Myanmar’s Jaggery – A Favorite Traditional Sweet

A walk in any local market in Myanmar presents interesting aromas and colorful displays of local fare, from fruits and local preparations to packets and open heaps of small bite sized pieces of jaggery. The pale gold semi-circular pieces are served as dessert after meals in restaurants, as snack in teashops, and as candy to fill in the long gaps between meals.  It is interesting to find this small piece leave a pleasant, lingering aftertaste, long after it has been digested. Unlike anything one may have tasted, jaggery is an unrefined sweet made out of palm toddy in Myanmar and other tropical countries.

Jaggery has caught the attention of nutritionists and health professionals who have seen the damage caused by refined white sugar. As an unrefined natural sweetener, that is a food in itself, jaggery retains all the vitamins and minerals found in the sap of palm trees called toddy. Its earthy, caramelized taste comes from the cooking of sap in iron utensils, till it thickens, after which it is poured into moulds and cooled. An estimated 80 million kilograms of jaggery is produced every season, and it finds its way into homes and cuisines all over the world.

Jaggery is also made out of sugarcane juice, that is squeezed out of the long bamboo like cane fruit with the aid of machines. It has to be similarly cooked to thicken and is then cooled and sold in bigger chunks. Countries like India have a rich harvest of sugarcane, which is divided between making jaggery and refined sugar. Cane jaggery is a deeper gold in color due to the darker color of the cane juice, unlike palm toddy which is white and translucent. Palm jaggery however, is healthier, richer in minerals and a better taste with a slight caramelized saltiness.

The jaggery making process

Jaggery making is one of the significant rural based cottage industries in Asian countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. Requiring minimal capital investment without mechanization or expensive refining involved, it is labor intensive and hence a source of employment, which helps alleviate families out of poverty. Not without risks, the key skill required is tree climbing to collect sap and the returns in the form of earnings are dwindling, leading to a reduction in the number of tappers left in Myanmar.

Jaggery is made out of the sap collected from palm trees. Palms have been known to be the oldest flowering plants since the beginning of civilization, and tapped for centuries to intercept the sugar before it reaches the fruit and its non-edible parts. The palm family, Arecaceae, has many species that produce enough sap that can be converted into sugar and jaggery, though Palmyra palms, coconut and date palms are tapped the most. The sap is called sweet toddy due to its high sucrose content (between 10-20%), and the palm trees get to be called toddy palms.

Palm trees are found in central Myanmar which is also the dry zone. Large toddy farms spread over hundreds of acres in Mandalay’s  Kyautpadaung township and Magwe’s Yanangyaung, Chauk and Yesagyo townships. The trees grow in groves and are ready with rich sap after fifteen years of maturity. The tall trees produce so much sap that it can be collected twice a day, and the process has to continue on a daily basis or else the sap flow will diminish and eventually stop. The process then has to be started from scratch, which can take up to two weeks. To harvest the sap, bamboo ladders are tied to the palm tress that rise to be 25-30 meters high. The first step of tapping is to cut the leaves, make deep cuts on the tree trunk, and hang clay pots into which the sap collects over the day. Multiple pots are hung on each tree and these are collected and replaced at least twice a day. Collection time is generally around 5-6 am every morning and then around 3 pm in the afternoon. The harvesting season lasts for eight months in the year in Upper Myanmar, while central Myanmar trees can be tapped all year around albeit with a period of low productivity between November and June.

The quantity collected also depends on the agility and expertise of the worker. Typically workers are able to climb 25-50 trees in a day, and an average of 5 liters per tree is collected daily. Toddy sells for approximately 1000 kyat per viss (equivalent to 1.6 kg).

The clay pots are first lined with slacked lime to delay the fermentation process since the sap has a short shelf life. It can be preserved at room temperature for a maximum of 24 hours, or a bit more, if refrigerated. Tappers carry back multiple pots after climbing 25-50 trees per session, twice a day. At home, fireplaces are kept ready to The sap is then filtered and lime sedimentation removed before it is transferred to iron pots and placed on high heat. The fuel typically used in rural areas, close to the palm trees, is bean husk, cow dump and chipped palm leaves. Being rich in moisture, it has to be cooked for 3 hours to get rid of the water content, remove the frothy white scum that appears on top, and then allow it to thicken. Adding a bit of oil prevents crystallization and small round balls are made while it is still hot.

Palm jaggery can be used to make refined white sugar, which is higher in price, but this inferior in quality to cane sugar, and hence has low demand. Jaggery is a part of the common man’s diet while white sugar considered a luxury. Of late, the demand for organic palm jaggery is increasing in international markets. Companies like the 555 Shwe hintha Company, have been promoting their brand Royal Jaggery, and have begun their exports to Japan.

Myanmar’s palm jaggery

Some of the traditional Myanmar candies include round pieces of jaggery mixed with tamarind, coconut and jaggery candy and of course, lemon flavored jaggery candy.

Famous domestically as Myanmar’s chocolate, jaggery is an all day snack savoured by young and old alike. Than Nyat Khe, its Myanmar name, has become a craze of late even among the country’s expatriate community, thanks to the innovative efforts of a medical graduate, who decided to make bite sized pieces of jaggery to prevent wastage of chunks offered, which were always too sweet and too big to finish, and even added local organic ingredients like coconut, ginger, lemon, mint and yoghurt. Ma Cho Lei Aung, started her brand Tree Food in September 2015 to promote bite sized pieces of jaggery in artistically self- designed paper bags, and catch the eye of the youth all over again. Jaggery had in recent times, lost out to imported candies which are not even healthy options. The natural earthy goodness of jaggery delicately flavored, has, thanks to her efforts, become popular and gaining ground all over Myanmar, and is one of the top Myanmar specialties carried back home by tourists.  Today it is not only a great souvenir, it is back as an integral part of Myanmar’s identity.

Constraints in jaggery production

Palm tapping is considerably reduced and there are fears of it being a dying cottage industry. This is due to various constraints not entirely attributable to economic growth and development, offering alternative employment with higher earning potential even in rural areas. Families that were once content with their earnings of 10,000 kyat a day from selling 40-50 kilograms of jaggery per day, now prefer employment in hotels and restaurants in the vicinity which multiply the family earnings at least three times when three members go to work. Additionally, they have access to a cleaner safer life, without having to climb 25-30 trees a day, risking falls, injuries and sometimes even death. The end result has been a decline of 50% in the last five years, and an estimated 5 million trees are left today. The rest have been cut and sold for paltry sums, and in some cases, the land has been sold off as well.

Health benefits of palm jaggery

The current trends of high blood sugar levels and ensuing lifestyle diseases like diabetes, refined white sugar is best avoided from an early age. But that does not mean giving up on all sweets. Organic sweets like palm jaggery have a long list of health benefits. A low glycemic index, totally natural and high fiber and mineral content, palm jaggery aids digestion, has a cooling effect, clears the respiratory tract, and provides energy with its richness in iron, magnesium, calcium and phosphorus.

A general awareness about eating healthy has made the masses turn towards organic, natural foods and avoid processed ones. Products like jaggery fit into this category, providing energy and nutrients without any harmful side effects, not even weight gain, despite being sweet. At the macro level cottage industries like jaggery production offer a viable self employment route, a way out of poverty, a source of daily earning and an opportunity to a better life despite the risks. The Myanmar government is also stepping in to help improve the condition of the country’s toddy farmers, by providing loans and technical assistance, modern climbing equipment that reduces risk of injury and fatal falls. The farmers are also being offered expertise to grown new, healthier palm trees, and set up mechanized jaggery making processes for more hygienic products.

Myanmar’s Golden Pearls

A string of lustrous golden beads, perfect rounds that glisten and glitter, has become one of the most eye-catching pieces of jewelry today. It outshines pure gold necklaces, with the grace it adds complementing all types of attire for every occasion. The golden pearl once extremely rare, is now being increasingly cultivated in countries like Australia, Indonesia and our very own Myanmar.

The golden pearl is the newest addition to Myanmar’s vast repertoire of gems from rubies and sapphires to spinel and amethyst. Myanmar’s cultured South Sea golden pearls became popular after a single pearl was sold for USD 30,000 at a private auction in Hong Kong. Though Myanmar had been participating in international auctions and sales since the early 2000s, the first decade did not include high quality pearls, and were sold at lower prices. Gradually, the quality of pearls being cultured has improved phenomenally, and now Myanmar’s golden pearls participate every year in the Hong Kong jewelry show, besides local shows that attract international buyers.

Pearls – Natural and Cultured        

The pearl is one gemstone that is appropriate for every occasion, never ostentatious, always understated in elegance, at once adding grace and charm. From Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton, pearl strands adorn the neck of millions of women, at the work place and beyond.

