia. Since 2011, it has experienced a strong inflow of foreign investment and stellar annual GDP growth. The explosive adoption of mobile phone and internet by the people are extremely favorable for the startup ecosystem.
Image Source: Unsplash
The market condition
Myanmar is a country with a colorful history which few others can match. It is a tale of riches to rags and now working her way back to riches. Under the British colonial rule, it was one of the richest countries in Southeast Asia. The country gained independence in 1948, and it was under military rule from 1961 to 2011. Myanmar was rated the least free country in Asia in 2009, sharing the same spot with North Korea. As recent as 2010, Transparency International ranked Myanmar as the second most corrupt country in the world after Somalia.
The reform that started in 2011 has had tremendous positive impact on the country’s foreign relations and economy. Former U.S. President Obama visited the country in 2012, becoming the first U.S. President to do so. Foreign businesses and investors who have largely stayed away from Myanmar in the past started arriving in droves. International property agency Colliers stated that Yangon in 2014 had the highest average monthly office rent in the region, higher than the average office rents of all Southeast Asian cities, including Singapore.
|Total Population in 2010 (million)||54.23|
|Mobile Phone Connections in 2020 (%)*||126%|
|Internet Users in 2020 (%)*||41%|
|Social Media Adoption in 2020 (%)*||41%|
|GDP Growth in 2019 (%)||6.8%|
* Source: Hootsuite Digital 2020 – Internet Users Penetration and Mobile Phone Connections vs Population
As comparison, the World Bank reported that the internet penetration was 0.25% in 2010 and 0.98% in 2011.
With all the recent positive developments that has happened in Myanmar in the last 10 years, the startup ecosystem is thriving. Startups are popping up, and each of them are eager to solve the country’s problems.
Myanmar tech startups
It is hard for us to not compare Myanmar’s startup ecosystem to its neighbors Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In Southeast Asia, startups in e-commerce, fintech, and ride-hailing have taken the top spots in terms of growth and valuation. It is worth nothing that Southeast Asian tech unicorns have largely stayed outside of Myanmar’s market, except for Grab. Rocket Internet has also left Myanmar in 2018 to focus its resources on its other Southeast Asian markets. On 1 April 2018, Rocket Internet closed its four online services Work.com.mm, House.com.mm, Ads.com.mm and Motor.com.mm.
There are hundreds of active startups in Myanmar, and we will not be able to cover all them. Here is a short list of exiting startups that we have been following.
Funding: US$92.90 million
Investors: Yoma, Telenor, and Ant Financial
Wave Money is arguably the most well-funded tech company in Myanmar. The company was started as a joint venture between Yoma Bank and Telenor Group in 2015.
Yoma Bank is one the largest privately owned commercial banks in the country founded in 1993 by returning Burmese, Serge Pun. As of 2020, the bank counts International Finance Corporation and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund GIC among its shareholders. Telenor is a Norwegian telecommunication company who was awarded mobile phone network contract in Myanmar in 2013. On top of these two large companies that are backing the fintech startup, Alibaba’s Ant Financial has announced an investment of US$ 73.50 million in 2020.
Wave Money’s business model is instant money transfer supported by network of offline agents. App users can top-up and withdraw money from their accounts by visiting offline agents. This is very convenient in Myanmar where large population of the people are unbanked. Some people are also more comfortable with this offline agent approach than using ATMs, as shown on one of the testimonials in Wave Money’s website: “… there are still problems as often the ATM is out of service, the card gets swallowed by the machine or the money doesn’t come out even though the account was debited.”
Shop.com.mm is part of Rocket Internet-launched e-commerce company Daraz, which was acquired by Alibaba in 2018. It is currently the most popular e-commerce site in Myanmar based on Alexa ranking. Shop.com.mm is an e-commerce marketplace like its more famous cousin Lazada with features and layouts that are almost indistinguishable. Shop.com.mm offers digital goods such as game and mobile phone top up vouchers. Users will also find Shop Mart which offers online grocery services.
According to a report by Thailand-based Kasikorn Bank, the size of e-commerce market in Myanmar was merely US$6 million in 2018, but it is expected to experience strong growth and expansion in the following 5 years. As of 2019, the online marketplace did not take commission to attract sellers, and Shop.com.mm also has a partnership with Yoma bank to offer its merchants business loans.
In September 2019, Myanmar Times reported that most people in Myanmar prefer to shop on Facebook, rather than an e-commerce marketplace. Brand owners and distributors use Facebook to sell to directly to customers online, bypassing traditional retailers.
Vertical: Travel Booking and Ride-Hailing
Funding: US$31.2 million
Investors: Daiwa PI Partners, International Finance Corporation, and Northstar Group
Image Source: e27
Oway is a startup focusing on travel, ride-hailing, and payment service. The company was founded in 2011 by Nay Aung, an ex-Googler who graduated from Stanford. The company has received funding from international investors including Northstar Group, Daiwa PI Partners, and International Finance Corporation.
In 2019, its founder disclosed that transportations, which includes car rentals and ride-hailing, accounted for 40% of the startups business. The company has largely focused on regions outside Yangon for its ride-hailing service to avoid heavy competition with Grab. In an interview with Deal Street Asia in 2019, its CEO, Alok Kumar, explained that Oway has the biggest market share for ride-hailing in Mandalay, Bagan, Pwin O Lwin, and Mawlaymine. He also claimed that its ride-hailing business is close to profitability.
On top of developing its own e-wallet, Oway accepts Wave Money and Ongo. The company also maintain a good relationship Telenor, where they work together to offer free wifi on Oway’s three-wheeler tuk-tuk service.
