As Myanmar opens up, will mobile money emerge?

Cell phone–based money systems have been wildly successful in some countries like Kenya, while other places have ignored mobile money trials entirely. Why? To transact is universal, but how and why we transact is inherently local – new mobile money services require a foundational understanding of local consumer needs as well as deep knowledge of the regulatory environment and the right technology.

Last month a team from Myanmar-based Proximity Designs, design strategy consultancy frog and Studio D Radiodurans started a journey to map the changing financial landscape in Myanmar. Our aim over the two-month project — funded by the Institute for Money, Technology and Financial Inclusion — is to understand the formal and informal ways in which the poor transact, save and invest.

The same sum in gold or cash, in Monywa, Myanmar

The same sum in gold or cash, in Monywa, Myanmar

Over this period, the team will traverse the country, use services and interview dozens of farmers, traders, and day-laborers. These are people for whom the current formal financial instruments that each of us take for granted are mostly out of reach. Our findings will provide a foundational understanding to develop future services that could meet the financial needs of the poor.

Myanmar is at a special moment in its history: sanctions have been eased, the economy has opened up, there’s been significant inward investment and land value has increased dramatically. In some areas, property is more expensive than it is in nearby Singapore.

Migrant stall holder, Lashio, Myanmar

Migrant stall holder, Lashio, Myanmar

Combine that with a cell phone penetration rate that’s supposed to rise by 50 percent over the next three years (from the small 12 percent it is today) and 3G wireless networks under development that will enable access to mobile computing for the first time. The country will have new choices, options and opportunities around money like never before.

Our research is focused on understanding the complexity of this shift and trying to answer a myriad of questions:

  • What are the current needs of a society that is primarily agrarian?
  • How will these needs shift as urbanization increases?
  • How has a turbulent and unpredictable economic and political history shaped the expectations and behaviors of the people of Myanmar?
  • In a nation that is mostly Buddhist (with growing religious minorities) yet multi-ethnic, what roles do religion and ethnicity play in how people spend, save and borrow?
  • When a largely agrarian society uses the lunar calendar and harvest schedules as yardsticks of measure, how does a wholly different notion of time affect the meanings of “long-term,” “savings” and “debt”?
  • For a cash-centric nation in which airplane tickets are still handwritten on paper and internet connectivity (if it exists) is dependent on weather, where does the opportunity lie for technologically mediated/enabled financial tools?
A home in Lashio, Myanmar

A home in Lashio, Myanmar

Money and practices around money are never easy to research, and Myanmar presents particular challenges. The subject of income and savings is a taboo the world over, forcing any team researching the subject to come up with innovative ways to build an accurate picture.

Myanmar’s tumultuous and unpredictable political and economic past looms large under the surface. As an example, in both 1982 and 1987, a number of banknotes were removed from circulation, rendering some people’s savings worthless overnight. The ceasefire between the central government and ethnic regions is still fragile.

A home in Lashio, Myanmar.

A home in Lashio, Myanmar

While there is not the widespread NGO fatigue found in neighboring countries, some in Myanmar are still wary of outsiders. Industries, like mining, that are making their way into Myanmar are also shy of probing questions from foreigners. All these factors make for an interesting research challenge.

Myanmar is strategically wedged between China to the northeast and India to the west. Those are countries that are garnering political, economic and environmental attention worldwide and for whom the significance of Myanmar’s development goes beyond neighborly interest. How will Myanmar develop from here? For each comparison that is made to countries such as Thailand, South Africa and Indonesia, we’re reminded daily that there are myriad factors that make Myanmar unique.

Lashio, Myanmar

Lashio, Myanmar

For now, we’ll leave you with a quote from a market vendor in Shan State, Myanmar:

“If I die before I repay my loan, in my next life, I’ll become a servant to the person who lent me the money.”

There are debts that last a lifetime. And debts that carry to the next life.

The team’s research will be published in early April 2014. To be notified when it is available, please use this form.

Su Mon, Yin Yin Oo, Ye Lin Oo, Aung Ko Ko, Venetia Tay, and Jan Chipchase contributed to this report.

Lauren Serota is a design researcher and interaction designer at frog. She’s also a founding faculty member at the Austin Center for Design.