Philippines: Reflections

The Philippines is not your typical  Asian country. We were often reminded that the Philippines is a country that spent “300 years in a convent, and 50 years in Hollywood”. This phrase is commonly used to describe the countries colonial rule by Spain and then the United States. This rich history adds to the country’s cultural diversity! I am always excited to learn about a country’s culture and its people, and especially the food. I’ve enjoyed Filipino people and its food from the United States, and it was an honor to experience this first hand.

7 days, 20 business meetings, 30 classmates, 1 professor – lots of learning and lots of laughs. We learned how there are various businesses and activities engaging in the pursuit for progress for the Philippines, and the following areas were common themes as we learned more Filipino culture and business:

FinTech – There is a rise in FinTech businesses across the Philippines. Presently 3 out of 10 Filipinos have a bank account, and the remainder keeps their savings in their homes. 68% of financial institutions are pawn shops. Digital payments are low, and consumers take advantage of cash on delivery payments. There are currently a lot of ventures focusing on this space such as Coins.PH focusing on meeting the needs of consumers who do not have bank accounts.

Telecommunications: The Philippines has a population of over 105M people, and about 67M people have access to the internet. The Philippines spends about 4 hours on social media on average (compared to 2 hours in the US). With the average age of Filipino Citizens hovering around 24, the internet and social media will continue to play an active role in politics and the rise of many industries.

Tourism: During our last day, we visited Bohol, the 10th largest island in the Philippines, and home to many resorts. We learned about the tourism industry. Tourism is forecasted to be one of the largest industries in the Philippines. In Bohol, there are many programs in place to help support this growing industry, such as a local school where students grades 8-12 can take part in the Turo-Tourism program and prepare to work in local resorts.

The Philippines is forecasted to be the 16th largest economy by 2050, and I look forward to visiting the Philippines long before then to witness the greatness that lies ahead!

Jacinta James (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Philippines: Doing Business for Good

GIP Philippines class at Ayala Corporation

We visited about 15 companies in Manila, Philippines. These industries vary from food to fashion to telecommunications. And despite varying areas of focus, they did have one thing in common and that was to improve the lives of Filipino Citizens.

The Philippines has a population of 107 million people across its 7,000 islands. And half of the population is younger than 23 years old. While the Philippines economy is growing annually at 6% +, there is still much to be done to help the Filipino people. Local corporations are not leaving it in the hands of the government along but are working in partnership with the government.

Ayala Corporation is the Philippines’ oldest and largest conglomerate. Ayala Corporation was founded in 1834, managed by 7 generations of Ayalas and there are currently 3 family members working in the business. The company’s business portfolio includes real estate, telecommunication, water, energy, infrastructure, health care, and education. Ayala Corporation prides itself on its commitment to social causes,  being the Philippines’ partner in its pursuit for progress and building the nation and innovation.

ABS-CBN is the Philippines leading news organization. ABS-CBN also has a public service framework, where they aim to be in service of every Filipino through the following key areas:

  • Humanitarian Relief and Rehab
  • Child Welfare
  • Education
  • Health and Wellness
  • Overseas Filipino Welfare
  • Environment

It was definitely inspiring to meet with these companies and to see that a company can be both successful industry leaders while operating with a social mission in mind.

Jacinta James (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Expectations Shattered: Reflecting on Myanmar

After traveling through Southeast Asia for winter break, just over 6 weeks, I had the opportunity to experience different cultures and countries through food, nightlife, human interactions, celebrations, natural beauty and historic sites. At the end of my journey, I had several peers ask me, “which one was your favorite?”

Before our Global Immersion Program (GIP), I would have had pros and cons for each country and said I loved them all. However, after spending two weeks diving into a country that was shut off for decades from the rest of the world, Myanmar has enthralled me. Through its benevolent people, mind-blowing advancement and beautiful townships, everything I had thought about this country has been completely turned upside down.

Our GIP team during a river boat cruise. The night ended with some amazing karaoke

As a preface to what follows, I want to highlight an important fact that we often forgot during our trip. Our pre-travel and GIP were centered around the Bamar (Burmese) and Shan populations in the dry areas of the Shan State, Mandalay region and Yangon. Myanmar has been in conflict for decades, currently the longest running civil war. On the border states to the North and West, there are conflict zones with different ethnic groups that have been fighting the government and military since 1948. Particularly of interest, in the Rakhine state, there is a genocide occurring of the Rohingya people. Most Burmese people we encountered did not give the crisis much thought. Even the most intelligent of our speakers, local and foreign, seemed to defend the government’s actions at the very least calling the conflict complex and at most likening it to the Israel-Palestine conflict. I undoubtedly believe that the conflict is complex, therefore when I refer to the country and people of Myanmar in this post, I want to be clear that I am talking about the Burmese and Shan people, which comprise almost 80% of the population, and the development occurring within this area of Myanmar. Ultimately, the Burmese people are not directly involved in the conflict and the terrible burden lies on the government. Therefore, I want to turn the focus to the future of the country and the Burmese people.