Pearls are known by numerous names, as the queen of gems, the gem of the moon, drops from heaven and so on. White pearls have an astrological significance and are believed to bring peace to the wearer. The quality, value and beauty of pearls is determined by the color, luster, size, shape, nacre and surface. Pearls are sold in ‘parcels’ made by sorting similar pearls and vary in value accordingly.

The most common are white pearls, but increasingly now, pink, grey, golden, black and various other colored pearls have flooded the market. Natural or cultured, real pearls from saltwater or freshwater come in wide ranging price levels, from USD 50 – 50,000 and more.

Pearls are the only gemstone that can be called organic, produced by a living creature. They come in various shapes and sizes, different shades and lusters. The best pearls undoubtedly are the natural pearls, which are made up of nacre, right till their innermost core. The pearl is completely made of calcium carbonate. These are also the most expensive and scarce, since only one in 10,000 wild oysters yields a pearl, which again is seldom of the shape, size and color needed for it to qualify as a piece of jewelry. Natural pearls coming out of wild oysters are difficult to find since these pearl producing oysters were hunted decades ago, to near extinction.

Pearls are naturally formed in the shell of an oyster, when any irritant enters a mollusk. The oyster, in self defence secretes a substance called nacre, over the irritant. Layer after layer of nacre leads to the formation of the pearl. Pearls are now cultured and formed due to human intervention. Trained technicians (the Japanese being the best, with an 80% success rate, seeding 600 oysters a day) insert an irritant, a mother-of-pearl bead, or nucleus into the oyster, along with a small piece of mantle tissue. The mantle tissue is a piece of lining of the mollusk that will prevent injury by surrounding and protecting living creature in the shell. The tissue also contains the cells that induce production of nacre which will eventually cover the bead. It takes 4-6 years to harvest a pearl, and the same oyster can be seeded 2-3 times in its lifetime, before being left in wild waters, free from captivity.

The demand and beauty of the pearl has made it into a flourishing industry and human intervention into the natural process has helped to increase production of pearls, though these are cultured pearls.  Cultured pearls can Akoya, South Sea or Tahiti. Akoya pearls are cultivated mainly in large pearl farms in Japan and China, are white, cream or grey in color, and grow to a size of 2mm-10mm, over a period ranging from 8 months to 2 years.

The tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean around countries including Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Myanmar, are ideal for cultivating the fine, larger South Sea pearls. These have a thicker coating of nacre and grow to a size of 10-15mm in shades of white, cream and yellow (this is the famed golden pearl).

Black Tahiti pearls are cultivated in French Polynesia, in a group of 5 island archipelagoes. While called black, they are in various shades of dark grey, with blue, green, violet and other color tones.

Freshwater pearls are found all over the world, but particularly in the US, Japan and China, in streams, rivers and lakes. The typical size of these pearls ranges from 4mm to 10mm. Freshwater pearls are different due to their thicker nacre, different shapes and colors, and take 2-6 years to be fully formed. Freshwater mussels interestingly, can produce more than one pearl at a time, unlike their saltwater counterparts.

Myanmar’s Own Golden Pearls

Myanmar’s golden pearls come with a unique pinkish, apricot hue, a thicker layer of nacre and large size, and are widely perceived as the best in the world.

Myanmar produced a total of 687,000 pearls in 2017-18, showing a 10% increase in number in three years. Pearls are sold loose in lots or parcels, and also as finished ornaments. The pearl industry is managed by the Myanmar Pearls Enterprise (MPE) that comes under the aegis of the Ministry of Mines. It is responsible for the sale of pearls through auctions and exhibitions, and participation in jewelry exhibitions in Hong Kong and other places., where they fetch high prices due to their quality. The industry is regulated and valued at over USD 100 million, even though it pales in comparison to the richer jade, ruby and other gems’ industries worth billions.

Golden pearls being in the limelight is a very recent phenomenon. While being famous in the 1800s for their natural golden hues collected by the nomadic locals called sea gypsies, pearl production fell for a few decades, before being revived again. Today, there are 9 domestic and international pearl culture companies, including a state-owned one, which together invested around one billion kyat to resume pearl cultivation. The Myanmar Pearl Law has also recently been amended to permit foreign direct investment. Within the country, the golden pearls can be purchased at various retail outlets in Yangon and Mandalay. The retail sector is flourishing, though it is not unusual to find dyed pearls to get better prices. The dyeing process does not indicate poor quality, but does differ from original shades of even cultured pearls.

Myanmar is one of the few countries whose pristine clean waters around the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago are the ideal cultivating place for South Sea pearls. Both white and golden pearls are produced by local water inhabitants, the Pinctada maxima oyster. The gold lipped oysters produce the golden colored pearls while the silver lipped ones produce white and silver pearls. Generally, a clean local environment produces the best quality pearls. It is therefore imperative to preserve this clean domain, despite the promotion of tourism in the area, while finding other ways to enhance and maintain the golden pearl quality.

Pearl cultivation in the Myeik Archipelago has been revived with the help of companies and expertise from Japan and Australia. Pinctada maxima oysters, both male and female are placed in water tanks, and the fertilization process takes place only between January and May.  Collector ropes are also placed in the water, to which the larvae get attached. These ropes are then left in an area of the ocean that’s been cordoned off from ships and fishermen. It takes two years for the oysters to grow sufficiently to be seeded. Japanese technicians have now trained Myanmar locals in seeding techniques ensuring similar success rates. The seeding process needs precision and speed, to open the shell to place a nucleus without injuring the living being inside. The oysters are then released back into the waters. It takes four years for the pearls to be ready for harvest. After four years, the golden pearls are cautiously removed by opening the shells again, and another nucleus implanted. In its lifetime, this process can be repeated at least three times for every oyster.

Golden pearls are among the rarest of pearls, and also amongst the largest in size, going up to 12-14 mm in diameter. The shades range from bright golden akin to 24 carat gold, to a soft champagne hue, which is lighter but no less regal. Myanmar is the ideal cultivation ground to reap a rich harvest of these golden beads, which will yield the much needed revenue to aid economic growth and development in the country.






Is Yangon Sliding Under Urbanization Pressure?

Yangon’s crowds are growing and the numbers on the roads are increasing, be it vehicles or people. IS Yangon overcrowded? Yes, very much. Parks are packed with people taking a break, the sidewalks with pedestrians, and the roads with more vehicles than Yangon has ever seen before. All this is in stark contrast to the Yangon we saw in 2013, when its seemed the most refreshing place to live in, a very green, quiet and serene city with an aura of peace that permeated the inner most core of our being, a few cars, a few people, and there was sufficient room for all. Anywhere I went, there were vast open spaces, quiet corners and empty roads. Fast forward to 2018, one look at Yangon now, and this would seem like a fairy tale.

Yangon today looks like any other big Asian city, with its traffic jams, congestion, pockets of densely populated areas, emerging slums, crowded streets and people spilling everywhere. The once neat and clean city, is often seen with littered sidewalks, broken pavements and everything one sees in a place that cannot take the load of the number of people occupying it.

The transformation can be attributed to a series of factors linked to economic development, which brings with it, urbanization, industrialization and modernization.  Migration from rural to urban areas is one of the first phenomena ones sees.

What Yangon stands for

Yangon’s pristine aura of peace, enigmatic charm, unparalleled scenic beauty, colonial heritage and elusive old-world charm, has made it a top tourist destination and the most popular city for the people of Myanmar. As the country’s biggest urban center, Yangon has charmed one and all. Once the center of art and education, Yangon has been changing and evolving, for better and worse. Today, it is a city that is ready to burst at its seams, stretched to provide basic amenities and subsistence to a rapidly growing population. It is rapidly emerging as a cosmopolitan, commercial hub, providing jobs, homes and livelihood to locals and expatriates alike. Yangon is the country’s commercial capital, with the best quality of life, and the first stop for everyone entering the country.

Yangon being the largest city, has 8% of the country’s total population, the number of people being four times more than those living in Mandalay. This accounts for nearly 52% of the country’s total urban population. The current population growth rate of 3.4% per annum, will take the city to the 10 million mark by 2030.

For Myanmar folk, it is the land of opportunity where the best of education, job opportunities and healthcare facilities are available. Yangon accounts for 50% of the country’s industrial capacity, is the largest financial and commercial center, the seat of education, art, culture, healthcare, tourism, research and development.

Yangon’s character has changed with bridges and flyover, vertical high rise structures rising alongside pagodas, housing sector expanding, shopping malls and multiplexes mushrooming all over the city.

Urbanization and the migrant influx

Urbanization in Myanmar has been pushed due to challenges faced in rural areas. With employable population increasing, earning money has become difficult, since there is lack of sufficient land to employ everyone, old farming techniques still being used, threat of natural disasters and difficulty to overcome past disasters, and lack of work opportunities beyond agriculture. The urban pull emanates from better job opportunities in various fields and higher minimum wages. Evidence shows that urbanization peaks when city wages exceed rural earnings, and revenue from natural resources becomes stagnant with limited potential for growth.

