Two Myanmar companies have become the first to receive grants from the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund, which provides equity-free funding to startups across Asia and Africa.

By OLIVER SLOW | FRONTIER

TWO TECH-BASED startups have become the first companies from Myanmar to be awarded grants as part of the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund, which provides equity-free funding to startups in Asia-Pacific and Africa.  

Kargo and Neh Thit, both based in Yangon, were selected as part of the second batch of the innovation fund, alongside companies from 15 countries.

The programme, which started in 2017, “focuses on bridging the gap between mobile operators and start-ups, enabling strong partnerships that foster the growth of innovative mobile products and services”, according to the GSMA website. The fund supports startups with funding, technical assistance and connections with mobile operators.

Kargo, which was founded in 2016, is an online marketplace connecting truck owners with businesses and individuals for logistics and delivery services. Neh Thit, founded in 2017, is a platform that connects workers with employers in and around Yangon.

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“This grant will allow us to reach our target groups much quicker,” said Mr Alex Wicks, founder of Kargo, which received £200,000 (K374 million) as part of the grant.

Kargo employs about two-dozen staff and is connected with an estimated 1,000 truck drivers, mainly based around Yangon, said Wicks, who has lived in the city for more than four years.

“Until now, our focus has very much been on Yangon, and the next step is Mandalay,” he said, adding that a base in the country’s second biggest city would give the company access to much of northern Myanmar. 

GSMA received more than 550 applications from 40 countries for the latest intake. Wicks said the selection of Kargo and Neh Thit from such a strong field represented “validation” for the country’s startup scene.

Mr Conor Smith, founder of Neh Thit, said the GSMA grant would not only allow the company to scale up its operations by further developing its platform, but also present opportunities to connect with GSMA’s global network.

Neh Thit has 25,000 users and Smith said he is targeting a total of 100,000 within the next nine to 12 months.

Smith said he got the idea for Neh Thit, which received £126,000 as part of the grant, after working for a microfinance institution that provided loans to people living on the outskirts of Yangon.

“What we saw was that the job market was very inefficient,” said Smith, who is soon to graduate with an MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. “People looking for work didn’t know what work was out there, and employers were struggling to find staff to fulfill their needs.”

The company started by focusing on a garment factory in Hlaing Tharyar Township but has since expanded to cover all of Yangon, and includes mid-level and senior-level positions. It uses an algorithm to connect workers with employers based on the skills required.

“We wanted to provide more information and be transparent, and that way both the employer and workers have more information,” said Smith. “In that case, people are more likely to stay longer in a role.”

Ma Hsu Mon, Neh Thit’s business development manager, said that people were generally happy to try the new technology.

“For many of the employers who are older, they are harder to convince about the platform, but the younger generation are definitely more willing to embrace this new technology,” said Hsu Mon.

Both Wicks and Smith acknowledged that there are challenges to operating a startup in Myanmar, but said that the sector has huge potential.

Wicks praised the Phandeeyar accelerator programme – Kargo was part of the first batch in 2016 – as building momentum for the country’s startup scene in Myanmar.

“Then on top of that you have the recent explosion of the internet,” he said, “so overall it’s an exciting time.”

TOP PHOTO: Employees of startup company Neh Thit at their office in Yangon. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

The union and Kayin State governments seem to be on a collision course over a controversial coal-fired power plant project.

By SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER

THE FATE OF a proposed coal-fired power plant in Kayin State remains in doubt, with government officials appearing to walk back comments from Union Minister of Electricity and Energy U Win Khaing that Nay Pyi Taw would not grant permission for the project.

Speaking at an infrastructure seminar on March 14, Win Khaing reportedly said that the 1,280-megawatt plant near the state capital, Hpa-an, would not be approved because it was not required and was unpopular with locals.

His comments were published in local newspaper 7Day Daily and referred to in an April 4 statement by NGO EarthRights International calling on the government to formally cancel all proposed and suspended coal projects.

They delighted local opponents of the project, some of whom celebrated by organising a football match.

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Over the past month the mood of celebration has soured, however, as the Ministry of Electricity and Energy has not confirmed plans to reject the project.

The coal plant’s backers – Toyo Thai Power Myanmar Co Ltd, a subsidiary of Thai-listed TTCL, and the Kayin State government – both say they remain committed to the project.

Kayin Minister for Electricity and Industry, U Soe Hlaing, said the state government was yet to be formally notified about the cancellation of the project.

“The state government will continue doing our part to implement the plant,” he told Frontier on April 4.

Ko Htet Aung Mon, office manager for Toyo Thai Power Myanmar, said there had been no directive from the Union government to cancel the project. “It is still underway with the Union government, so we are waiting to hear the review,” he said.

In an April 9 statement to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, TTCL said reports that the project had been cancelled “has not been confirmed … from the relevant parties and reliable sources”. It added that an environmental impact assessment was being conducted, and no construction has begun because the company is yet to sign a memorandum of agreement for the project with the Ministry of Electricity and Energy.

TTCL is a joint venture between Thailand’s Italian-Thai Development and Japan’s Toyo Engineering established in 1985. It operates a 120MW gas-fired plant at Ahlone and recently received approval for a 356MW expansion at the site.