Vertical: Digital Commerce and Fintech
Investors: BOD Tech Ventures
Get creates point of sale app that allows its users to become microentrepreneurs who can sell air tickets, bus tickets, hotel vouchers, tours, and mobile phone top ups offline on their communities. In February 2020, GET acquired Myanmar-based micro loan provider Daung Capital. Daung Capital was last valued at US$12 million when it received investment from Singapore-based investor Majuven in 2019.
Through the acquisition of Daung Capital, GET hoped to offer a unified solution to micro-entrepreneurs in the country.
Vertical: Property platform
Funding: US$3 million
Investors: Emerging Markets Investment, Vostok New Ventures, and 500 Startups
Shwe Property is the oldest online property platform in Myanmar. The startup hopes to monetize on the booming property market in Myanmar and the quick adoption of internet by the population. Between 2015 and 2019, over 300 new condominiums and 1,200 affordable housing development projects was launched in Myanmar. It was estimated that 85% of real estate agents advertise online.
As banks are starting to offer more home loans, and insurance companies are introducing home insurance, Shwe Property has become the one stop portal for home buyers. Shwe Property maintains working relationship with the financial institutions, home developers, and property agents. The startup is also actively conducting property expos and offline events. As of February 2020, Shwe Property has over 100,000 active property listings on its platform.
Investors: Cocoon Capital and GSMA
Image Source: e27
Karzo is a logistics marketplace that function as Uber for trucks. The startup connects truck drivers with small and large businesses. It is trying to solve the issue faced by thousands of Burmese drivers who have under-utilized trucks and businesses who wants reliable, trackable, and cost-effective trucking service.
By adopting the Karzo app, drivers can save time on marketing, and hopefully earn more money by completing more orders. ADB estimated that the size of inter-city freight market in Myanmar will grow from US$1.9 billion in 2020 to US$4.3 billion in 2030.
Although Karzo’s business model is new in Myanmar, it has been validated in other countries around the region. Indonesian-based Kargo Technologies is an example of startup that is trying to solve similar problem, and it has raised over US$38 million as of May 2020. Malaysia’s Thelorry.com has raised more than US$7 million and expanded its operation to Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia.
Active investors in Myanmar
After the opening of Myanmar’s economy, investors started arriving to look for opportunities in the last frontier market. These investors come not only to invest in tech startups, but they also invest in infrastructure projects and local companies. Here is a short list of active Myanmar tech startup investors that we have been following.
With the acquisition of Shop.com.mm (Daraz) in 2018 and Ant Financial’s investment into Wave Money in 2020, Alibaba has established itself as one of Myanmar’s biggest tech investors. Although the size of e-commerce market in Myanmar Is still small, most people are bullish on the prospect. Shop.com.mm is undoubtedly the top e-commerce platform in Myanmar as of 2020.
Emerging Markets Entrepreneur
Emerging Markets Entrepreneur is an early stage Myanmar-focused venture capital firm. It invests in businesses that are contributing to Myanmar’s development. The venture capital invests between US$50,000 to US$250,000 in up to three rounds in its portfolio companies. The venture capital counts United Managers Japan (UMJ) and Dutch Good Growth Fund among its investors. Singapore-based private equity firm Emerging Markets Investment is also an investor in the seed venture capital fund.
CarsDB, Ezay, and YGNbroom are some of the startups its portfolio.
Daiwa PI Partners
Daiwa established US$30 million Myanmar-focused growth fund in 2019 with investment from Taiyo Life insurance company. Daiwa Myanmar Growth Fund planned to invest in consumer goods, telecommunication and logistics infrastructure, and service-related sectors. It aims to take significant minority stake in each investment to secure meaningful influence on the corporate governance of each portfolio company.
Prior to the establishment of the Daiwa Myanmar Growth Fund, Daiwa had been actively investing in Myanmar from its own principal fund. Daiwa has invested in Oway, Frontiir, and Rent 2 Own in 2017 and 2018.
Seed Myanmar is a Myanmar-focused venture capital that invest in early stage technology startups. Seed Myanmar claimed that member of its investment committed were Burmese startup founders themselves; hence, they have a good knowledge of the Myanmar market and its unique challenges.
Some of the startups that Seed Myanmar has invested in are Karzo, Flexible Pass, and Better HR.
BOD Tech Ventures
BOD Tech Ventures is an early-stage venture capital and venture builder who is active in Myanmar, Cambodia, and Bangladesh. Its portfolio companies include online travel agency Flymya, digital commerce startup Get, and food delivery platform YangonD2D.
The venture capital focused on investing in tech-enabled businesses within logistics, travel, finance, education, micro-retail, and omni-channel e-commerce.
Phandeeyar Accelerator is a startup accelerator, but it has invested in over 15 startups from its own balance sheet since 2015, with ticket size of around US$25,000. At the end of 2019, the accelerator disclosed its plan to raise some external capital to make more early stage investments.
The founder of Shwe Property, Justin Sway, and the founder of Oway, Nay Aung, are some of the mentors who are active in Phandeeyar Accelerator. The accelerator has also formed strategic partnerships with Telenor and Wave Money.
Where is the next unicorn?
Myanmar has attracted tech investments from well-regarded international tech players and investors, including Alibaba. The country has one of the highest GDP growth in Southeast Asia, a young population, and explosive rate of internet and technology adoption. All the variables are conducive for startups to grow; however, we are probably still a few years away from seeing a unicorn in Myanmar.
To put things in perspective, Thailand whose GDP per capita is more than 5x of Myanmar and has comparable population size have not seen a unicorn startup yet. Political development in Myanmar since 2017 has also caused reduction in the flow of foreign investments. Although no one appears to avoid investing in the country, investors have been more cautious.
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