Never in my life, have I felt so safe in a country so foreign. When I first stepped off the plane in Yangon to transfer to the Heho airport, I was cautious and reticent. I was mindful of everything I did, less I get locked up by the government for misspeaking or offending a citizen. These actions could not be more laughable now. The hope, love and optimism the Burmese people display is unmatched. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with admiration and politeness.

A waitress at Inle Lake that taught us about the sunscreen makeup that you often see on Burmese people

If asked if you wanted to buy something or a take a taxi, a simple “no thanks,” would suffice and the conversation would be done. No heckling. No pressure. If you’ve ever traveled in other parts of Southeast Asia, this is a complete shock.

Every single service counter, whether it was a convenience store, restaurant or hotel, you would be greeted with a genuine grin from ear to ear and a look that said, “how can I help you in any way possible?” Even when a mistake was made, YOU felt bad as they apologized profusely and immediately corrected the error. One classmate hilariously described riding in a taxi that was clearly cut-off by another driver and for the remainder of the ride the taxi driver would apologize sincerely about every 10 seconds.

At Myanmar Imperial University, we were welcomed with a traditional Burmese dance

When we asked a foreigner that had been living in Myanmar for several years why the people were so happy, he summarized it with one word: hope. Hope that Myanmar will become a better country. And every day their lives are improving. Four years ago, no one had a cell phone. Today, they are live streaming sports and movies on their smartphones at speeds faster than most of the United States. Yet another expectation shattered.

Technological Advancement

Throughout our company visits, we continuously heard the same phrase used to describe the technology and way of life in Myanmar. The Leapfrog Effect. It is an amazing case study of a country that had shut its doors for decades and finally opened them up to discover a world 50 years ahead of where they were. I have written in another blog post about how this amazing phenomenon has changed the lives of countless Myanmar citizens. Godfrey Tan, the CEO of Frontiir (the leading internet service provider in Myanmar), summarized it beautifully, “if they go out and buy cell phone service for 78 cents per person per day, and I sell them internet at 13 cents per day, I am giving them the opportunity to take that 65 cents and buy a meal. They no longer have to choose between food and internet.”

Frontiir HQ in Yangon, Myanmar

Godfrey was born in Myanmar, educated in the US, worked for many years and gained his citizenship, but eventually returned to his home country to bring technological advancement to the people of Myanmar. He saw an opportunity when he realized the country had only 1% landline penetration. Obviously, it would be incredibly costly to install lines in every single home to provide internet, so instead he developed a system of routers that line the streets of Yangon and Mandalay that give WiFi to those that sign up for his service. Through a box in their home, they can receive 4G internet at a price significantly lower than his competitors. This technology only exists in Myanmar, nowhere else in the world.

This example, and others like Wave Money, have revolutionized what was thought possible in emerging markets. With a cellular infrastructure to support apps like Instagram, YouTube, etc., one wonders why although their technological advancements are ahead, tourism is falling behind.


As we rode through Bagan and were surrounded by over 2,000 beautiful Buddhist temples erected during the 12th century, I wondered why there were so few tourists. At Inle Lake, when we stayed at a well-known hotel, we were baffled by the realization that we were 6 of maybe 15 people staying in the hotel that could hold hundreds of guests.

Riding scooters through Bagan

Although the Rohingya conflict is likely a major deterrent for tourists, it is still astounding to be in places with such natural and historic beauty and feel like it was carved out specifically for you.

The conflict aside, most people usually think of Thailand when planning a trip to Southeast Asia. I would make the argument that tourists should change or supplement their itinerary. Myanmar is a must-visit country in the region. It is a shame to see such a beautiful country lacking in tourism. Words and pictures cannot describe the adventure of hopping from village to village and shop to shop on Inle Lake with a group of close friends. As you fit into a narrow canoe , an Inthar native will drive you around a thriving population that lives on stilted homes and makes crafts like silver jewelry, cheroot cigarettes and lotus-weaved scarves. Fishermen pose for photographs in an iconic manner and Karen tribe women with long neck jewelry will peacefully wait while people come and visit them.

Our pre-GIP crew riding through the villages of Inle Lake

Even Bagan, the more popular tourist destination, felt like an adult playground that was abandoned long ago. After renting E-scooters you can bop around from temple to temple, climb on a few and become mesmerized by some giants. If you opt for a more expensive balloon ride on a clear morning you are stunned by the beauty of the peppered temples across the landscape. Unlike Ankor Wat or other temple compounds, there is a vibrant community of mainly farmers that live in the area and pray at the temples. The old and new represented and preserved in the middle of Myanmar.