Ministry walks back comments

Under Myanmar’s constitution, state governments can only approve power projects up to 30MW, meaning the project cannot move forward without the green light from Nay Pyi Taw.

However, officials in the Union Ministry of Electricity and Energy have backtracked somewhat from the comments attributed to the minister.

U Aung Kyaw Htoo, the ministry’s deputy secretary for domestic and international relations and information, told Frontier on April 12 that the minister did not say precisely whether he would approve or reject the project.

“What he said was that if the public does not agree with the plant, it cannot be done,” he said, adding that the government currently has “no plan” to approve new coal projects.

“Our Union government master plan is that we will only get electricity from sources that are accepted by the public,” Aung Kyaw Htoo said.

Another senior official said on April 10 that the ministry wanted to review the plant’s environmental impact and whether locals object to the project.

“It is not like we disagree with the coal power plant in Kayin State,” U Soe Myint, the ministry’s deputy secretary, told Frontier.

He said the ministry is concerned about the proposal to supply coal to the plant by shipping it up the Thanlwin (Salween) River from Mawlamyine in Mon State.

Soe Myint confirmed that the union government’s policy was that if the public did not support the plant it would be cancelled.

State vs Union

Opposition to the project began after the state government signed a memorandum of understanding with Toyo Thai Power Myanmar in April 2017 to conduct a feasibility study for the proposed 1,280-megawatt plant near Hpa-an.

In October that year, the state government and TTCL signed joint venture and lease agreements for an 815-acre (333-hectare) site on the Thanlwin River near Thone Inn village with a concession period of 40 years.

The cost of building the power station was estimated at US$2 billion (about K2.65 trillion) and it was due to begin operations in 2023.

The state government would hold a 5 percent stake in the plant, which has been promoted heavily by chief minister Nang Khin Htwe Myint. A powerful figure within the NLD, she won seats in the 1990, 2012 and 2015 elections and is a member of the party’s Central Executive Committee.

Speaking at an investment fair in the state capital in November 2017, she said the government’s top priority was to improve electricity supply, followed by the development of tourism, agriculture and transportation.

The same month she spoke at a “consultation” with local communities about the coal project, which Frontier also attended. After urging them to accept the project out of consideration for the state’s development needs, she immediately left the event and refused to speak to attendees or hear their opinions.

Win Khaing, in contrast, comes from a private sector background, having run a successful engineering company before being appointed minister for construction in March 2016. His performance at the construction ministry has earned him the trust of State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and in August 2017 she tapped him to lead the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, which had been floundering under former minister U Pe Zin Tun.

In late January, the ministry issued notices to proceed to four consortia for liquefied natural gas projects. At a power sector coordination meeting the following month, Win Khaing explained that while coal was technically feasible, it was too politically difficult to implement, so he had instead chosen LNG to meet Myanmar’s medium-term power needs.

Uncertain future

The lack of clarity over the proposed plant is a disappointment for opponents of coal-fired power as well as the communities near the project site that had objected to the state government’s plan.

The football match at Thone Inn village on April 4 was organised by residents of 11 villages to celebrate what they thought was the cancellation of the project.

The game attracted a crowd of about 500, said Thone Inn resident Saw Nay Lin Htoon, who said the village residents were now wondering if the celebration was premature.

The villagers were doubtful because the state government had not confirmed the Union government’s decision, he said.

Nay Lin Htoon was concerned that if the state government proceeded with the project despite the opposition of local residents it could lead to clashes.

“What I want to hear is the state government saying that it will not continue to build the coal-fired power plant,” he said.

Civil society and community groups opposed to the project have accused the state government of ignoring objections to the project and was pushing the union government to proceed with the project.

“Our [Kayin] government is not listening to us,” said Saw Thar Boe, coordinator of Karen Rivers Watch, one of about 130 civil society groups that has campaigned against the project.

He said the state government had also exceeded its authority by allowing work to continue on the project after the minister’s March 14 comment. On March 25, state government officials had come to Thone Inn and placed stakes in the ground marking the boundary of the project site.

Thar Boe said civil society groups were not opposed to development but believed there were better options than coal power.

In an open letter to the union government last year, they call for it to instead promote sustainable renewable energy projects that were consistent with the needs of local communities.

“What we actually need is technical help and a specific policy from the government to support [renewable projects],” he said.

TOP PHOTO: Saw Thar Boe, coordinator of Karen Rivers Watch, speaks at an event in Hpa-an, Kayin State in November. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

By SU MYAT MON | FRONTIER

YANGON – Myanmar’s World Press Freedom Index ranking for 2018 has fallen six places, to 137rd out of 180 countries, compared to the previous year’s listing, as journalists in the country lamented the continued arrest of their peers, and the use of outdated laws to punish reporters.  

The index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, reflects growing global animosity towards journalists, RSF said in a statement to coincide with the index release.

“Hostility towards the media, openly encouraged by political leaders, and the efforts of authoritarian regimes to export their vision of journalism pose a threat to democracies,” said the statement.

