• April 7, 2015

By: Michael Blakeley

[This article was originally published on the Bay Area International Link (BAIL) blog]

I recently\r\nreturned from Yangon, Myanmar (Burma to some) where my company, Nathan Associates Inc., is implementing a private sector development program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). We are one of handful of companies that is helping donors organize resources to provide much-needed development assistance in Myanmar following the end of the military junta and subsequent relief of sanctions by the U.S. and others in 2011.

During my visit, which preceded a visit by President Obama, I noticed a distinct ?Bay Area-ness?\r\nto the approaches development practitioners were taking to encourage economic development.

For starters, there is no shortage of emphasis on ?entrepreneurship?? something that is simply part of our DNA here in the Bay Area. In emerging economies like Myanmar, micro and small and medium sized enterprises (MSMEs) typically represent over 80% of all companies, and are significant contributors to GDP and employment. Most MSMEs were started and continue to be owned by individuals or entrepreneurs. The focus on entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship is rooted in the simple reality that many individuals in developing countries go into business out of economic necessity. These necessity-driven entrepreneurs are to Myanmar what we in the Bay Area would call early stage investors. The sentiment of donors in Myanmar is that supporting entrepreneurship will not only provide economic opportunities, but will help create new companies that can fill the huge gaps of goods and services the country needs to develop.

Another Bay Area\r\ncharacteristic is the presence of incubators and accelerators to help individuals start businesses. Our firm is supporting an incubator started by a young couple from Singapore and others exist (Ideabox MyanmarMyanmar Innovation Greenhouse and Project Hub Yangon to name a few). They are not all supporting tech-preneurs. One success story is a college student that started a tea house, which are about as common in Myanmar as a pizza joint here. With an extremely weak regulatory environment and limited access to capital, it may not make sense to invest resources in companies that will eventually operate in a growth-constraining environment but there they are.

We recently supported a hackathon in Yangon with 117 participants. You don’t get much more Bay Area than that! Lest you think that a country closed to the Western world for over 50 years could in short order produce an ecosystem of techies happy to lock themselves in a room for 24 hours, there they were.That wasn’t even the first, there have been several hackathons, barcamps and co-working spaces are springing up as well. Nathan Associates works with the whole ecosystem to support entrepreneurs and SMEs (small and medium enterprises) as part of our overall objective of supporting economic growth in Myanmar. Beyond the work in Myanmar, Nathan Associates also funds 4 fellowships for outstanding Myanmar graduate students to travel to the U.S. and participate in educational, policy and business training (similar to what we in the Bay Area call boot camps).

Across Yangon there is a Bay Area buzz, an energy, a vibration. I didn’t feel I was in the Bay Area but I could smell it. From a tech guru who is launching an innovation hub in Yangon to the fact that my car from the airport had wifi (when even some of the major hotels have only intermittent access), the Bay Area flavor is all around.

The bottom\r\nline for me is this: the\r\nBay Area has been so successful at innovation, job creation and raising incomes\r\nit comes as no surprise that in Myanmar (and most of the world) people are\r\nlooking here for solutions that address huge and important problems. That bodes\r\nwell for the future of our region as a player in the international development\r\nspace and offers fantastic opportunities for us and for them. Embracing the\r\nbest of the Bay Area?s ability to drive and support entrepreneurs as they\r\ncreate local solutions and business models is just what Myanmar needs as it\r\nmakes this rapid transition. It is an exciting time for the people of Myanmar\r\nand I cannot wait to see what they will create.

Michael Blakeley is the Managing Director of the Enterprise and\r\nIndustry Development group at Nathan Associates Inc., a global\r\nconsulting firm. He is an expert in international trade and business strategy,\r\nand has worked for more than 18 years in economic development and emerging\r\nmarkets for both public and private sector clients. At Nathan Associates Mr.\r\nBlakeley has designed and directed long term poverty reduction programs in more\r\nthan 10 countries covering Africa, Asia and Latin America. Most recently he has\r\nserved as an advisor for the firm?s portfolio of development programs in\r\nSoutheast Asia, including managing an office in Thailand. Prior to his work at\r\nNathan Associates, Mr. Blakeley owned and operated a trading firm that exported\r\ngoods worldwide. He is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, part of several\r\nlocal organizations including the World Affairs Council, and previously served\r\non the Board of the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

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