A beautiful scene of farmlands, hot air balloons and temples we witnessed from above


As I reflect on ancient Burma and the present Burmese people, it is my hope that this country continues the path towards democratizing their government and advancing the lives of their people. The people deserve a country that will bring them wealth and prosperity. They deserve a future for themselves and for their children. My hope is that the world sees the diamond in the rough that is Myanmar, pulls it up from the ground and polishes it to demonstrate its brilliance.

I joked a few times with classmates that they might see my LinkedIn page in a few years and notice I’m working somewhere in Myanmar. After talking with several expats who have thoroughly enjoyed their lives there, the idea is becoming less and less far-fetched. Regardless, I truly hope that whether or not I’m living there in 5 years, Myanmar has earned what it deserves. In a country where Buddhism is so important, after suffering bad karma for so many years, good karma is finally due.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

East Africa: Kenya & Rwanda – Our departing thoughts

As we depart from our trip, I asked my classmates to share the key differences they noticed between Kenya and Rwanda. One of the most interesting things about this trip was that we got to experience two countries within a region most of us had never been to before. Seeing these neighboring countries side-by-side in a one-week period gave us the opportunity to dispel stereotypes we had about Africa and begin to more deeply understand the nuances of the economic and political landscape in each country.

“The two countries are fundamentally different in terms of state interventionism: an authoritarian, welfare driven, Singapore-like government in Rwanda versus a laissez-faire, fully democratic, India-like government in Kenya. Both approaches are interesting and seem to fit well the size, societal structure and economic resources of each country.” -Gauthier Denoyelle

Kenya is a humble yet powerful country. Rwanda is an energetic country filled with resilient souls.” -Sachi Nakano

CBS students John Plaisted, Jeannette Paulino, Lindy Gould, and Thaiza Alvim

Kenya is strong economically, with robust technological innovation. Rwanda, despite impressive efforts, still seems to be tackling daily problems.” -Chris Pacicco

“In Kenya, the atmosphere seemed entrepreneurial and creative. Rwandans, seemed to need a bit more of a script, whereas Kenyans were more comfortable dealing with surprises. I imagine it is a function of each country’s political climate.”-Stef Otterspoor

A tour of Sorwathe tea factory in rural Rwanda

Rwanda had to rely on higher government involvement [than Kenya] to boost economic development, given all the challenges related to the rebuilding of the country after the 1994 genocide.” -Frederico Lopes

“Bottom-up (Kenya) vs. top-down (Rwanda) economy. Seeing the two countries, visiting some of their best companies and participating in their social life made me realize how different these two countries are. On the one side, Kenya is the “classic” developing economy—chaos everywhere, traffic, vibrant community, and full of entrepreneurs that are driving the change with little guidance from the government. On the other side, Rwanda, which had to be completely rebuilt after 1994, is a country where the innovation and economy are still government-led, with specific centralized strategies to bring the best corporations to set their headquarters there.” -Davide Pugliese

Thaiza Alvim at the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi

Kenya’s entrepreneurial scene is vibrant and startups are flourishing without heavy government oversight; Rwanda is a slowly entering this space as well, but with a much more regulated and involved government.” -Jeannette Paulino

“Both countries are committed to development for their people, and each takes a different approach: Kenya is driven by entrepreneurship, and Rwanda by government support for economic transformation. It is interesting to see those approaches on the ground—you can truly feel it everywhere you look.” -John Plaisted

Scene from the Nyamirambo neighborhood walking tour

Lindy Gould ’19 is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School

East Africa: Student reflections from three days in Rwanda

As we departed Rwanda, I asked my classmates to share their insights from our three days in Kigali. Here are some of their thoughts:

  1. We found Rwandans to be optimistic and future-focused, demonstrating resilience in the decades after the 1994 genocide.
  2. We were impressed by the commitment (and follow-through!) of the Rwandan government and people to be a world leader in gender equity.
  3. The heavily-involved government has taken strong, decisive steps to drive Rwanda forward.

Reflection 1: We found Rwandans to be optimistic and future-focused, demonstrating resilience in the decades after the 1994 genocide.

“I saw strength, resilience and pride in all Rwandan people whom I had conversations with. They all seemed to share the common goal to overcome the distressed history and to make their country even better and successful. I believe this spirit has been the key to transforming the country’s economy.” -Sachi Nakano

“The people of the country are so eager to become a great economy of Africa and the world and escape the shadow cast by the 1994 genocide.” -Chris Pacicco

“I was impressed by the resilience and unity of the Rwandan people in dealing with the tragedy of 1994. They have been able to turn around the country in a successful case of economic development.” -Frederico Lopes

“This year marks the 25th anniversary of the genocide and elements of it still feel very heavy in Rwanda. I have been astonished, however, by the incredible resilience and self-reliance that have moved the Rwandans to push forward. The reforms and the programs that the government has put in place has facilitated this country’s accelerated social and economic growth. In a matter of two decades, Rwanda has managed to convert 43% illiteracy in 1994 to 70% literacy today; become the 2nd country in Africa on the World Bank’s ranking for Ease of Doing Business; and lead in promoting women empowerment and equality as #4 in the world with 63% of parliament seats being served by women. We have been incredibly blessed to have witnessed how a tarnished past became a hopeful present and how a hopeful present is becoming a promising future.” -Jeannette Paulino

Students on a walking tour of Nyamirambo, one of Kigali’s oldest neighborhoods

Reflection 2: We were impressed by the commitment (and follow-through!) of the Rwandan government and people to be a world leader in gender equity.

