Key Learnings: Challenges & Optimism for Myanmar

Kate Canfield ‘17

Spending ten days in Myanmar was a fascinating experience for me personally. I studied development economics in New Delhi for a semester in college and, since then, have debated the best way to leverage my career to improve the lives of those who have not yet caught the growth wave in emerging markets. This trip offered a firsthand vantage point of a country recovering from decades of decline and the work being done with a variety of strategies to help Myanmar live up to its full potential.

Reflecting on the week, some of the key takeaways for me were the challenges to development in Myanmar that are strongly felt across the board by those working in Yangon.

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1) Human capital

During the half-century of military rule in Myanmar beginning 1962, the country’s education system was decimated. The University of Rangoon was closed down, meaning there was no way for Burmese citizens to receive a college education unless they were wealthy enough to send their children abroad. As a result, the current population aged 30-50 has virtually no education past the high-school level. From a business perspective, this creates a challenge in that locals are not trained for positions in middle management and have little to no experience with leadership roles. Human capital must either be trained internally by businesses themselves or replaced with expats and/or “repats” (Burmese natives who left the country for work/education and are now returning) who require higher salaries.

Those Burmese who have been working throughout the time of military rule also have little to no ambition or instinct to think creatively or proactively. Military appointees filled all senior positions for decades, so there was never opportunity for the Burmese to grow into higher-level positions; hence, it has been culturally engrained in them to do only as told, no more and no less. This also presents a challenge to businesses seeking to grow talent internally, but business leaders are optimistic about the Burmese willingness and strong desire to learn.

2) Political uncertainty

Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been in power for nearly a year, and many are concerned with the lack of immediate, rapid change. ASSK is largely focused on creating peace amongst the five ethnic-driven civil wars taking place in the north of the country, in regions that are completely closed off to the rest of Myanmar. She also inherited an intensely bureaucratic government system, and while she replaced military leaders with her own appointees, many of them have little experience working in government. Her ability to create visible change in the country will take time, and there is concern that the Burmese people could become frustrated with her rule leading up to the next election.

Meanwhile, the former military ruler General Ne Win still resides in his mansion in Naypyidaw, oftentimes receiving visits from foreign ministers despite the fact that he is no longer in power. Some say he has masterfully crafted his image as he transitioned out of power; by allowing the country to open up and have free elections, the general was able to preserve his position rather than be overthrown. He and his cronies have arguably benefitted the most from the country’s reopening, as they own the majority of large businesses in the country (including large hotels, Myanmar beer, and others) that have done extremely well over the past few years. It’s difficult to predict what could happen with politics in the country in the years to come.

3) Business environment

“Everyone wants to help Myanmar; it is both a blessing and a curse,” said Ian Porter from IGC. The business environment in Myanmar is becoming crowded, making it difficult and even slower for things to get done. The government is constantly advised to do one thing by one party and the opposite by another – for example, invest in coal, or invest in gas? Because of these competing viewpoints, decisions are dragged out and business interests stalled. Similarly, resources are fragmented to different groups working to achieve the same goal, rather than all coming together to fund one unilateral project. This creates a unique challenge in a country where much is to be done.

Despite these challenges, Myanmar is full of potential. Never have I heard such universal praise for a population than from the leaders we met with on this trip in their descriptions of the Burmese people. It’s impossible to leave Myanmar without a tremendous sense of hope—I look forward to returning to the country one day to see the progress that has been made by and for the Burmese. Thanks to Professor Amit Khandelwal for the thoughtful lessons, Jennifer and Caitlin with the Chazen Institute for a seamless trip, Rayhan Arif for fun social and cultural activities, and President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making this trip possible for us (and many Americans to come!).

Closing dinner at Le Planteur

Yangon: A Cross Section

Kate Canfield ’17

The majority of our trip centers in Yangon, the country’s commercial hub. We returned from Bagan for four days of meetings, during which we gained a full and diverse picture of the country’s political and business environment as well as the country’s recent history and its lasting effects.

Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948, an achievement often credited to General Aung San, at which point the country entered a period of incredible prosperity. Burma was, during the 1950s, the crown jewel of the ASEAN, far ahead of neighbors like Singapore and Thailand and generally well-positioned as a resource-rich and strategically located land. Students traveled from all over the region to attend the University of Rangoon. In 1962, however, a military coup established a socialist military regime that isolated the country for nearly 50 years and completely destroyed the progress that had been made in Myanmar, from education and business to medicine and infrastructure. The country disintegrated under this rule: the University of Rangoon closed—there was no university-level education available in the country—and trade sanctions and incredibly high import tariffs isolated the country from the rest of the world. Up until a few years ago, no one outside the military and their cronies could afford to purchase a car, let alone a smartphone.

A sign outside the World Bank

In 2011, for a variety of complex reasons that can be speculated upon, the military government began to open the country up to democracy and reform, and in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi won the general election and began the country’s transition into a free, democratic system. ASSK and the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been in power nearly a year, meaning the country is still very much in transition. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked for years to lift U.S. sanctions on Myanmar, and all sanctions were officially removed as of a few months ago, in October 2016.

The group after a meeting at the U.S. Embassy

Meeting with a diverse array of companies in Yangon was fascinating: while each offered a different perspective and opinion on the implications of Burma’s history on Myanmar’s future, many had faced the same challenges in their work in this frontier market. From development finance institutions like the International Finance Corporation to private equity firms like Delta Capital Management, we learned about the difficulty businesses here have securing financing in an uncertain political environment and within a capital market that is not fully formed. Startups operating on the ground level, like wifi network company Frontiir, energy development company Puma, and the Phandeeyar Innovation Lab, shared their thoughts on the unique opportunity for business in Myanmar to “leapfrog” over other countries and build completely new, modern infrastructure that will surpass those of already developed countries. The International Growth Centre (IGC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered a broader perspective on the economic state of the country overall and the types of businesses and sectors that are seeing the most immediate growth in Myanmar.

Overall, the business meetings offered a tremendous cross-sectional view, and it’s difficult to imagine a more fascinating, exciting, yet frustrating place to be in business in the year 2017 than here in Myanmar.

Members of the Social Enterprise Club at the Phandeeyar offices

Getting Acquainted with Burmese Culture and Heritage

Day 1: Yangon

Our trip began with an afternoon of sightseeing in Yangon, the commercial hub of Myanmar. While the nation’s capital was moved to Naypyidaw (a planned city built by the military government, which remains virtually uninhabited) in 2006, Yangon remains the center of business and the country’s largest city, with a population of approximately 5.2 million inhabitants.

The downtown center of the city is full of colonial architecture built during the British occupation leading up to 1948. Sule Pagoda, a beautiful gold stupa in the middle of the old city, is often referred to in Yangon as a point of reference – locations were once described as distances from Sule, the central hub of the city. Several grand colonial buildings surround the pagoda, alongside narrow streets filled with shops, restaurants, and apartments.

Near sunset, we visited the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist shrine and a legendary landmark with its golden stupa soaring above the city’s skyline. The shrine encloses eight hairs from the Buddha and is visited by large numbers of Buddhist monks and Burmese, particularly at dusk, a time of many offerings and general hubbub around the lower terraces of the complex. The topmost point of the pagoda is set with a priceless 76-carat diamond and the upper spires are constructed of centuries-old solid gold plates. In their historic visit to the country in 2012—the first by a sitting U.S. President—President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in between meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi and speeches at the University of Yangon.

Dusk at Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Days 2-3: Bagan

We traveled to the ancient city of Bagan to learn more about the country’s history and experience the region outside of Yangon. The region is scattered with the ruins of over 2,000 monasteries, temples, shrines, and stupas from the 11th to 13th centuries, when Bagan was the imperial capital of Myanmar. The pagodas range in size from grand stupas built by kings to small shrines built by local families, and all are available to explore. Unfortunately, as we learned in our meeting with UNESCO, the site is poorly managed and having a difficult time gaining World Heritage Site status and the funding and support that would come with it, but it’s a stunningly beautiful place nonetheless. We also visited the nearby Mount Popa, a revered center of Nat worship located atop a small mountain of volcanic rock.

Group selfie at Taung Kalat Buddhist Monastery atop Mount Popa!

One of my favorite moments was when we hiked up the steep steps of Shwesandaw Pagoda at dusk to soak in the views from the top. These few days offered a deep cultural understanding of the country leading into our week of business meetings in Yangon, as well as the opportunity to spend time getting to know each other as a group – and a fantastic one at that!

