Guest Column

For Businesses in Myanmar, Be the Change We Want to See

By Krishna Jambur 6 August 2014

Most of us have heard this old story, but there is no harm in refreshing our collective memories. So here goes:

Many years ago two salesmen were sent by a British shoe manufacturer to Africa to investigate and report back on market potential. The first salesman reported back, “There is no potential here—nobody wears shoes.” The second salesman reported back, “There is massive potential here—nobody wears shoes!”

One wonders, and even shudders to imagine—in today’s times of downsizing—the outcome if the businessman had sent only the first salesman. Fortunately, businesses today have good market researchers to analyze situations and submit reports that can help them make better decisions.

Coming back to the story—it is so simple and yet so effective in illustrating the difference in positive and negative thinking. But, as a market researcher I would use the same story to illustrate how every seemingly challenging fact has a potentially attractive opportunity hidden beneath.

And Myanmar is one such market where some opportunity lurks behind every challenge. For instance, the following data on how Myanmar people live throw up some interesting points for discussion.

According to data gathered, monitored and updated regularly by Nielsen-MMRD, only 73 percent of metro households mention electricity as their main fuel type! Even in urban areas, 41 percent of households mention charcoal as their main fuel type, while 70 percent of households in rural Myanmar use firewood as their main fuel.

For someone coming from another country it is impossible to imagine life in a small town—let alone a metro—without access to electricity. How do we watch our sports and soaps on television? How do we study at night? How do we charge our mobile phones? The last one is probably of specific interest to the latest entrants to the Myanmar telecom market, including those who are waiting at the gates.

And it is completely up to them on how they react to this tiny piece of data. Will they focus on those homes that have electricity? In other words, will they target low-hanging fruit? Or will they, like the second salesman in the story, identify an opportunity that is not evident at first glance?

What if, either of or both, these companies install free mobile phone charging kiosks across the country? These kiosks, like the ones we so often find in airports, could be powered by a 12-volt battery and have fixed chargers of the most common mobile phone brands. Of course, for areas that are sparsely populated one could even think of a mobile kiosk.

The new telecom service providers could even explore the option of a PPP (public-private partnership) wherein such kiosks are provided, owned and installed by the government at every bus stop and operated and managed by the private players.

A lot of companies that foray into emerging and underdeveloped markets would consider this to be a risky expenditure, a waste of money. But then, not a lot of companies can claim to be great companies. Can they? Moreover, with a mad rush among companies to portray themselves as responsible organizations, there is huge pressure to launch CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiatives—many of which are irrelevant, non-sustainable, poorly planned and ill-managed. In this context, the concept of a free-charging kiosk could well emerge to be just what the doctor ordered for all stakeholders.

To conclude, while a good company strives to be the favorite of every customer, a great company strives to make every customer feel that they are the company’s favorite. And it is in this endeavor that great companies become the change they want to see rather than wait for the change to happen. Time will tell which company is aiming for greatness in Myanmar.

Krishna Jambur is an associate director at Nielsen-MMRD, a leading information and insights company in Myanmar.