“The women are incredibly empowered and confident (as they should be!) in Rwanda. We heard the people at RDB explicitly state that this is a priority for the government and it is clearly working.” -Stef Otterspoor

Reflection 3: The heavily-involved government has taken strong, decisive steps to drive Rwanda forward.

“President Kagame has been an incredibly energetic leader and did not shy away from making the necessary changes to catapult Rwanda into a new economic and social dimension. For instance, switching from French to English as the official language of instruction in 2008 to favor integration in East African community was a strong decision.” -Gauthier Denoyelle

“I’ve been impressed by the order and the clear vision this country has for its future. Short-term, medium-term, and long-term planning have been followed and implemented in recent years, bringing the economy to maintain its fast pace growth. Rwanda is now in the top positions in most rankings for gender equality, ease of doing business, etc.” -Davide Pugliese

“Rwanda is a beautiful country with a lot of challenges, but it has a government and people committed to change and improvement, which is exciting to see.” -John Plaisted

Lindy Gould, Davide Pugliese, and Thaiza Alvim at Rwanda Trading Co., which exports 23% of Rwanda’s yearly coffee production

Lindy Gould ’19 is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School

East Africa: Meet your Customers. Beware the Narrow Solution. Infuse Social Impact.

As we look back on our time in Kenya, there are three key lessons that emerge from our time here:

  1. Meet your customers where they are. In East Africa, this also usually includes an aspect of education as a means of empowerment.
  2. In a developing economy, beware the narrow solution. If you want to solve one problem, you are going to have to solve many other problems along the way.
  3. In a low-income country, most of your customers are going to be low-income. While many companies around the world profess social missions, companies in East Africa must consider social impact and customer empowerment to access their consumer base and support long-term growth.

Lesson #1: Meet your customers where they are. In East Africa, this also usually includes an aspect of education as a means of empowerment.

Our first company visit was with Equity Bank, which professes to be “the most financially inclusive bank in the world.” When Equity Bank first started in the 1980s, 96% of Kenyans were unbanked. Now, less than 20% of Kenyans are unbanked, meaning that most Kenyans have access to the benefits of a formal banking system, such as the ability to build credit, take out loans, and start businesses.

But transitioning 10 million people from “under the mattress” savings to bank utilization was no easy task, particularly given the cultural norms and prohibitive financial policies that provided barriers to Kenyans entering the banking system. The CEO of Equity Bank, James Mwangi, shared with us, “We had to change the way banks “look” to customers. We had to give people pride and honor when they walk into a bank. They had to believe that they could do it.”

Students with James Mwangi, CEO of Equity Bank

For Equity Bank, meeting their customers looked like:

  1. Removing financial barriers to banking, such as a) introducing a no-minimum balance policy, b) allowing for limited documentation to open an account (ID only), c) creating an affordable system with no maintenance or account fees, and d) increasing the liquidity of cash for customers by removing restrictions on withdrawals.
  2. Building a shared prosperity model by empowering customers to build small businesses as local “agents” of Equity Bank. Forty thousand Equity Bank customers serve as agents for the bank, serving as one-person branches for deposits, money transfers, and withdrawals. A full 17% of Equity Bank is actually owned by customers.

In his departing words, Mwangi said, “Equity Bank doesn’t have a commercial purpose, but a social purpose. We don’t have customers, but rather members of a social movement. Our customers say, ‘I am a member of a movement that is making Africa better.”

Lesson #2: In a developing economy, beware the narrow solution. If you want to solve one problem, you are going to have to solve many other problems along the way.

On Tuesday, we attended a start-up panel focused on financial inclusion in the region. We heard from Hillary Miller-Wise, CEO/founder of Tulaa, and Hillary Sang, Project Manager at Pula. Tulaa provides smallholder farmers with quality agricultural inputs on credit and brokers the sale of their crops at harvest time. Pula is an early-stage company based in Kenya that offers agriculture insurance to smallholder farmers.