– Kate Canfield ‘17

Expectations for Myanmar

Myanmar has long been on my shortlist of countries to visit – “long” being ever since the travel ban was lifted in 2010 by Aung San Suu Kyi. I have traveled extensively in Southeast Asia, one of my favorite parts of the world. I love that every day and every moment is an adventure, even just crossing the street! Nothing goes exactly as planned, forcing you to live in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

The region has also often made me feel uncomfortable and unsafe. As a young American woman living in Delhi, I was constantly stared at as I walked down the street, despite wearing modest clothing. I had to haggle every rickshaw ride to avoid being aggressively ripped off. One might expect the same in Myanmar, but I believe it will be different in a distinct way: 90% of the Burmese are Buddhist and have a reputation of being extremely respectful, honest people. The country is considered the safest in Southeast Asia. I look forward to meeting and engaging with the Burmese people and learning more about the history and practices of their religion.

I’m interested to see what a country so recently opened to foreign investment and tourism is like on the ground. While the region overall has seen rapid growth in the past decade, Myanmar has lagged behind its neighbors. An estimated 20 elite families from the former military rule have taken the majority of the profits that the opening of the country has offered. Does that translate into more extreme, visible poverty amongst the local population? How are those effects being felt, both in the major cities of Yangon and Mandalay as well as for rural people? I am unsure what to expect in that regard and hope that our business meetings will provide deeper perspective on the situation.

And I can’t wait for the food! Shan noodles and Burmese street food are high on my list to try this trip. Apparently several local wineries have recently developed – could be fun to try, but I’ll likely stick with a beer at a street stall with the locals.

See you in Myanmar!

Kate Canfield ’17

3 Lessons from South Africa

I believe I speak for all of us on the Chazen South Africa trip when I say that this journey was one of the most meaningful experiences of our Columbia Business School education. Why? For me, it boils down to three main lessons, which I will carry with me through this final semester at CBS (and onwards!).

1. Inspiration from South Africa’s complex history – specifically, from those who have fought and continue fighting for a united country.

“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” -Nelson Mandela

Throughout our 10 days and across the country, we were constantly surrounded by people who are fighting, in diverse ways, for a South Africa that they believe in. From places like Robben Island to the Apartheid Museum, where we learned about the struggle of leaders great and small, to our meetings with the people at the helm of EY, Nando’s, and Awethu Project, to name a few, we saw an incredible spirit in the people of South Africa and such excitement around the future of the country that they hope to build.

2. A perspective on global business and an increased awareness of the differences of foreign markets relative to the U.S. market.

“When overseas, you learn more about your own country than you do the place you’re visiting.” –Clint Borgen

From a business perspective, our meetings shed light on the context of the South African market, and the African market more broadly, especially when thinking about strategy and reaching the average consumer. In many ways, the leaders we met with illustrated the benefits of the US market in making comparisons with South Africa – in terms of population size, demographics, income level, and many other factors. Despite the unique challenges of the South African market, the country clearly presents an opportunity to many international businesses looking to make a start on the African continent. I’m looking forward to watching the market and seeing what happens with many of these attempts at expansion into East and West Africa.

3. An incredible new group of friends and the memories we now have together!

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” –John Steinbeck

It’s hard to explain just how much fun was had on this trip. From our day hanging with penguins in our ridiculous Hawaiian shirts, to many memorable (or not so memorable, if they took place post-dinner) hotseats on the bus, to the infamous dragon lady… I can’t imagine a more engaging, curious, and energetic group to have seen South Africa with over the past few weeks. Our leaders – Maria, Jocelyn, Christina, and Ian – put an incredible amount of heart into this trip, and it made all the difference in our experiences. We also had the best Chazen leaders, Caitlin and Becky, who were a pleasure to get to know and added a lot to the trip.

I can’t wait for our reunion!


Kate Canfield ’17

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Business and Promise in Joburg

Johannesburg, South Africa. January 11, 2017.

After two days on safari in Kruger National Park (and lots of learning and debate around the rhino conservation crisis – read more here), we made our way to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa, with a population close to 8 million.