Myanmar’s urbanization process has radically changed two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay, and urban population accounts for 34.65% (2016) of the total. Over 50% of the 11,000 registered firms in Myanmar, are Yangon based. Industrialization which incorporates manufacturing and services, is a big driver of urbanization and this holds true for Yangon. As a result, migrants from all parts of Myanmar come to Yangon looking for jobs and earning options.

Theoretically, urban hubs are the perfect meeting place for talent and opportunity, but lack of a qualified, educated and skilled work force, is an issue. Consequently, jobs which do not require high skill levels are easier to find. Often such jobs do not pay well enough to provide subsistence to families, despite the fact that government-stipulated minimum wages are paid. The result is, search for cheaper accommodation, the growth of slums, and squatters seen in all parts of the city.

Slums are informal, temporary, non-pucca hutments or shanties that crop up in clusters, wherever there is free space, generally on the fringes of cities. Unofficial figures indicate that a quarter of Yangon’s population lives in slums that have cropped up in suburbs. An influx of tenants leads to an escalation of rents in the city areas, and pushes the poorer section further away towards the outer parts. Most slums are overcrowded, unhygienic with limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation facilities. Housing space per family is generally less than 200 square ft, the construction type being wooden frames with leaf roofing, temporary and vulnerable to the elements. Hlaing Thar Yar township has the highest number of slum dwellers, most of whom have migrated from the Ayerwaddy Division.

Myanmar is one country whose urban poor are worse off than the rural poor. This is because urban living requires cash for everything and nothing comes free. In rural areas, there are no payments needed for a lot of things that come free, there is exchange and barter, and very few people sleep hungry in villages. The same does not hold true for Yangon’s squatters. Their living conditions are in sharp contrast to the middle and upper classes, and the contrast between the haves and have-nots, is the ideal breeding ground for petty thefts and crimes. The opening up of the country, the influx of foreign goods and capital, the emergence of shopping malls and entertainment areas, has evoked interest from the once content and complacent population. There is a desire to acquire the latest in fashion goods, devices and gadgets, and get a taste of all that Yangon offers. Those opting for shortcuts would resort to dishonest ways of getting these.

How Urbanization impacts developing countries

Developing nations surge ahead on the basis of manpower that drives industrialization. There is a redistribution of population, an exodus from villages towards cities, in search of better job opportunities. Urbanization involves rural flight and expansion of urban areas, and it is almost always, driven by economic factors, since earning potential in urban areas is much higher than rural areas. Agriculture is the primary source of employment in villages in most developing countries where governments have not been able to set up small scale or cottage industries that tap local resources and add value to raw materials.

Urbanization is an essential step for all nations on the path of development. Urban areas are the ubiquitous centers of education, talent, training, capability, experience and expertise-all prerequisites for industrial growth, which will lead the country towards self-sufficiency, increase productivity, generate employment, raise standards of living, increase per capita incomes, savings and investments. Thus it leads social and economic transformation of societies, improving quality at micro and macro levels.

Nearly 54% of the world’s population lives in urban areas today, a far cry from 1800 A.D., when urban population was just 2%. By 2050, the United Nations expects two-thirds of the world population to be in urban areas This is because empirically, it has been seen that cities have more economic potential with their concentration of resources including capital and labor, where talent meets opportunity provided by the manufacturing or services sectors. Urban areas provide variety of opportunity on one side, and consumption on the other.

Urbanization also results in high population density (the number of people living per unit of area), causing overcrowding, shortage of space, homelessness, congestion and pollution. In most developing countries, there is inadequate infrastructure, insufficient affordable housing, water and sanitation, and other basics that are a citizen’s right to lead a dignified life. The dearth of housing leads to slum creation, squatters, shanties being put up on pavements, sidewalks and under bridges, and herein fester crime and danger, out of poverty and frustration, and people take to begging just to survive.

A series of push and pull factors are the root cause of urbanization. Residents of villages are forced to move out when survival becomes difficult, earnings do not cover expenses, and there seems to be no future opportunities for improvement. Hence the push factors come into play, which include landlessness, low wages as farm workers, seasonal work in fields depending on the crop, lack of alternate employment opportunities, and natural disasters that cause loss and damage.

Pull factors include the facilities and opportunities that cities provide. From afar, cities appear to be like paradise and survival easy with all that they offer, better and multiple employment opportunities which are not seasonal, potential to improve skills, better education and healthcare, better infrastructure and communication facilities.  These somehow camouflage the impending threats of extreme poverty, unemployment, vulnerability to crime, exposure to pollution and unhealthy elements.

Can rural exodus be stopped

In the ongoing debate on the ills of urbanization, there is talk of halting the process and a search for alternatives. The solution lies in providing employment opportunities in rural areas through the setting up of small scale industries in villages where local arts and crafts can be manufactured, value added agricultural products can be produced in villages close to the source of raw materials to avoid transportation costs as well. Myanmar’s export earnings from rice, beans pulses, vegetables and fruits, fisheries etc can increase substantially if they are packaged according to international standards and sold as finished goods rather than being finished in other countries. Improvement of education facilities, setting up secondary schools and vocational training centers will also stem part of this influx into Yangon.

Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

A Case for Milk – The Dairy Industry in Myanmar

The white nectar that sustains infants and builds their body and bones in the first year of their life, the wholesome liquid that nourishes and nurtures those unable to eat solid foods, and the rich source of calcium, is slowly weaving its way into the average Myanmar diet. Supermarkets now stock a wide range of dairy products like yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, cream, butter, ghee, milk powder, evaporated and condensed milk, many of which have a long shelf life. The product range and variety has increased manifold in the last 5-7 years, with more local small scale manufacturers experimenting with newer products as well imported dairy products lining shelves.

Traditionally, milk was never an important part of the average Myanmar diet, as has been seen in other less developed countries. It has also been seen that milk consumption increases as communities and countries develop, earning capabilities improve and awareness about health and nutrition increase. An increase in income leads to the incorporation of milk and dairy products in largely starch based diets. There is a strong correlation between income and milk consumption at the micro level, and between the dairy industry and stage of economic development of a country. At present milk consumption in developed countries is steady, but growing the fastest in Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of milk if we combine the production of cow and buffalo milk, though the U.S. is the world’s largest producer of cow’s milk.

The health benefits of milk

The general reference to milk implies cow’s milk, and in some places, buffalo milk, though milk can be procured from other mammals just as well, and from plant based sources like soya, rice and almonds. Cow’s milk is the highest consumed milk due to the nine essential nutrients it contains, including calcium, potassium, and the daily human requirement of protein. Cow’s milk has better flavour and texture, followed closely by buffalo milk which is popular in very few countries, India being one of them. Cow’s milk has an 87% water content and 13% solids which include minerals, proteins, fats and lactose.

Proponents of milk consider it to be nature’s complete nutrient for humans, providing calcium which is needed for better bones and teeth, and prevents osteoporosis in old age. Daily intake of milk helps to neutralize toxins which enter the body through other foods and can damage the human body. The nourishment derived from milk helps sustain energy levels and keeps our minds and bodies active. For infants and those without teeth, a milk and dairy diet is complete nutrition for growth and sustenance. Health experts are convinced about the role of milk in controlling blood pressure and diabetes.

Commercial milk production

Milk is by far the most nutritive beverage and widespread propagation of its importance as an essential dietary requirement has led governments to encourage setting up of dairy farms, both small and large. This includes nurturing animals, collecting and selling milk. This is not simple at all and the journey from cow to cup is rather long.

Raw milk taken from the cow has to be processed to make it safe for human consumption. Being highly perishable, raw milk lasts for only a few hours unless refrigerated. Therefore, large dairy farms typically collect milk in refrigerated stainless steel containers and send them to milk processing plants where milk is passed through a series of separators and clarifiers which remove debris, bacteria, and also separate heavier and lighter milk.

Essentially milk has to be pasteurized to kill any harmful bacteria. Pasteurization involves heating milk in a specific manner to kill all harmful bacteria but retaining the good bacteria and natural enzymes. It also helps to extend shelf life of milk. The next step is homogenization, a process used to crush the fat globules floating in the milk solid, to make them so small that they cannot rise to the surface and form a thick creamy layer. Milk is also differentiated by fat content, and a set of processes render full cream, low fat or skimmed milk. Vitamin fortified milk and flavoured milk are other varieties produced.

The milk is then packaged and sent to various destinations in refrigerated vehicles, though long-lasting varieties can be sent through normal vehicles.

All types of commercially packaged milk has to meet stringent standards set by a regulatory authority of the country. Quality control is important and has to be maintained by ensuring hygiene and cleanliness levels of the milk processing plant, as well as the health of the animal that provides the milk.