FinTech panel with Hillary Miller-Wise (CEO/Founder of Tulaa) and Hillary Sang (Project Manager at Pula)

Both panelists shared that in order for companies to be successful in East Africa, business leaders must be willing to solve multiple problems at once. For example, Hillary Miller-Wise originally thought Tulaa would just be a broker for farmers and crops, but the banks in the region still run on a paper-based system. Loans would take 3-4 weeks to be processed, and by that time farmers would miss the whole season. Miller-Wise quickly realized that Tulaa would have to underwrite the loans themselves.

Hillary Sang faced a similar learning curve. In 2017, Pula began incorporating some more advanced voice technology to collect data from farmers. The farmers would receive an automated call and speak their responses into the phone. But the farmers weren’t speaking—the calls were from an international number, and most farmers had never received an international call in their life! The technology was too advanced for the current stage of the customer.

Miller-Wise left us with one of the best quotes of the day. “Silicon Valley investors,” she said, “will tell you that you have to solve for one problem in one market. That doesn’t work here. When I hear that, I say ‘Thank you very much’ and walk away. Here, when you try to solve one problem, there are five other problems you need to solve for at the same time. As a business leader in East Africa, you need to find investors who actually understand what it means to operate in this market.”

Lesson #3: In a low-income country, most of your customers are going to be low-income. While many companies around the world profess social missions, companies in East Africa must consider social impact and customer empowerment to access their consumer base and support long-term growth.  

At M-KOPA, we met with Betsy Riley, Chief of Staff, at the company’s Nairobi headquarters. M-KOPA is the leading pay-as-you-go solar solution in Kenya. It sells and finances solar panels to customers who lack energy access across East Africa. It ensures repayment by including a SIM card in its systems, through which it could turn the system on and off as customers make mobile payments via M-PESA. As of January 2018, M-KOPA has connected over 600,000 homes to affordable solar power with 500 new homes being added every day. Current customers will make projected savings of $450M over the next four years, and M-KOPA customers will enjoy 75 million hours of kerosene-free lighting per month.

Students touring the M-KOPA headquarters in Nairobi with Betsy Riley, Chief of Staff

Here are three ways that M-KOPA considers its role as a double-bottom-line company:

  1. Customers pay 50 cents/day for energy, but if they can’t pay (or don’t need power for that day), they don’t have to and are not penalized. This approach makes the energy affordable to East Africans, who generally operate with a daily cash flow (vs. weekly/biweekly) and allows the customers the flexibility to prioritize or deprioritize energy with the rest of their needs.
  2. After one year, customers with good credit can upgrade to other M-KOPA products. A very popular product is a television, which Riley asserts comes with a strong social power. “We think of TV as a lifestyle product,” she said, “but it’s really transformative for our customers. It provides access to news and information.”
  3. M-KOPA’s R&D department is grant funded and looks to understand what customers will need and want in the future. Riley shares that there is sometimes a difference between what a customer will say they will pay for and what they will actually pay for—which is why market testing is key. One failed product, for example, was a fridge; customers only used half of the fridge space, but they didn’t want a half-fridge—they wanted it to look like a real fridge.”

Lindy Gould ’19 is an MBA candidate at Columbia Business School.

Myanmar: A Lesson in Leapfrog

Facebook has become the internet of Myanmar

Over and over again, at each company we have visited, we hear the same story about the incredibly high penetration of smartphones in the Myanmar population. The figures shared with us have been astounding, all above the 90% mark. Thura Ko Ko, a senior adviser to TPG Capital and co-founder of YGA Capital, talked about the phenomenon. “Around 2014, the percentage of Myanmar citizens with cell phones was about 8%. From 2014 to 2018, that figure has risen to almost 100%. What is even more impressive is that over 85% of those who have a cell phone, own a smartphone,” Thura says as he leans against the podium at Myanmar Imperial University.

Thura Ko Ko, a Myanmar citizen, spent his early years as a telecommunications investment banker in London. After a successful career in private equity in the United Kingdom, he finally decided to move back home. Using his expertise, he has advised or individually invested in several projects in Myanmar over the last decade. He spoke about the smartphone penetration phenomenon as if it happened by accident. When the government realized they needed to catch-up to their neighboring countries, they passed a law allowing foreign companies to build and operate cell phone towers. This brought rapid investments with towers sprouting up all over Myanmar. Suddenly, there was 4G available wherever you went and citizens leapfrogged the normal progression of cell phone purchases of flip phones to smartphones. Furthermore, Facebook has become the go-to search engine or means for any internet use whatsoever. It has defined and molded the way citizens conduct modern business.

“It’s crazy. I walk out of the plane in Munich and pop in my SIM card and barely get 2G service if I’m lucky. I’ll fly back to Myanmar and literally everywhere I go, there is 4G service and you can download videos, movies, anything you want,” Alex Spitzy from JJ-PUN told our group.

This leapfrog effect that Myanmar has witnessed in smartphone technology is not isolated to just this industry. Thura Ko Ko believes it will also happen in healthcare, finance and retail as well. With regard to retail, he mentioned that only 30% of the population live in cities with malls and the current infrastructure issues deter those with access to traditional retail stores from shopping there.