The group at the Hector Peterson Memorial in Soweto

Our last full day on-the-ground was scheduled full of company visits, and as we departed early morning, after a quick debrief around our learnings from the trip, we were nervous it would be a long day. We’d spent the day prior learning about Apartheid through visits to the Apartheid Museum and Nelson Mandela’s home in Soweto (named for the South Western Townships), an area that was home to many anti-Apartheid activists for decades and a humbling place to see, stark contrast to the pristine beauty of Cape Town. Today, however, we were quickly inspired by the brilliant work of the businesses today in Johannesburg.

Graffiti in Soweto

Our first stop was Nando’s, the famous Mozambican chicken chain, to their headquarters (dubbed the “Central Kitchen”). The office is beautiful, featuring unique African designs and an open warehouse feel. Creative artwork covers the walls, representative of the company’s Global Art Initiative – Nando’s restaurants worldwide feature South African artists, giving them exposure and simultaneously causing the asset on the wall to appreciate, a win-win for both the company and the artists.

The coffee shop at Nando’s Central Kitchen

In fact, the most impressive aspect of the Nando’s visit (apart from the famous peri-peri chicken we were served for lunch) was the vast array of social impact the company has built into its core business model. One focus is on the supply chain for the infamously hot peppers used in the company’s peri-peri sauce; Nando’s funds small-scale, entrepreneurial farmers in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa to learn and become future future chili suppliers for the company. The company has also invested significant effort in fighting malaria in Mozambique through the Goodbye Malaria project, a project that is very close to Nando’s heart because of the close relationship the company has with its farmers.

Students display some of the beautiful design and artwork at Nando’s Central Kitchen.
“It’s the people that make the chicken,” is a core philosophy to the company.

Our next stop was at Discovery Health, the largest private health insurance company in South Africa. Discovery built an innovative model called Vitality, which rewards people for healthy behavior. By checking into the gym, for example, a Vitality user gets points that can later be put towards anything from a free weekly coffee to a half-price airplane ticket. While such rewards seem hugely costly, the company says that the costs are offset by the value derived from keeping customers healthy. Discovery is located in area of Johannesburg called Sandton, a ritzy business neighborhood that looks almost like Miami and is home to several high-end malls, including Nelson Mandela Square (not to be confused for a historical site…).

An office building in Sandton, Johannesburg

From Discovery, we headed downtown to the Central Business District (CBD), a much rougher part of the city. Our meeting with Awethu Project took place at a lovely restaurant in Constitution Hill, a former prison known as “The Robben Island of Johannesburg” that housed anti-Apartheid activists including Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe and many others until it was closed in 1983. Meeting with the team at Awethu there, an incubator and venture capital firm that invests in black-owned businesses in South Africa, was inspiring – in the face of such former hate, we saw so much hope and entrepreneurial spirit.

Meeting with Awethu staff and local entrepreneurs on Constitution Hill
A local market in the CBD, Johannesburg

The evening ended with an alumni happy hour at The Living Room, a beautiful rooftop spot in Maboneng, a vibrant area just blocks from the hectic streets of the CBD. We were full of hope and love towards South Africa and the work that so many are doing to inspire the rest of the country.

Sundowners at The Living Room in Maboneng, Johannesburg

– Kate Canfield ’17


A Walk Through Cape Town History

Cape Town, South Africa

January 7, 2017

“I was a prisoner here from 1977 to 1982,” our guide, an elderly black South African man, explained. His charge? “Terrorism,” for educational reform protests outside his high school with a group of fellow students.

We were on Robben Island, an infamous Apartheid prison just across the water from Cape Town, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years (of his 27 total) in a tiny cell. As we sat along the walls of a former incarceration room, the injustice of the place was palpable.

The first few days in Cape Town have felt like a lifetime, a packed schedule enabling us to see a full spectrum of businesses, cultural sites, shopping areas, restaurants, and natural beauty in this gorgeous beach and mountainside city. But one aspect that has stood out to the 42 of us on the trip is the extreme and inescapable divide between rich and poor, a lasting result of Apartheid, which ended during our lifetimes, in 1994.

