The Irrawaddy Business Roundup (Feb. 13, 2016)

By Simon Lewis 13 February 2016

Telenor Races to 13.7 million Subscribers

Telenor now has almost 14 million subscribers in Burma but competition is ramping up, the Norwegian telecommunications firm said in its latest results announcement.

Telenor has been quickest out of the blocks of the two private competitors looking to tap into one of the world’s last populations to be connected to mobile phone networks. It began a staggered rollout of services only in September 2014, shortly after Ooredoo of Qatar became the first foreign mobile phone company to offer services in the country.

The incumbent operator MPT, which has teamed up with a pair of Japanese companies to modernize its services, is still thought to be ahead in terms of subscribers, with Reuters recently putting its count at 18 million.

But Telenor’s subscriber number quickly moved into eight figures, outpacing Ooredoo, which had only 4.8 million subscribers as of its latest results, which are from September last year.

Ooredoo Myanmar CEO Rene Meza said recently that the company was now taking a new approach to the Burmese market. Ooredoo was slashing its data tariffs and focusing on improving distribution in order to compete for a bigger mass market presence, Meza told Reuters.

If Telenor’s latest results, published this week, are anything to go by, the sector is already getting more competitive.

The company’s results for the last three months of 2015 said Telenor Myanmar had picked up an additional 1.9 million subscribers in that period, bringing its total to 13.7 million. Telenor claims that it has 37 percent of SIM cards in circulation.

That growth was slightly slower than previous quarters—Telenor put on 2.3 million subscribers in the third quarter of 2015.

Some deceleration may have been expected, considering that mobile phone penetration has exploded from below 10 percent just four years ago. But Telenor also noted a fall in the average revenue per subscription per month, or APRU, a signal of how much Telenor SIM-card holders are using the company’s services.

“ARPU was MMK 5,995 [$4.87], which is 4% lower than the normalised ARPU for the third quarter,” Telenor’s results said.

While that’s only a small drop, Telenor said competition could be part of the reason.

“The decline in ARPU was triggered by tougher competition, coupled by network expansion into low ARPU rural areas,” the company said.

In a presentation of the results, Telenor also said that 52 percent of its subscribers were “active data users” suggesting that Burma is fulfilling predictions that its mobile phone users will move quickly toward smartphones.

Telenor now has 4,200 phone towers around the country. It said the network rollout was going “according to plan” and aims to eventually have 9,000 sites.

India’s Tata Group Making Moves Toward Burma

In a sign that Burma may be beginning to live up to its promise for Indian investors, several different branches of the conglomerate Tata Sons are looking to enter the country, according to a report in the Mumbai-based Economic Times newspaper.

Tata Sons—India’s oldest and one of its largest business empires—is the holding company for Tata Group, which has interests in sectors including aviation, autos, healthcare IT and telecoms. The report said that at least seven of the group’s companies “have zeroed in on Vietnam and Myanmar as markets that need to be penetrated.”

Subsidiaries Tata Power, Tata Projects, Tata Chemicals, Tata Motors, agricultural products company Rallis, trading arm Tata International and Titan—which makes watches and other luxury goods—were all “either active or are exploring opportunities in the Vietnam and Myanmar markets,” a spokesman told the Economic Times.

“The demographics and the economic development stage of these countries represent a market for several products and services from the Tata group,” the spokesman said.

Burma is in theory an important part of the Indian government’s “Act East” policy, as it forms a gateway for Indian companies to Southeast Asia—one of the world’s fastest growing regions, where integration should make cross-border business easier in the coming years.

But other Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have been more prominent in Burma since the economic reforms initiated in 2011.

Indian firms are involved in oil and gas exploration in Burma, as well as pharmaceuticals, private healthcare and shipping. But there have also been reports that the slow pace of Indian investment has frustrated the Burmese government.

The Business Standard newspaper in 2014 quoted Ye Htut, the spokesman for the government of President Thein Sein, complaining about Indian businesses’ tendency to “window shop” in Burma.

“Indian businessmen understand our culture, our sensitivities and our tradition. But they are not coming as much as we expected,” Ye Htut was quoted saying.

Marubeni Sets Up Fertilizer Factory at Thilawa SEZ

Marubeni Corporation has announced that it is setting up an agricultural fertilizer plant in the Japanese-government backed Thilawa Special Economic Zone close to Rangoon.

The company said in a statement last month that it would begin operations in 2017, and expected to sell 30,000 tons of fertilizer in its first year, mainly catering to the rice-growing heartland around Rangoon and the Irrawaddy Delta.

Japanese firm Marubeni “expects to expand this volume to 150,000 metric tons across Myanmar in 2020 while also increasing the number of products in accordance with domestic market growth,” a recent statement said.

It said the Japanese conglomerate—which operates in a number of sectors, including energy, paper and pulp, and foodstuffs—was looking to expand its global fertilizer business.

“In Myanmar, where the improvement of income for farmers is a crucial policy issue, Marubeni is contributing to the increased productivity of major crops such as rice and corn through its sales of effective fertilizers and experimental agricultural studies,” it said.

Indonesia’s Pertamina Confident of Winning Fuels Tie Up

An Indonesian state-owned energy company is bidding to team up with the Ministry of Energy’s Myanmar Petroleum Products Enterprise (MPPE) to sell fuel to consumers in Burma, according to the Jakarta Globe.

The newspaper said Pertamina’s marketing director had expressed confidence that the firm would win a tender to work with MPPE, the result of which is expected to be announced this month.

“It’s likely that we would win the tender,” Ahmad Bambang, the marketing manager, was quoted saying.

The Jakarta Globe reported that Permatina was planning to invest $33 million in the venture, which would sell co-branded fuels from 18 depots and 12 gas stations around Burma.

“The state energy company virtually controls Indonesia’s retail oil fuel market, thanks to its vast distribution network across the archipelago,” the newspaper said.

Air Cargo Firms Will Have to Wait for Burmese Boom, Says Trade Publication

Trade publication Air Cargo World has published an article predicting that logistics companies looking to capitalize on Burma’s political and economic opening may have to wait longer than expected.

The report pointed out that Japan’s Nippon Express has set up a subsidiary in Burma and will operate a warehouse at the Thilawa Special Economic Zone. Switzerland-headquartered Panalpina has also established an office in Rangoon to handle imports and exports by air and sea cargo, it said.

Kuehne + Nagel, also based in Switzerland, has had an office and warehouse in Rangoon since 2013, the report said. But it quoted that firm’s local managing director, Amol Singhal, as saying that most of the foreign investment coming into Burma was in the extractive industries, which don’t normally require air freight services.

Burma’s agricultural and garment exports were also not of interest to air cargo operators, the report said. Firms are interested in potentially exporting Burmese seafood by air, but this is not yet a large enough market.

Air Cargo World also analyzed the infrastructure available to companies wanting to get involved in the sector in Burma. It noted that no airlines currently fly cargo-only planes into the country, and larger aircraft do not land at Burmese airports, which may anyway not have the capacity to handle them.

“Myanmar is opening up,” the report concluded, “but it seems a while yet until it will be ready for business.”