Myanmar Imperial University, the first private university in Myanmar, hosted us for a discussion and networking event at their brand new campus

“E-commerce and Fin Tech should do well because of the large population…the big guys are coming. Alibaba, Baidu, they’re all on the doorstep,” he says as he answers questions from MBA candidates from Columbia Business School and Myanmar Imperial University, “Financial access to banking is incredibly low. You will see us bypass the normal banking branches and head straight to Fin Tech.”

That’s exactly what Brad Jones, CEO at Wave Money, is doing in Myanmar. With an incredible story of Fin Tech penetrating Myanmar of mobile banking, Brad and his team have captured 95% of the market share. Wave Money has essentially become a cash transport system that can send money across the country in minutes. A customer goes to a Wave Money agent, pays in cash, the Wave Money agent sends this to a customer’s account, and that customer can go to one of any 38,000 active shops to receive the money. In an economy where there is only about 6% formal banking penetration and cash is king, Wave Money has become the go-to solution for Myanmar citizens who need to send money to families back home after earning wages in the major cities.

With all this rapid growth and the leapfrog effect coming soon, coupled with the high transparency in the country because of high-speed internet and high smartphone penetration, it is imperative for companies to also develop their social and sustainability programs. Large multinational corporations like Unilever, and smaller companies like Arao Company, are doing exactly that.

Trisha answers questions after the formal presentation

Trisha Mukherjee, the marketing director at Unilever for Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, talked about the importance of building the next generation of Myanmar leaders through their “Leaders Grow Leaders” campaign. From 2014-2017 they sent 4 employees to different countries to work and learn better practices to bring back to Myanmar. In 2019, they plan to expand the program and send 6 more. Of the over 1,500 employees they currently employ, there are 30 managerial roles. 11 of those roles have been localized by Myanmar citizens and they have a goal to double that number to 22 in the next few years.

When asked about the 2018 Myanmar minimum wage increase to $3.60 per day (up from $2.50) and how they were paying their factory workers, Trisha said that the Unilever-only factory workers are paid substantially above minimum wage and the two joint venture factories are slightly above with monthly incentives and benefits.

Smiles from the factory workers come across their faces as we walk through the floor

Khaing Mie Mie Win, a Burmese businesswoman with an incredible story from rags to riches (see link for full story), has built Arao Company from the ground up to several large garment factories with over 3,200 employees. The factories have been modernized and the working conditions are well above expectations. Some workers are paid minimum wage, but most above the new Myanmar standard and all with compensation incentive packages.

Khaing Mie Mie Win discusses her incredible story as a widowed tailor to the employer of over 3,200 people

Not only are the facilities being modernized, but the systems and operations are being optimized as well. “Last year we were producing 35 pieces of garment per hour. After our factory manager rearranged the floor with a new system, we are now producing around 55 pieces of garment per hour. Our goal for the next year is to get to 65,” Khaing Mie Mie Win tells us at her factory.

Both visits to Unilever and Arao Company opened the discussion about gender biases and what the companies are doing to correct them. Unilever has created ads that break down the cultural norms about patriarchy and empower women with the knowledge that they can compete with men on every level. Both companies employ majority women in their factories (Unilever over 60%; Arao Company almost 90%). Khaing Mie Mie Win told us as she finished her compelling story, “that [this] become my motivation, to help these women have better lives.”

A woman in the Arao Company factory marks fabric samples

Although it seems like operational efficiencies have developed in some factories, there is still substantial room for improvement. “There is a lot of hand holding that has to be done in Myanmar operations. A job that would usually be done by 1 [person] is done by 3. The level of skill needed is still far behind other countries,” says Trisha.

Operational inefficiencies don’t just occur on the individual level, but on the corporate level as well. When asked about the potential for good investments in the airline industry, Thura Ko Ko scoffed at the idea. “We had 8 airlines in the country. Last year, 5 of them went out of business. We have 23 private banks in Myanmar. Not all of them will survive. Consolidation is not easy and will be challenging going forward,” he says as he wraps up the optimistic discussion with a bitter reality.

There is much work needed for Myanmar to become a major player in Southeast Asia, but with each visit, we become more and more convinced of the potential for success.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Myanmar

“If you look on the banks of the Irrawaddy, you can see the combination of land, labor, and capital that developed from the time the British empire took control of Burma and transformed it to the largest rice exporter in the world by the beginning of the 20th century,” Sean Turnell says as he points to several British colonial buildings in Yangon’s commercial sector. You can clearly see what he means as taller buildings sprouting up across Yangon have dominated the skyline shared with cranes peppered in every direction as more infrastructure development looms.

“For 10 years, I was on the blacklist by the government and couldn’t come here. But since 2010, the development of this city has been incredible.”