Myanmar’s fall in the rankings comes amid the controversial trial of the two Reuters journalists, Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in December. They were detained at a restaurant in northern Yangon, and charged under article 17(1) of the Official Secrets Act and face a potential 14-year jail sentence if found guilty.

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The trial attracted considerable attention last week, when a police officer called as a suspect by the prosecution said in court that he had been pressured to “set up” the journalists.

U Myint Kyaw, a member of the Myanmar Press Council, said the country’s fall in the global ranking represented the “real situation” of press freedom in Myanmar.

“It can be said that the media is not respected by the NLD [National League for Democracy] government,” Myint Kyaw told Frontier.

“The real truth is obvious,” said Myint Kyaw, referring to the arrests. “It can be said that entrapping the journalists is [an abuse] of [officials’] authority and power.”

Myint Kyaw said another challenge for journalists was laws that were being used to detain reporters, most notably the notorious clause 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, which punishes online defamation.

Ko Soe Ya, a video journalist for local outlet 7 Day, said that one of the main reasons for Myanmar’s fall in rankings was because independent media access to northern Rakhine State is largely off-limits, apart from on tightly-controlled, government-sponsored trips.

“I agree that the figure of Myanmar press freedom fits the real situation in the country,” he said, adding that journalists from state media often receive preferential treatment when it comes to accessing government events, including those held by the President’s Office.

Soe Ya said he hoped the situation would improve under President U Win Myint, who was sworn in on March 30.

“But let’s wait and see,” he said. “I really hope the government respects press freedom and the stance of media, otherwise the image of a democratic country will disappear.”

Ko Ye Mon Tun, a journalist for DVB, said that the situation would improve if the MPC was given more power, and that Myanmar’s reputation would improve globally if the Reuters journalists were released.

He also said media access to the government and the military was a constant challenge.

“Despite a spokesperson contact list being shared widely by the government, half of them, as well as the military, cannot be reached,” he said, adding that gaining information about the military’s activities was particularly challenging.  

Myanmar had the third highest ranking of the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, after Indonesia (124) and the Philippines (133). The lowest-ranking ASEAN members were Brunei (153), Laos (170) and Vietnam (175).

By KYAW YE LYNN | FRONTIER

YANGON – Health authorities have asked residents in Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar Township to take precautions, as dozens have been hospitalized after inhaling acrid smoke from a blaze at the city’s largest rubbish dump.

The fire broke out at Htein Bin landfill in Hlaing Tharyar on Saturday, due to a buildup of methane. Six days later, smoke had spread through the area, as firefighters and soldiers struggled to extinguish the fire.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

U Sann Lwin Oo, the head of Hlaing Tharyar General Hospital said his staff had provided medical treatment to a total of 38 people, with underlying health problems relating to the lungs, kidneys and heart, which the smoke had exacerbated.

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“Patients with health problems relating to smoke inhalation started arriving at the hospital on the night of April 23,” he told Frontier on Thursday.

“To date, 19 patients were admitted to hospital, while 19 were treated at the Outpatient Department.”

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

He added that four of the 19 hospitalized patients have since been discharged, as their conditions improved, while one patient suffering from severe lung disease has been transferred to Yangon General Hospital.

“Two are children. The youngest is just three years and three months old. Both have underlying diseases,” he said, adding that the oldest patient is a 94-year-old man.

“All the remaining 14 patients are in a stable condition,” he said, adding that a firefighter was also admitted to the hospital with a minor injury today.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Several media outlets have reported that four people died from inhaling the smoke, but Hlaing Tharyar Township medical officer Daw Khin Yupar Soe said only one death had been reported, of a 60-year old woman.

“We investigated the case, and found the patient was already suffering diseases relating to heart and kidney failure. So the death could not be said to be directly related to the smoke,” she told reporters on Thursday.

Steve Tickner | Frontier

Steve Tickner | Frontier

She said her team had opened five temporary clinics in the quarters nearest to the fire, to provide medical care and to alert residents to take precautions against the smoke.

“The smoke could make people with underlying health problems feel worse. So we are telling people to come to the hospital if they are coughing and choking,” she said.

 

By AFP

UNITED NATIONS – UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will appoint the Swiss ambassador to Germany, Ms Christine Schraner Burgener, to be his new special envoy to Myanmar, UN sources said Wednesday.

The General Assembly in December asked Guterres to appoint a special envoy in a resolution that called on Myanmar to end its military campaign in Rakhine state.

The appointment will be announced on Thursday, just days before the Security Council travels to Bangladesh and Myanmar for a first-hand look at the Rohingya refugee crisis.

At least 700,000 Muslim-minority Rohingya have been driven out of Myanmar and are living in crowded camps in Bangladesh since Myanmar’s army launched a military operation in Rakhine state. The violence has left a trail of torched villages in its wake, with allegations of murder and rape at the hands of troops and vigilantes.

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Myanmar has vehemently denied US and United Nations allegations of ethnic cleansing.

The UN spokesman did not confirm the appointment of Schraner Burgener, but said an announcement was imminent.

Schraner Burgener has also served as Swiss ambassador to Thailand.

Myanmar authorities say the operation in Rakhine state is aimed at rooting out extremists.