Nelson Mandela’s cell for 18 years on Robben Island

South Africa has the highest Gini coefficient (a commonly used measure of income inequality) of any country in the world. Blacks make up over 90% of the country’s poor, and unemployment rates are extremely high—estimated in 2002 at 48% for black South Africans. While significant efforts are underway to close the gap—including Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), a government initiative to improve diversity at the highest levels of the workforce—education for the population at large remains a major barrier, given that roughly 25% of 6th graders are illiterate. Most South Africans still live in large “townships” (slums, shantytowns) outside the city, where they were forcefully relocated during Apartheid.

The demographics of the country play out in the way business is done in South Africa. At our visit to South African Brewing (SAB), we were told that the biggest growth opportunity for SAB, recently acquired by Anheuser-Busch, is affordability. For the majority of South African consumers, it takes six hours of work to pay for one Castle beer (typically 15-20 rand, about $1 USD), and over 90% of SAB sales in Cape Town are to that segment of the population. From a go-to-market standpoint, the townships present the largest customer base for the company, and SAB keeps those customers front-of-mind when developing more affordable products that appeal to the broader base.

A beer at the Newlands Brewery, after our tour at SAB


A similar discussion took place at our visit to, South Africa’s largest independent, free-to-air television and news channel. The other public news channel in the country is operated by the government, and is proud of its position promoting free speech throughout the country since it was first established in 1998. As the COO explained, “The ANC [the ruling party] sees us as the mouthpiece of the Democratic Alliance (DA) [the opposition party]. Meanwhile, the DA sees us as the mouthpiece of the ANC.”

While talking about the challenges for services like Netflix to succeed in South Africa, we discussed the limited availability of broadband to the vast majority of the population: 28 million people in South Africa use the internet (about 50% of the population), and of those, only 3% have access to broadband. Netflix launched in the country about a year ago but has yet to gain much traction—it will likely be a marathon, not a sprint.

As we learned at EY, South Africa is often considered from a business standpoint as the gateway to Africa. The African continent is predicted to have some of the highest GDP growth in the world over the next 15 years, around 5% annually, and while South Africa’s is much lower, the country presents an opportunity for many international companies to establish a base on the continent. It is the easiest country in sub-Saharan Africa in which to do business when considering the tax and regulatory framework, and corruption remains low compared to countries in East and West Africa.

A map of Africa shows opportunity (at EY)

Cape Town’s beauty goes without saying, as one of the only major cities in the world with a spectacular mountain right in its center. We spent a day driving down the coast to the Cape of Good Hope, along roads carved into cliffs overlooking the South Atlantic Ocean and to beaches dotted with little African penguins—as well as making a quick stop at Cape Town’s very own e-commerce startup Yuppiechef, widely regarded for its steadfast focus on customer experience. Visits to nearby wineries and estates in Constantia and Stellenbosch offered a glimpse into the best of what life can offer on the Western Cape, including a private tour and tasting at Babylonstoren, which is owned by a CBS alum and Founder/CEO of a major television network in SA. They’re famous for their rosé!

Wine tasting at Babylonstoren in Stellenbosch

We’re now off to Kruger National Park for two days on safari before continuing to Johannesburg for our last round of museum and company visits. More to learn!

-Kate Canfield ‘17

Preparing for South Africa

As a second-year student embarking on my first Chazen trip, my expectations for the next couple weeks are high. I’ve been interested in Chazen since I first started thinking about my application to CBS, as I can think of no better way to see and learn about a country than by visiting with classmates who have lived or grown up there. I’m also looking forward to the company visits because of a strong interest in international business.

And… swag! (Plus Christina’s cat.)


Our organizers have worked hard on a fantastic itinerary for us, with trips to Stellenbosch wineries and vineyards, a tour of Robben Island, a cable-car up Table Mountain, playing with penguins on the Cape Peninsula, and a private game safari in Kruger National Park. We also have several “theme” days, which adds some fun and group bonding to the trip. Stay tuned for photos!


I’m particularly excited to visit Nando’s, a big South African restaurant chain with nearly 1,000 outlets in 30 countries. Nando’s is well known for their creative, cheeky marketing campaigns… And I’ve heard great things about the chicken. Might have to get myself one of these loyalty cards…


This is my first time on the African continent, and I’m looking forward to sharing my adventures with Chazen over the course of the next 10 days. Let’s do this!

-Kate Canfield ’17