Sean Turnell is an Australian economist that has worked in Myanmar for the better part of his life. His path was not straightforward, but through a series of different economic roles, he finds himself in a seemingly important position. While simultaneously working for the Myanmar Development Institute (MDI) as a senior adviser, he also holds the position of Special Economic Consultant to the State Counselor (essentially the Prime Minister of Myanmar), a role created specifically for Aung San Suu Kyi.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the de facto leader of Myanmar

Sean painted a picture of colonial Myanmar under British rule as one of the major cities of the empire, appropriately dubbed the “rice bowl of the British empire.” It thrived under British rule and created a dominant player in Southeast Asia.

However, after receiving independence, the country transformed into an authoritative military regime. Sean described what followed: “when the military took power, they destroyed all the universities. After the 1988 demonstrations, they dispersed the faculty. They never wanted students to congregate together. They reduced the standards across the board and corrupted the system.”

The fight between reformers and the military regime has been going on for decades, only recently seeing an opening of the country to the rest of the world with the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Suu Kyi. Because of these policies, Myanmar has seen an influx of foreign direct investment and tremendous growth. Last year, the country experienced 6.2% GDP growth, putting it at the 10th fastest growing economy in the world and 2nd in Asia. “Basic fundamentals are in place, which makes Myanmar a very promising market,” says Nevcan Gungor, a CBS alum who holds the position of Chief Investment Officer for an infrastructure conglomerate Shwe Taung Group. She goes on to explain the recent laws benefiting privately-owned companies: “The 2016 Arbitration law was crucial to the opening of the country. Having a basic rule of law and contract enforcement has really helped the business climate and contractual systems.”

Nevcan continued to say that the current government is trying to find the right balance between economic development versus social and sustainability development. The NLD feels that in a lot of other developing countries, economic development came at the expense of social development. So, the Myanmar government’s focus is to balance these two and enable growth while taking these considerations into account.

Last year in 2018, the NLD released the Myanmar Sustainable Development Plan (MSDP) which lays out the framework of where the government sees the development of the country. This has largely been received with positive reviews, but there still remains a number of challenges to accomplish this plan. Among those are political stability, lack of institutional infrastructure to support investment, economic policy uncertainty, and access to sustainable/long-term finance.

Particularly within the financing component, there is significant foreign exchange risk. Most of the financing is done in USD, but businesses operate using the Myanmar Kyat. Any fluctuations in the exchange rate can greatly expose companies.

For example, a recent drop in exchange rates hurt JJ-PUN when they purchased a stockpile of working capital thinking they would expand rapidly, but lost over $1 million and nearly all their profit from 2018 within that sector.

A joint venture between Jebsen & Jessen and Serge Pun Associates, JJ-PUN is a conglomerate that operates primarily in Myanmar within the agriculture space. Alex Spitzy, a managing director with the group, spoke to us about these challenges that Myanmar still faces.

Alex explaining their distribution model of agricultural chemicals with dealers and farmers

When explaining the process of bringing new products to Myanmar, he said the government is still a big hindrance to companies trying to compete in Southeast Asia. In order to get products approved, like safer chemicals for farming, companies have to wait 2 years for experimental registration and 10 years for full registration. He has proposed to the government that if the US, Thailand, and other countries have an approved product, why not expedite the registration process for that product? They seem to disagree. 

“I think the current government is too afraid to fail. They are micromanaging and analyzing everything…If you want to get a country from the bottom and raise it up, you have to be daring,” Alex says with passion as he speaks to our group.

He goes on to speak about their mission, “our vision as a company is building a better country for the Myanmar people. We want to upgrade Myanmar…as Serge Pun says, if you do something good for the country, the money will come.”

Burmese students from the Shan State flocked to take pictures with us at Inle Lake

Although there seems like many obstacles are in the way for a complete rebirth of Myanmar as a significant player in Asia, one cannot help but feel optimistic for where the country is headed. The Burmese people have proven to be genuine, kind, empathetic and loving.

Many companies like Proximity Designs also believe in the future of Myanmar and its people. They are a quasi-NGO focused on providing products and services to the rural communities of Myanmar. They work closely with farmers with a hands-on approach of teaching them efficient farming methods.

Jim Taylor speaks with our group at their modern headquarters in Yangon with a panel of employees from each business line at Proximity

“We saw a massive market that was terribly underserved. It’s been neglected by private companies, the government, public services, and even the aid sector which left farmers on their own,” Jim Taylor, co-founder of Proximity Designs, says to our group during the company visit. “If you look at the neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and their transformation, Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and even Bangladesh…the key to rebuilding a country is a strong rural sector.”

The future is bright for Myanmar, as long as the current political trajectory does not falter. People like Sean, Nevcan, Alex and Jim have faith in what this country can and will become. After our first two days of company visits, we are beginning to see the light on the horizon as well.