Myanmar’s Dairy Industry

The diary sector in Myanmar is in an early stage of development. Research indicates that almost 85% of Myanmar’s milk comes from small dairy farms, that sell raw milk, due to limited processing facilities, to consumers and businesses close by. The annual production of milk is around 620 million kilograms, and this is less than half the national milk requirements. The Yangon region has seven large milk processors that process raw milk collected by a small network of milk collectors who in turn procure raw milk from very small dairy farms within a distance of 30 km. Quality control and certification of the milk processed is not a regular practice.

The gradual increase in incomes is spurring demand for milk and milk products, which cannot be met by domestic production. The range of milk products commonly consumed include fresh milk, flavoured milk, yoghurt, plain and flavoured, milk powder, condensed milk, and ice cream. A big source of demand comes from the thousands of tea shops across the country that sell millions of cups of tea laced with generous amounts of condensed milk. Most of this is imported since the local varieties produced in factories in the Mandalay region are unable to compete with imported condensed milk in terms of both price and quality. Milk powder is used extensively in the making of highly popular 3-in-1 tea and coffee sachets.

The gap between demand and supply is being met by imports from Thailand, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and other countries. A large segment of this is milk powder, that is also sold as reconstituted milk. According to commerce ministry figures, in a single week in July 2017, 409 tons of condensed milk and 70 tons of milk powder were imported into Myanmar via sea routes. Regular imports from neighbouring Thailand come from the land route across the border.

Some of the leading local brands include Walco, Silvery Pearl, TM, PEP, Fun Hwa and others. This is fresh pasteurized milk in full cream and low fat varieties, but available mainly in the Yangon region. Imported long lasting milk brands include Cowhead, Emborg, Dutch Lady, Foremost, and scores of others, some of which also sell milk powder, condensed milk and evaporated milk in supermarkets and smaller shops lacking refrigeration facilities.

Despite the setting up of various bodies like the Myanmar Dairy Association and Myanmar Dairy Products Manufacturers Association among others, the dairy industry faces multiple stumbling blocks to increasing supply, like inadequate infrastructure, lack of funding and financing options, no access to technical expertise and advisory bodies and others, all of which are essential for improving the quality of milk and making each step of the milk producing process efficient. The dairy industry is at least two decades behind its Thailand counterpart with lack of access to continuous power supply, adequate refrigeration facilities for storage, and reliable transport. Increasing livestock to increase production would be easy, but related issues at every step of the production process need to be resolved first.

Milk and dairy products became a part of the human diet as early as 8000 BCE. Cattle breeding and livestock have sustained civilizations over centuries and milk served to provide essential nutrients in the absence of other foods. However, Southern Asian nations did not include dairy and dairy products as an integral part of their diet, and this trend has continued over centuries. It is only in the last few decades that these nations have started incorporating milk and dairy products into their diets.

The small interest in milk and dairy products began during British Rule for local Myanmar folk, and the Indian influence on food kept that going. Even today, Myanmar’s dairy industry can follow the Indian example, where its Operation Flood, launched the National Dairy Development Board, initiated an unstoppable ‘White Revolution’ and converted India from a milk deficient country to the world’s largest producer, besides generating employment especially in rural areas. The similarity in cultures of India and Myanmar, their proximity and willingness to share knowledge makes India the ideal neighbour to take a cue from.


Myanmar’s Pharmaceutical Industry and Healthcare

Visit any physician’s clinic or hospital in Myanmar and the bag of medicines handed over at the pharmacy is inevitably full of tablets and capsules that have been imported. A closer look at the label will reveal the name of an Indian, Thai, Bangladeshi or Chinese pharmaceutical company. This is not surprising in a country where domestic industrial production is in its nascent stages and even more so in the pharma sector which has only 4 local pharmaceutical production units. In sharp contrast, are the hundred odd distributors of foreign drug companies, importing over 5000 types of western allopathic drugs. Inevitably local demand for medicines and health supplements is fed by imports.

Medicines are lifesaving, lifestyle-changing, health improving magical potions taken to cure illnesses and maladies, alleviate moods, and generally set right, all that is going wrong physiologically and psychologically in our system. The aim is a longer, improved quality of life, reduced pain and suffering, and of course, a huge monetary loss, since medicines are not cheap. The key to health and wellness in Myanmar lies in access to medicines manufactured in one of the neighboring ASEAN nations or far off European countries.

The healthcare industry is one of the fast growing, high potential sectors that needs reform, extension, and improvement to ensure better healthcare facilities so as to prevent the outflow of patients to other countries. The pharma sector is one part of the larger healthcare sector which incorporates all the drugs, medicines, tonics and injections needed for treatment and health improvement.

For the country’s population of 57 million, per capita expenditure on medical needs is low and access to medical care is difficult in rural areas where people have to travel long distances to get treatment and medicines. According to the World Health Organization, 93% of all medical expenses are borne by patients themselves since government cover and health insurance have yet to be initiated.

Unlike other countries where pharmacies, drug stores and medicine shops are seen around every corner, the number of such medicine outlets in Myanmar is very small. It is customary for all doctors’ clinics, polyclinics and hospitals to provide medicines, and they have their own sources of procurement from a network of preferred distributors. Over 60% of drug sales take place in the two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay.

Pharmaceuticals market

According to market research agencies the total pharmaceutical expenditure in Myanmar has been growing at 11-12% per annum, and has increased from USD 390 million in 2014 to USD 440 million in 2015. However, these values are lower than most ASEAN nations including Singapore whose population is one tenth that of Myanmar. Growth prospects with governmental initiatives are high and the market is expected to touch USD 1.12 billion by 2023.

However, most of the pharmaceutical products sold come from countries like India, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam. Research figures indicate that total pharmaceutical imports accounted for 85% of the drug market and India takes the lead with a strong 40-45% market share.

All imported drugs have to be registered and authorized by the FDA that inspects pharmaceutical plants and importers and also tests the quality of drugs. At present, approximately 5000 drug varieties are imported into Myanmar.

There is a vast market for generic drugs and all types of prescription drugs including steroids and antibiotics can be purchased over the counter. This is responsible for big Indian companies like Sun Pharmaceuticals, Dr. Reddy’s and Cipla capturing a significant market share of the local market. Another reason for the success of Indian companies is the lower price levels they can be procured at, compared to bigger international brands. When funding is not available and the patient has to pay out of his pocket, cheapest options are sought – and this comes from Indian manufacturers. India also happens to be a neighboring country and trade across the border also takes place. Additionally, doctors and physicians are comfortable prescribing affordable Indian medicines since they are trusted for quality.

The role of traditional medicine

The belief in turning to nature to heal and cure, is strong in Myanmar. Traditional medicine treatments have been followed for generations and continue to be popular, more in remote rural areas, not least due to non availability of western (allopathic) medicines. Herbs and medicinal plants are found in abundance and serve as highly affordable remedies for diseases. According to statistics provided by the World Health Organization, nearly 75% of Myanmar’s population still uses traditional medicines for healing and wellness.

However, there is increasingly a distinct preference for western medicines subject to affordability and availability. This is because they feel the quality is better and they also have a higher efficacy than local herbal products. Traditional medicine cannot also be used for life threatening diseases, where western medication and treatment becomes imperative at least for those who can afford it.

Domestic production and the distributor network

The country’s own pharmaceutical industry is grossly underdeveloped with most of the local supplies, accounting for only 20% of the demand, come from the state owned Myanmar Pharmaceutical Factory that comes under the purview of the Ministry of Industry. The factory has been set up to manufacture tablets, capsules, injections, powders and lotions to initiate the import substitution process. A single private player named Fame Pharmaceutical has a GMP certified facility but produces herbal and organic medicines used to treat serious diseases like cancer and tuberculosis. Its product range includes 45 different kinds of herbal medicines that are exported to countries like Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea.

There are over 100 pharmaceutical distributors operating in Myanmar, whose sales force manage to reach even the most remote corners of the country. Significant among these are distributors like the Swiss owned DKSH and Maxxcare which distribute both prescription and over the counter drugs. DKSH has a strong presence in many Asian countries and in addition to drugs, is also a distributor for medical devices. The company has been operating in Myanmar for 15 years, having established a network of 60 sub-distributors through whom its products reach 19000 retail outlets, has 7 warehouses, including 2 with cold chain capabilities. This reach of DKSH makes it the preferred choice for multinationals like Roche, Bayer and Sanofi to expand their sales without having to be concerned about compliance issues. Maxxcare has also created a towering presence in the pharmaceutical world and is the first distribution company that has received ISO 9001:2000 certification, and its sales force has access to the most remote parts of Myanmar. Some of the pharmaceutical brands under the company include Lupin, Novartis, Pfizer, GSK, MSD and Kalbe.

Pharmaceuticals-promise of growth

Awareness about health is increasing among the Myanmar people and the growing middle class is veering away from traditional medicines towards western drugs, due to their conviction about their quality and efficacy. This demand is being met through imports and the biggest volume of imports is of vitamin C tablets and antibiotics. Price remains an issue but manufacturers know the limited paying capacity of local customers, and therefore keep their prices at lowest possible levels. Additionally, drugs that reach the market through cross border trade come at cheaper prices.

