Where the Deal-makers Meet

By Simon Lewis 19 February 2014

YANGON — Sales of finger food, lanyards and plastic binders may be set to boom in Myanmar in 2014.

As the country opens up to post-sanctions investment from overseas, it’s at the dozens of business conferences in Yangon’s hotels that contacts are made. Over spring rolls and coffee, foreign businessmen—paying for the privilege—will meet potential local partners and the officials they need to impress to get the sought-after opportunity to operate here.

Perhaps the busiest sector for conferences this year will be the extractive industries. There’s “Oil & Gas Myanmar 2014” in July, not to be confused with “Oil & Gas 2014 Myanmar” in October, as well as “Myanmar Oil & Gas Week,” to be held in February.

Perhaps that is no surprise, since a batch of onshore oil and gas exploration blocks were awarded to companies in late 2013, and 30 offshore blocks are set be awarded early in 2014.

There are also conferences on related sectors—mining and power and electricity, for instance. And other sectors are not ignored: The “Myanmar Urban Development Conference 2014,” “Myanmar Banking & Finance Conference,” an agribusiness investment summit and a hospitality and tourism conference are all planned in coming months.

The glut of conferences coincides with a rapid growth in foreign direct investment (FDI), which rose from US$1.9 billion in 2011-12 to $2.7 billion in 2012-13, according to the World Bank. More deals must be done if FDI is to keep on growing, as is expected.

The Centre for Management Technology (CMT) is one company that has already organized numerous such events in Myanmar. In 2014, CMT is hosting the 2nd Myanmar Telecoms Infrastructure Summit in February and the Myanmar Construction Summit in March.

Ummu Hani, CMT’s general manager of marketing, told The Irrawaddy such conferences were a source of “vital business intelligence” as the country opens up to investment.

Since the company began running conferences in Myanmar, more than 4,000 delegates from 50 countries have attended the events, she said. “Most have commended us on the ease with which they can network with the right persons or companies, be it from the government, public or private sectors,” Ms. Hani said.

A key factor at such conferences is the cooperation of the relevant government ministries, who often send a senior representative—usually the most popular person at the buffet.

To this end, CMT facilitates “private consultation sessions” between attendees and government officials, she said.

“Generally the government’s role in our event is akin to them providing some kind of endorsement and/or added credibility, especially when the authorities themselves are presenting a paper related to the subject matter,” Ms. Hani added.

While the summits the Myanmar government will host during 2014 as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will be held in the new capital of Naypyitaw, those looking to lure the business and political elite are mostly sticking to the former capital, Yangon, the heart of commerce in the country.

Despite the convenient locations, and although public officials are regularly in attendance, the media often has some difficulty getting in. Organizers often demand of media organizations a certain amount of coverage, or free advertising, effectively shutting the doors of these key meetings to those who don’t comply.

The story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.