Oliver Salman (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Tunisia: Reflecting on a Transformative Visit

uthina temple
Exploring the temple in the ancient Roman town of Uthina

As our farewell dinner came to an end, each student on the Tunisia Global Immersion Program shared their main lesson learned from a week spent learning about the business environment in North Africa. A few common themes surfaced throughout our discussion of Tunisian history, culture, and business, including:

  • Entrepreneurship: many of our students were impressed by the dedication that Tunisians show towards fostering a welcoming environment to aspiring entrepreneurs. Established businesses like BIAT go beyond paying lip service to the importance of entrepreneurship, which they’ve proved through the creation of both an incubator and accelerator program in Tunis.
  • Tunisian Pride: Tunisians are true patriots! From meeting with aspiring political leaders to dining in our teammates homes, each of our experiences underlined how proud Tunisians are of their country’s diversity and rich history.
  • Optimism: While economic conditions have been challenging following the revolution, Tunisians remain optimistic about the future. Upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019 represent an important inflection point in Tunisia’s history. Over 200 political parties have formed since 2011 and underline the enthusiasm with which Tunisians approach political participation. No political system is perfect, but the growth of civic participation and support for small and medium-sized enterprises shows that the country is moving towards a strong foundation for the future.
  • Growth Potential across Africa: While Tunisia’s economy has historically focused on Europe, almost all of our speakers emphasized the enormous potential for growth across Africa. Technology solutions that transcend physical borders have the opportunity to reach huge populations of individuals who had been previously separated from the latest innovations. Many Tunisian businesses are aware of Africa’s previously untapped potential as a consumer market and intend to take advantage of their geographic location to serve this market in the future.
mornag 1
Enjoying the views in Mornag!

Katie Tsantes (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School

Tunisia: Wrapping Up Company Visits & Open Startup Tunisia Results!

We finished our week with the conclusion of Open Start Up Tunisia. Throughout the week we learned more about our Tunisian counterparts and had the opportunity to have a traditional Tunisian dinner in their homes. Friday’s pitch competition allowed each team to showcase the work they’ve done over the past months, building out their business model, honing presentation skills, and obtaining sales to initial customers. Each venture impressed the judges with their commitment to social and economic goals, as well as demonstrations of their ventures’ prototypes.

With this 3rd generation of Open Startup Tunisia competition, key partners ranging from the Columbia Global Center in Tunis to the U.S. Embassy have enabled the organization to connect aspiring entrepreneurs with the right resources to launch their venture. Congratulations to team Tun Up, who won the competition with their venture to create the next generation of essential oil from harissa pepper seeds. While these seeds are typically wasted during the production of harissa, the oil they can create surpassed the beneficial properties of argan oil in lab tests.

Our company visits from the past few days have provided a window into the wide array of sectors and individuals working towards Tunisia’s future. Our class had the opportunity to visit Instadeep’s offices in downtown Tunis, where we learned about applications for artificial intelligence in Tunisian businesses. Instadeep provides a range of services through reinforcement learning and deep learning algorithms to enable companies to maximize the value of their own data.  By working hand in hand with local businesses, Instadeep provides holistic services for its clients, from data cleansing to advanced AI models. Instadeep actively seeks to reduce the Brain Drain of young Tunisian students to Europe and Canada through their recruiting strategy in Tunis. While they have offices in the United Kingdom and France, they remain committed to growing their business inside of Tunisia.

After a discussion of Tunisian politics with Olfa Terras-Rambourg

We also were fortunate enough to meet with Olfa Terras-Rambourg of the Rambourg Foundation. Mrs. Terras-Rambourg’s team has conducted an unprecedented survey of over 11,000 Tunisians to determine top priority issues for the country leading into 2019 elections. As a potential presidential hopeful, Mrs. Terras-Rambourg has learned firsthand from Tunisians about their concerns, most notably:

  • Inflation: the Tunisian economy has struggled following the departure of Ben Ali and inflation currently stands between 7-8%, making the cost of living unsustainable for most Tunisians
  • Corruption: endemic within the Tunisian system is corruption that has become so prevalent some citizens refer to it as “another tax required to do business in Tunisia”
  • Security: with uncertainty across the border in both Libya and Algeria, many Tunisians remain concerned about their own safety and security. Terrorist incidents following the revolution have limited tourism and foreign investment, which will be top priority to resolve for any incoming administration
  • Health Care: many of Tunisia’s best medical professionals have left the country following the revolution. Students must be encouraged to remain in North Africa in order to build a sustainable health care system in the future

While these challenges may seem daunting, Mrs. Terras-Rambourg remains hopeful about the future. She seeks to create a grassroots movement that will create a better future for all Tunisians, where citizens can achieve peace and economic prosperity.

Katie Tsantes (’19) is an MBA Candidate at Columbia Business School