International pharmaceutical companies are flocking into Myanmar since they see a barely tapped market of over 57 million people. Official figures indicate a USD 100-120 million, but pharma specialists put the figure at USD 400 million since data available is based on customs value and not on the actual sales volume, and figures not incorporated are the illegal cross border trade and the under reporting of goods actually brought into the  Myanmar market.

New hospitals with foreign private participation are coming up. Under the new rules formulated by the government the healthcare sector will permit 70% foreign ownership in clinics and hospitals. This has attracted private hospitals like Bumrungrad and Bangkok Hospital to set up representative offices and Samitivej Hospital has tied up with Parami Hospital to set up an international clinic which promises services that match international standards. Efforts are on to improve medical college education as well. The healthcare industry is getting an impetus from the government as well through increased allocations in the budget, and relaxation of rules for foreign investment.

The market is expanding in terms of the quality and range of drugs available, to include supplements and some of the newer, safer drugs. For the first time perhaps, the residents of Myanmar have the luxury of choice. It is only a matter of time before we see local manufacturing begin and people of Myanmar getting the entire range of the latest drugs in local markets,  no longer needing to travel overseas for treatment, or having to carry back packages of medicines from trips abroad.

Honey- The Sweet Nectar from Myanmar

Honey Heavy On My Hand…

In the last decade or so, honey has become the new age sugar, added to teas, used as a spread and added to desserts besides being used to tone down the bitterness of certain ingredients, effectively taking the place of refined granulated sugar. This is the outcome of extensive research that exposes the ill effects of sugar and how it triggers various diseases, but also because the benefits of honey are too many to be ignored. As part of eating natural, unprocessed foods, using food ingredients with therapeutic value, honey has been gaining popularity in developed countries where food habits focusing on healthier diets, and poorer, underdeveloped countries where eating natural foods is by default, due to lack of availability of anything else.

The golden, sticky, natural syrup, sweet to taste and helpful to heal ailments and maladies comes from the hives of honey bees. Widely perceived to be the healthier sweetener, linked to treating lifestyle disorders like obesity, the demand for honey has been growing in every corner of the world, as ‘going natural’ has become a fad for the health conscious populace.  We cannot push the sweet taste of foods out of our lives, but foods sweetened with honey would be preferable, keeping our weight in check and many diseases at bay.

How honey gets made

Honey is one of the gifts of nature that comes to us processed by small bees that collect sweet nectar from flowers. The scores of bottles lining supermarket shelves and neighborhood stores, reveals that it is available in abundance, and never a thought spared as to how this sweet, sticky potion is made. We have perhaps never imagined counting the number of birds and insects we see in the vast expanse between the earth and the sky. In actual fact, one pound of honey requires the nectar collected from over two million flowers by 60,000 bees that travel a combined distance of around 55,000 kilometers. A single bee hive has up to 80,000 bees and each bee hive can produce around 100 pounds of extra honey, that can be harvested.

Bees have two stomachs, one for eating for their own nourishment and an extra stomach specially to store the nectar they suck out of flowers during spring, with the help of their tubelike tongues. The nectar stays in the stomach for around half an hour during which time it mixes with enzymes and proteins produced by the bees. The collection of nectar is the job of the worker bees who then head back to their beehives and the nectar enzyme blend is regurgitated into the mouths of the house bees, who then ingest it before depositing it into the hexagonal honeycomb cells. Though the water content has already been reduced, it is further lessened by being fanned by the bees’ wings. When ready the bees move to begin capping the honey with a liquid secreted by the bees’ abdomen. The capping time serves as a signal that the honey is ready.

Therapeutic qualities of Honey

Honey has been called ‘liquid gold’ for all the goodness it carries. It is the only insect produce that is fit for human consumption. The use of honey bee products for medicinal purposes is called apitherapy and is becoming increasingly popular.

Honey is available in hundreds of varieties and each has a distinct flavor and color, depending on the flowers whose nectar they suck. It is a thick blend of sugar, trace enzymes, minerals, vitamins and amino acids. Research has proved that honey provides energy to the human body, heals and helps in treating various diseases and health disorders. Its high fructose level makes it sweeter than sugar.

  1. Sugar substitute that prevents weight gain- Honey is a natural sweetener and therefore lower in calories than granulated refined sugar. It can therefore be added to all foods without the risk of weight gain. Honey is known to contain 22 amino acids and a number of minerals that help the body’s metabolism, and thus prevent the risk of obesity. A new finding indicates that honey speeds up the fat burning metabolism if taken at night and fuels the liver function.
  2. Source of vitamins and minerals – Honey is a great natural source for vitamins and minerals. These include niacin, thiamine, riboflavin and panthothenic acid. It is rich in calcium, iron, zinc, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and manganese, all of which are essential for a healthy body.
  3. Prevents allergies – Honey has anti-inflammatory properties which help in treating seasonal allergies leading to rashes, redness, coughs and colds. Doctors believe that it works like nature’s vaccine and the minuscule amounts of pollen help the human create antibodies to the pollen, that’s been known to trigger allergies in thousands of people. Thus it works like a natural antihistamine.
  4. Antibacterial and antifungal properties – Various studies confirm the anti bacterial and antifungal properties of honey. Honey inhibits a broad range of over 60 bacterial species. This helps in treating wounds and burns and hastens the healing process without the area getting inflamed Its antifungal properties make it effective against the common candida fungus. With lower water and sugar content its microbial growth is prevented.
  5. Boosts memory – Honey is known to have huge amounts of antioxidants, which according to a 2011 study, help prevent cellular damage in the brain that can trigger memory loss. Honey helps to absorb more calcium and this boosts brain health. This can reduce the risk of dementia in older people.
  6. Cough suppressant – Persistent cough lingers for weeks after a bout of the common cold, making sleep difficult. It has been found that two teaspoons of honey given to children up to five years of age, coughed less and slept better. It helps adults as well since its stickiness helps to coat the throat and prevent dryness
  7. Aids better sleep – A spoonful of honey taken at night before sleeping facilitates sleep and makes it easier for people to fall asleep. This can be attributed to honey facilitating the action of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps in overcoming insomnia or the inability to sleep. Tryptophan enters the brain through the marginal insulin increase with the intake of honey(it raises blood sugar levels very slightly) and is converted into serotonin, which in turn is converted at night into melatonin, a cure for sleep related disorders.
  8. Treats dandruff – Dandruff causes problems of hair loss, flaky scalp skin and severe itching. Honey’s antibacterial and antifungal properties help to cure seborrheic dermatitis and dandruff, when applied in a diluted form and massaged into the scalp. Honey helps the hair hold on to moisture which prevents dryness. Hair loss caused by dandruff also stops.

Myanmar Honey Production

Honey has been popular in Myanmar more for its traditional medicines with all its therapeutic healing properties. While wild honey is collected from hives scattered all over the country, beekeeping is gradually picking up in the last decade or so. Beekeeping areas include Magwe, Mandalay, Shan, Mon, Chin and Sagaing states. At present, domestic consumption is just 300 tons per annum and locals prefer wild honey for its superior quality.

Honey collected from hives found in the wild is rich and intense to taste, but dark in color. Out of the 3500 tons produced annually over 90% is exported to Japan, USA, Canada and Thailand. Japan purchases over 2000 tons out of this since it prefers the natural quality and the fact that Myanmar honey is free of antibiotics and chemicals. It is commendable that the local honey is able to meet the stringent Japanese standards.

Honey is sold at less than 1 USD per kilogram in the local markets, and in the international markets Myanmar honey is sold at USD 1100 per ton.

However, nearly the entire export amount is raw unprocessed honey, which sells at cheaper rates due to the darker color while international customers have a distinct preference for light colored honey. It faces tough competition from Chinese honey that is light and very cheap, but known to contain antibiotics and other chemicals.

Some of the commonly found honey brands include Tinospora Honey, Mount Khakabo Pure Honey and Integrity Pure Honey.

Beekeeping is gradually picking up in the country especially in Shan State where Tag International Development has opened its beekeeping center in Pindiya. Using Israeli expertise, it has also imported  queen bees from Israel. Incidentally it is only the queen bee that lays eggs and ensures multiplication of bee numbers.

Beekeeping provides ample employment and earning potential for the rural poor and help them lead better lives. At present there are over 120,000 bee hives in the country but there is enormous potential for growth, though it will require training of bee keepers, an initiative being taken up by Tag.

