May 24, 2013

Myanmar's "goldrush" luring foreigners in droves

From seasoned investors to recent graduates armed with little more than hastily-made business cards and dreams of striking it rich, foreigners are pouring into Myanmar to stake a claim as it opens up.

It is an expat "goldrush" driven by the promise of an economic boom after the rollback of many sanctions following the end of decades of junta rule.

But some, at least, are also drawn by a commitment to help rebuild the impoverished nation.

The once-empty western bars of central Yangon are now doing a roaring trade, hotels are fully booked and networking nights thrum with the chatter of new arrivals hungry for contacts in the city.

Every day hotel lobbies teem with foreigners hunched over laptops as they talk via Skype with overseas companies eager to hire boots on the ground.

"Once I graduate I'll move here for sure," Peter Morris, a 34-year-old American law student based in Hong Kong, said breezily during a recent week-long reccy for jobs.

But the flurry of arrivals are not universally welcomed.

Some older Myanmar hands grumble about a type of cocky newcomer all too keen to hand out business cards and discuss pie-in-the-sky plans for the future, despite having little knowledge of the country.

"There are a hell of a lot of sharks in Yangon right now... people looking to take advantage of any opportunities they can and often not for any benefit to the Burmese people," laments one long-time expat resident requesting anonymity.

"(There are) lots of opportunists with jumped up job titles that often don't exist and ideas that will never come to fruition."

Despite that, akin to frontier markets the world over, the lure of riches and adventure is proving irresistible.

Telecom, automobile, oil and gas, and even cigarette firms are rolling into Myanmar, responding to the end of many sanctions and the introduction of business-friendly reforms by President Thein Sein's two-year-old government.

While many are bringing their own senior staff and hiring skilled Myanmar citizens, many of whom are returning after years abroad, a lack of modern business acumen among locals educated within the country's threadbare school system presents openings for enterprising foreigners.

Some have years of Myanmar academic, business or field experience - particularly for the legion of non-governmental organisations - while others are following their noses for the opportunity to spot an opening.

"It hit me that there were all these areas where there was nothing... I could quickly identify niches to work in," says Swedish entrepreneur and consultant Andreas Sigurdsson of his decision to swap a successful banking career in glitzy Shanghai for Yangon's shabby charm.

Within weeks of his arrival last year the 31-year-old had launched his first venture - listings website - turning an idea "that came up over a beer" into a reality a few days later.

Sigurdsson says he is driven by making an "impact" in a poor nation with bags of potential but limited capacity and experience.

"Building new business, training employees, providing jobs and skills... that's one way to make an impact," he said.

Goodwill generated by the nation's freedom struggle, embodied by Nobel Laureate and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has also drawn many to the Asian nation.

Designer Karta Healy is bringing his bamboo products business to Myanmar, hoping for a repeat of its successful launch in China.

"After 10 years of watching China consume itself, I'm ready for somewhere I can get more involved, explore my design work and give back to somewhere I love at the same time," he said.

Using community-based workshops to make everything from bamboo furniture to bicycles, he hopes the business will quickly gain ground among a population skilled in working with the material.

"Global isolation has forced Myanmar's people to be the most 'eco' (friendly) by default. My dream for Myanmar is that it will become the greenest... wasteless society in Asia, if not the world."

The enthusiasm appears - at least for now - to be working both ways, with many of Myanmar's people glad to learn from foreign expertise after years of isolation.

"I welcome them... we all should," says Aung Soe Minn, owner of a gallery popular with expats.

"Our country had been left behind for a long time... we should work with foreigners to gain experience," he said."

That welcome, coupled with the nation's possibilities, explains why many Yangon expats choose to stay, despite the challenges of living in a city beset by electricity blackouts, slow internet, high rents and stifling bureaucracy.

Things are improving, says Tom Bergreen, 49, an American who has moved to the city to open an ice cream parlour and restaurant, but poor infrastructure remains the "most frustrating aspect of living and trying to do business here".

"But I'm extraordinarily fond of the people and culture. Life in Myanmar is never, ever boring."

Source: Channel NewsAsia