Why Myanmar honey loses out in international markets

Myanmar’s honey is of high quality but unable to capture the market share it deserves internationally. This is because of the following reasons:

  • Only raw honey is exported without being processed
  • The machinery and equipment needed to process honey is not invested in
  • The expense needed to be incurred for processing is not justified by the volumes
  • Adding value and attracting packaging in smaller packs need investment in the industry

The global market for honey is expanding with the goodness of this nectar making it the preferred sweet option over sugar. Its healing and medicinal properties are making it a common ingredient for a wide range of medicines for numerous lifestyle diseases. With an assured market, Myanmar stands to gain from increasing its honey production.

Myanmar’s Bamboo – A promising wood substitute

The thin, hollow, woody poles seen standing tall in numerous places to protect and support, in villages and cities, are of the ubiquitous bamboo, a plant that is far deeply entrenched into the common man’s life in Myanmar, literally from cradle to grave and at every step in-between. This is to be expected in a country that has the third highest proportion of bamboo forest cover globally, after China and India. Though classified as a minor forest product in the non wood category, the bamboo industry is estimated to be worth 25 billion USD globally, as it gradually replaces various wood varieties at every level.

Called ‘waa’ in the local language, bamboo is actually a wild grass belonging to the gramineae family and bambusoideae sub-family. Growing wild in tropical and subtropical forests over 1200 different species of bamboo are found worldwide covering 18 million hectares, and 96 of these species are found in Myanmar’s vast forest lands. Bamboos grow freely mixed with other plants and have been seen to form the under storey in high wild forests, besides being planted for multiple uses as well.

Bamboo is one of the easiest plants to grow, not requiring highly fertile soil or ample amounts of water, though it thrives more in soil that is slightly acidic with a reasonable amount of water. As one of the fastest growing plants, most bamboo varieties add a few inches of height every day, with some tropical large varieties growing as much as 35 inches in the span of a day at the rate of 3 cm per hour. Thus, in the growing season, a bamboo plant reaches its full height within three to four months. In the first year the bamboo grows vertically, and nodes develop branches and leaves in the second year as the culm (the pulp-like wall) dries and hardens, though it reaches its full hardness in the third year. Growth of bamboo takes place during the rainy season and the culms are ready to be harvested after 2-3 years and ideally between 5-7 years. A single bamboo clump, in its lifetime, can produce approximately 15 km of usable pole with a diameter upto 30 cm. This is because new shoots keep emerging and the plant regenerates.

Myanmar’s bamboo resources

Myanmar has forests covering over half its land area, of which 3% is covered with bamboo, as part of its evergreen and deciduous forests, and as pure bamboo stands in the state of Rakhine and Taninthayi Division.

Myanmar is famous for some very superior bamboo species like Kalway-Wa (dendrocalamus asper) and Wani ( dendrocalamus lotiflorus), both used for commercial production of bamboo shoots. It is one of the largest exporters of young bamboo shoots, an exotic delicacy in neighboring China. Other common bamboo species include wagok, waphyu, wabo, wabo-myetsangye, thana, myin, kayin, tin, thaik, and kyathaung. Fourteen species are commercially significant for the economy.

Besides natural forests, bamboo plantations have been expanding in various parts of Myanmar. It is also seen growing along stream banks and on lower hill slopes, while also being planted in zoological gardens, urban landscapes, gardens, parks and monasteries to meet local demand.

Bamboo for sustainable development and environment protection

Bamboo is one the fastest growing, extremely versatile and the highest productivity multipurpose plant in the world. As a high yielding forestry crop, it is a renewable environmentally sustainable resource that continuously spreads vegetatively. This implies that bamboo helps in creating thick forests much faster than an assortment of other tree species together. Also, its mature stems can be harvested while the plant continues to grow and extend its younger stems.

It is being increasingly acknowledged as a substitute for wood that will protect the environment and ensure development that is sustainable. Many countries use bamboo for environmental protection, soil conservation, prevention of erosion on hill slopes and other ecological purposes.

Bamboo absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which it converts into oxygen. Interestingly the carbon dioxide it absorbs, stays trapped inside and is never released even after it has been harvested and transformed into value added products that are useful domestically and commercially. Thus it serves as a carbon sink.

While maintaining fresh water resources, one hectare of tropical bamboo forest area can store more than 30,000 liters of water in its culms during the rainy season. This water is gradually deposited back into the soil during dry periods thus regulating water supply.

Bamboo forests also help in sediment control by forming a wall that prevents loss of flow in rivers. Their forest cover, like a canopy prevents evaporation of water from streams. With its complex woven root system and thick plantation it is recommended in areas prone to landslides.

Bamboo as a substitute for wood

Some of the larger bamboos like the Phyllostachys species has been named ‘timber bamboo’, and is being used as a substitute for wood for decades, without reducing the size of the forests it grows in.

Bamboo has a higher compressive strength compared to wood and concrete, and its tensile strength is comparable to that of steel. This makes it hard and durable, and ideal for use in construction as posts, roofing, walls, floors and beams. Its pulp is as good for making paper as wood pulp. Straightened out, bamboo laminates make the perfect flooring in high quality constructions at very reasonable rates. It is good for making sturdy furniture, household products, boats and makeshift bridges across narrow streams and canals.

Bamboo is actually a perfect timber substitute that can preserve the dwindling timber supply and further cutting of trees to procure wood for its numerous uses to fulfill the needs of increasing populations.

Bamboo’s multitude uses

There are a phenomenal 1500 uses of bamboo worldwide, and its true worth is only gradually coming to the fore as a multimillion dollar trade product. Its lightness in weight, strength, straight length and elasticity makes it a versatile product that is easily available at very reasonable rates.

In rural areas, stacked together it provides protection and shelter, dug into the ground it gives support, straightened out, it serves as a wooden plank.

Cut and dried, it is the perfect material for kitchenware, toys, chin-lone balls, walking sticks, fishing rods, parasols etc. Musical instruments like clappers and xylophones are made out of bamboo, with its hollow insides rendering perfect sound.

It is possible to construct full bamboo houses complete with bamboo floor, cross beams, partitions, fences, staircases and walls. Parquet floors, blinds and panels, furniture and fences, gates and sheds of superior quality can be made out of this material. Handicrafts can adorn homes and interiors, and in the kitchen a whole range of cooking utensils and dishes have become common. The bamboo chopsticks industry is growing to meet global demand for the same.

Bamboo charcoal is used as fuel and made from small pieces and residue of bamboo that are compressed and carbonized. It is also being innovatively used to purify water since it helps to eliminate odors and impurities.

Preserved edible bamboo shoots – the cone shaped sprouts emerging from the soil are tasty and tender when harvested very young. It has 90% water, is a rich source of vitamins and amino acids, high in fiber and cellulose, besides being a low calorie source of potassium.

Bamboo plants have become a favorite for decoration indoors and in gardens and parks. Considered lucky and a symbol of longevity, various decorative varieties of bamboo are found on sale.

In Chinese medicine bamboo is believed to cure infections and aid healing. In Ayurveda, it is used to treat respiratory diseases.

Bamboo pulp is being increasingly used for making paper to save other hard woods that take decades to grow to their full height. Myanmar is emerging as a big source of bamboo pulp that can be used for writing and printing paper. The most common species used for paper pulp are dendrocalamus asper and bamboo bluemanea.

Myanmar’s famed lacquer ware uses bamboo as the base, and the bamboo from forests of Chin state is considered ideal for this purpose.

Boats used in the countless waterways and water bodies are often made out of bamboo due to its properties.

Bamboo as a money spinner for Myanmar

Bamboo is deeply embedded in the lifestyle of Myanmar folk, and historical evidence points to a culture of using bamboo in numerous ways.

Bamboo is a renewable, self generating natural resource unlike timber. New shoots appear annually, after mature culms have been harvested. Interestingly, shoots appear in burnt plants, something unheard of in the world of wood. Bamboo plantations see re-growth even after being burnt down which means no new investment nor sources of irrigation or soil improvement is required.

Quick to grow, bamboo is unlike teak and other premium wood varieties where trees take 20-25 years to mature and grow to their full height. This translates into quicker cash returns after planting bamboo with a very short gestation period. For a country like Myanmar, vast expanses of idle land can be lucratively utilized for bamboo cultivation.

Myanmar’s numerous waterways are the ideal way to transport bamboo, and also the cheapest, and far more convenient than timber.

Environmentalists are convinced about the earning potential of Myanmar’s huge bamboo forests that can produce sustainable crops to be sold globally to meet the spiraling demand for bamboo. The current neglect and uncared for bamboo produce has meant loss of its earning potential both domestically where bamboo is used in every walk of life, and internationally, with many countries opting for bamboo instead of wood. Some technical help and investment in this field can make bamboo the next big export product from the country.

The International Tropical Timber Organization initiated a Bamboo project in 2005, to conserve some Myanmar specific bamboo species through the setting up of bamboo demonstration plots in Kawhmu, Pyinmana and Paukkhaung bamboo plantations.

Beyond these efforts, it is important to not allow the nation’s bamboo resources to be depleted, and the locals must be educated about its value. Till now, the country’s bamboo plantations have been virtually unprotected and not well cared for. Bamboo is harvested as and when needed and sold cheap, and only a small tax is levied on the harvested bamboo. Little wonder then, that where other countries earn over 500 billion USD from bamboo sales, the revenue generated in Myanmar is just USD 1 billion.

Bamboo’s ability to regenerate is threatened by its destructive harvesting and indiscriminate chopping methods. This has affected output and productivity adversely, and quality is deteriorating gradually. The bamboo supply base been seen shrinking in the last few years. The only way out is to step up bamboo silvi-culture to protect tropical forests and ensuring a sustained supply of this wood substitute.

Bamboo and its symbolic significance

Bamboo’s diverse uses have led to it being known by various names like ‘green gold’, biosteel, and poor man’s timber. It was first referred to as green gold during the 7th World Bamboo Congress in India, since bamboo can prove to the vehicle that can boost economies, with its diverse uses and the products that can be made out of it, offering employment opportunities to the rural poor.

Bamboo is known to denote friendship and is described as a ‘friend of the people’ in China and India.  In Vietnam it is described as ‘brother’. Its long life makes it a symbol of uprightness and is used extensively to improve various aspects of life according to the Chinese principles of Feng Shui. Since bamboo plants flower very rarely, their blossoming is said to be a sign of impending famine.

It is also famous as ‘poor man’s timber’, since it is a cheaper alternative to wood, that has diverse uses and offers complete solutions for living and survival to the rural poor, including employment opportunities.


Vast vacant lands to the tune of 178,000 acres in Pegu and Tenasserim Yomas mountain ranges are said to be lying vacant. Their geographic conditions are highly suitable for bamboo plantations, which can generate a lot of revenue, reduce the pressure on teak and other hard woods, and ensure that Myanmar’s rich forest resources stay intact.

Consumerism In Myanmar

The New Wave of Consumerism in Myanmar

From the plush Taw Win Center on Pyay Road to the traditional shops in downtown Yangon, from the swank new branded outlets mushrooming on Kabar Aye Pagoda Road and Pyay Road, to the multiple Junction Shopping Malls opening in busy parts of the city, the crowds are increasing and footfalls in these spending havens have never been higher. With the opening of Myanmar Plaza, retail sales, and the shopping experience has been redefined. Both fine dining restaurants and fast food eateries are multiplying and many have long waiting queues. Beauty treatment in local parlors and spas is seldom possible without prior appointment due to the rush. This is the new wave of consumerism hitting Myanmar, and evident most of all, in Yangon.

The number of shops and retail outlets is on the increase despite high rentals and property rates, the variety of stocks available expanding, premium international brands appearing on shelves, and the typical customer has for the first time, the luxury of choice, in his own country. The elite, accustomed to preparing shopping lists for trips abroad, find reason to bring back less each time.

Almost suddenly, the latest in clothing, footwear, personal accessories, cosmetics and toiletries are lined in store shelves, and exclusive consumer appliances’ stores are seen selling every new gadget launched by European or Asian brands. Not to mention the latest smart phones and laptops, now that the former have become affordable. The variety of foodstuff and beverages is expanding by the day, much to the delight of international tourists and the expatriate community.

Billboards carry advertisements of international brands of clothing, beauty products and food, and the local Myanmar citizens, deprived of all these till relatively recently, are eager to try all that they are being exposed to, excited by the novelty and the experience. The distinct Korean influence , their perception of Thailand as a modern consumer driven country, fascination for Japanese cars and technology, exposure to latest trends due to improved internet access, have all combined to scale up the local demand for products that are increasing in number and quantity even as the number of retail outlets multiplies.

A walk down the busy downtown shows the gradual transformation in the appearance of the man on the road. Many have discarded their traditional attire of lungyi, and a section of younger men are seen wearing trousers or jeans, and younger women taking to dresses, skirts and trousers. The ethereal beauty of tanakha (sandal wood paste) on the face is gradually disappearing with facial creams and beauty enhancing products taking its place. The latest hand bags, branded or cheaper look-alikes are fashionably carried, and youngsters especially, seen discarding hynat-phanat (the traditional black slippers) for trendy heeled shoes or embellished slippers. Just two years ago, the traditional attire, worn with pride, was immensely appealing to outsiders and tourists, and it signified uniformity. Today, the battle of the brands will create segregations.

Is it the pent up thriftiness, lack of opportunities to spend previously, or paucity of funds that is now being unleashed? Or is it typical human behavior as Myanmar sees an emerging middle class? What is all too clear is that consumer spending is increasing rapidly, markets are full with products and customers, and disposable incomes seemingly higher. The country’s 51 million people, of which 68% fall in the 15-64 years age group, offer a vast market for global manufacturers to sell their products, especially in a country that has barely an manufacturing capability for the present, and 90% of its products are still imported. Manufacture of products of international standards will take some time, a few years at least, and till then the market is open to multinational companies to push demand through advertising campaigns and other ways of creating awareness about the product range they offer.

Consumerism explained

Consumerism is a term used when there is a continued expansion of individuals’ needs and wants for products and services. It is an economic phenomenon of buying more, having more of everything, signifying multiplicity of requirements beyond what is basic for survival. However, modern society has redefined products deemed essential for survival, with our ‘need’ to eat good food with a large variety, wear good clothes in keeping with the latest trends, and stay connected to the rest of the world, to mention just a few. This has extended the human propensity to consume, and since business can survive and thrive only by creating demand for their products, they fuel the fire of wants.

The retail sector of any country, as per worldwide statistics, can be valued at approximately 15% of the country’s GDP. For Myanmar then, the retail market stands at USD 5 billion, and indicating a promising annual growth rate of over 10%. Few countries can boast of a faster growing consumer base with consumer expenditure likely to triple in the next decade.

Consumerism is a typical outcome of a capitalist society moving higher on the path of economic development. For a country like Myanmar, this is all so new, and for its people, it is only in the last three years, that the common man has been able to have access to products and services which most of the world has been enjoying for decades. But the era of capitalism is here to stay, and retail is one of the key sectors that sees unprecedented growth as the pace of development picks up. The benefit comes additionally, in the form of job creation, and increased spending spurs growth further.

This is the time of transformation of retail markets which are gradually becoming modern, and inching towards international standards in terms of décor, facilities and services. Local shoppers, like their counterparts abroad, typically look for convenience, choice, and easy availability in a market that was closed. The largely supply driven market, had only seen the average consumer base his shopping on need rather than want, more of necessity and shopping not quite an entertaining experience. The evolution of the shopping experience can now be seen with the wave of consumerism sweeping the nation.

Market growth, healthy consumer spending and competition come from demand driven markets which sees supply keeping pace with it. This change is slowly becoming evident and store owners are adapting fast, offers promotional sales, freebies and trials to entice customers.

Even Yangon, the nation’s most modern city, has been lined mainly with traditional shops, small and basic and what could be termed ‘mom and pop stores’, and these account for 90% of retail sales even today. These come in all sizes in every corner of the city, and include dry foods’ stores, non food outlets, beauty stores, betel shops which incidentally, are the best sales points to consider. The Bogyoke Aung San Market, also known as Scott Market, also fits into this category, while still being the one-stop solution for purchases with local arts and crafts, gemstones and precious stones, fabric and fruit, leather and lacquer ware, cosmetics and clothes.

The retail sector has been changing rapidly in the last three years with modern trade channels opening up in the form of supermarkets and hypermarkets, shopping malls and departmental stores, which account for only 10% of the retail market. Shop houses, grocery stores, convenience stores, bazaar stores and general merchandise outlets, continue as part of the traditional market scene clocking higher sales by the day. An estimated 40,000 retail outlets in the highly fragmented market, in the two big cities, Yangon and Mandalay, account for over 50% of total retail sales in the country, which explains the higher consumer spending by the 34% urban population than the remaining rural segment.

Consumerism reveals the population’s ability to spend, reflecting a certain level of disposable income. Though the GDP per capita stands at USD 900, the reality of purchasing power seen in the form of vehicles, footfalls in hotels and restaurants, beauty spas and holidays, defies this low figure. The country’s business still runs mainly on cash basis, and cash payments are made for houses and apartments, imported vehicles and other asset purchases. This points to the existence of an extremely rich class of people, besides the middle class that is growing.

Yangon remains the trend setter for shopping as well. With department stores like Sein Gay Har, Super One, and Gamone Pwint, supermarkets like City mart, Asia Light and Orange, besides convenience stores and hyper markets, the basket of goods available, is expanding, though prices are higher than the neighborhood outlets. But each of these remain crowded as much by locals as the tourist and expatriates. Malls like Junction Square and Junction Mawtin are seen overcrowded by the younger generation. The cool comfort of an enclosed, air conditioned area with free entry, lures the young and old alike. What had started as an enthusiastic outing to see what is new, has become a routine weekend outing. Clearly, shopping is becoming an entertaining experience, and even the older generation does not grudge the expense incurred for fun.

Consumption patterns are changing fast. The demand for everything from consumer durables and high valued assets, to food stuff and beverages, processed foods and confectionery, beauty and home care products, is on the way up. The service industry is expanding rapidly, beauty spas, fitness centers and gyms, hair and nail art salons, restaurants and pubs, are all multiplying in number. Interestingly, there seems to be room for all, and each can claim a chunk of the existing demand without jeopardizing the success of competing outlets. New entrants like Vino, Parami Pizza, the Thai-based Pizza Company, Lotteria, Fuji  and numerous restaurant chains opening outlets in Myanmar Culture Valley, are seen full especially on weekends. Eating out has become fashionable, and tasting different cuisines is definitely in vogue. Variety exists at reasonable levels as well. Teashops of old are bowing out to cafes, sandwich corners, bakeries and ice cream parlors.

Looking ahead

Change is conspicuous in every aspect of life in Myanmar and consumerism is just one part of it. The spending and buying more concept, closely linked to the ideology of pleasure, is causing a significant shift in perception and practice. Thrift, moderation and modesty are slowly taking a back seat, and a relatively ostentatious display of wealth and material comfort coming up.

Industrialization has begun but has yet to pick up significantly. Local produce is deemed poorer in quality due to lack of latest machinery and equipment used in its manufacture, uncertain quality of raw materials and lack of skilled labor. It is not surprising therefore, to find that 99% of the products sold in brick and mortar stores, are imported, from countries like Japan, China, Thailand, Korea among others.

Already, the cheaper labor is bringing international apparel houses to buy from Myanmar, with the textile industry making rapid strides ahead. Many Asian countries are at various stages of setting up manufacturing facilities here for local markets and exports, in fields like textiles, food processing, automotives and so on.

Growth is not restricted to big cities alone, and the next target is tier-2 cities. As earning capabilities improve, so will spending power, and consumerism will reach an even higher level.

Myanmar- The Big Rural Urban Divide

The beautifully vibrant city of Yangon is the epitome of urban living in Myanmar. The country’s commercial capital, Yangon is home to over 5 million people, forming a big chunk of Myanmar’s population. The city juxtaposed against vast expanses of arable land and dry areas, with shanties and hutments in hamlets in the country side, brings out the stark contrast in life and living in Myanmar.

Like many other countries, a prominent rural-urban divide is visible in Myanmar. Inequalities are evident in all developing economies with higher dependence on agrarian activities, and till this dependence on agriculture reduces with alternative sources of employment coming up, the pace of development remains slow and the division between the haves and the have-nots unlikely to reduce. The gap between rural and urban development can be partly attributed to an urban bias and governmental policies which focus more on developing cities and urban areas. This is true of other countries like India, and neighboring Thailand which has seen urbanization centered around the Bangkok Metropolitan Region.

Myanmar today, is a country on the threshold of rapid development. According to the Asian Development Bank, the country’s GDP growth reached 7.5% in the fiscal year 2013-14. With foreign investment pouring in, and favorable government regulations, growth rates are expected to be even higher in the current fiscal year. The outside world is upbeat about the developmental prospects of Myanmar with its rich reserves of natural resources, an untapped market for consumer goods, and a strategic location.

But the ground reality reveals a country struggling with poverty with approximately twenty-three percent of its population living below the poverty line, overdependence on agriculture for subsistence and small-scale farmers forming the economy’s backbone, not to mention the acute dearth of skilled labor.

The Rural Scenario

According to World Bank estimates based on UN World Urbanization Prospects, in 2012, Myanmar’s rural population forms 67% of the total population of 57 million that resides in its 40,000 odd villages.  Regional disparities are clearly evident and poverty in rural areas is a big concern. According to a UNDP report, rural poor account for 84% of the total poor population.  Rural poverty is the result of a series of factors like small or no farms, poor output which is sold at low prices, limited availability of non agrarian jobs, and lack of credit facilities. Majority of the farmers own less than ten acres of land and this fragmentation of holdings prevents higher yields at lower costs. 37% of the villagers do not own any land or livestock, and live and work in quite the same way as their forefathers did. The use of bullock carts for plowing fields, bamboo houses without access to electricity, safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, are some of the features of rural life that need to be urgently addressed.

Life in the rural areas of Myanmar today is medieval and slow-paced. The people lead simple lives, with no mechanization, their homes spartan and basic. Even electricity and water sources at home are available to a very select few. Communication, infrastructural facilities and healthcare all need to be improved and enhanced to extend their reach to remote and border areas of the country.

There has been an exodus of young men and women from villages to neighboring Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia for more lucrative work prospects. Their remittances have served as a boon and savior to families back home. Typically, the development process sees such migration to cities and towns nearby, but since industrialization and work opportunities have been limited within the country, the demand for semi-skilled and domestic labor has lured them beyond Myanmar borders. A larger number of women have joined the work force in neighboring Asian countries. It is only recently that rural women have begun migrating to garment factories coming up in and around Yangon.

The Urban Scene

At present, Myanmar’s urban population is roughly 30% of the total, with only 13% living in big cities. According to the McKinsey report on Myanmar, this percentage could increase sharply to 25% by the year 2030, with around ten million people migrating to large cities. Urban activity in Myanmar is concentrated primarily in Yangon and Mandalay.

Urbanization is the first step towards industrialization of an economy as the labor looks for work beyond farms in factories and companies. It offers employment opportunities almost absent in villages, a better standard of life and access to basic amenities like better housing, education and health care. Cities have better roads and transport facilities, besides higher availability of goods and services, despite being more densely populated. This makes life in cities more appealing and attractive. The attire and food habits of city folk are similar to their rural counterparts, but the urban poor are worse off in some ways, since they do not have access to agricultural produce that the rural poor can consume even as they cope with a higher cost of living.

The Rural-Urban Divide

Myanmar’s rural urban divide is conspicuous in every aspect of the common man’s life, be it access to education and healthcare, infrastructure, power, communication, or even general living standards. Since occupational fields in rural and urban domains are so diverse, there is a distinct contrast in earning capacities. It inevitably translates into economic inequality, lop-sided development and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

  • The power gap- The electrification ratio in Myanmar is much lower than that of its neighboring Asian countries in both rural and urban areas. Per capita electricity consumption is about one-twentieth of Thailand. Only 60% of the total power supply is reliable. The use of renewable energy sources like hydropower for approximately 70% of the total supply, makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of nature, and a dry spell leads to major shortages.  Rural access to power is more disturbing with over 72% villages still un-electrified, according to the MOEP report on rural electrification in Myanmar. Villages see only a small number of households connected with a tangle of wires to electricity poles. With only 16-18% of the rural people having access to power, the setting sun plunges the countryside into blackness. In sharp contrast, 89% of the urban population has access to electricity, which facilitates industrial production as well. With foreign investment being allowed, the power situation is expected to improve in the next 3-5 years.
  • Water and sanitation- Access to safe drinking water in rural Myanmar was 65% in 2010 compared to 81% in urban areas. Not that there is any dearth of water resources in the country. Myanmar has abundance of water with potential annual volume of surface water being 1082 cubic km besides 495 cubic km of ground water. Unfortunately, only 5 % of the potential water supply is used and access of safe drinking water or its use for sanitation is at disturbingly low levels.  Villages get most of their water from springs, open wells and rivers, with dwindling supply during the dry season, which forces people to consume even contaminated water. Urban areas have water sources in most homes, but national figures reveal that only 10.5 % of the poor have a water source in their homes. Sanitation facilities are available to 77% of the rural residents and 84% of the urban population.  International organizations like UNICEF, Red Cross, Asian Development Bank and countries like Japan are assisting the country in improving water and sanitation works.
  • Education – The rural urban difference is evident even more in the field of education though the country has a literacy rate of 89.7%. While every village does have at least one school, in remote and border areas, the number reduces to one school for five villages. The presence of monastic schools helps bridge the gap. Enrolment into primary schools is high, with 85% of children of primary school age attending school in urban areas, compared to 76% in rural areas. However, all the enrolled children do not complete primary school education. The dropout rate is higher in rural areas due to problems of transportation and access to schools, among other reasons. Attendance in secondary schools is lower with 69% of secondary school age children attending school in urban areas, compared to only 34% in rural areas. The 156 institutes of higher education are all in cities. Training facilities for teachers and availability of school supplies in rural schools are much lesser than their urban counterparts.
  • Healthcare- Myanmar’s healthcare services leave a lot to be desired, even though the government is refurbishing the system of providing basic medical facilities, with increased government spending of 3.9% of the annual budget in 2013, up from 1.9% in 2012. Rural areas have health centers, and the Township Health System introduced in 1964, continues. Both traditional herbal medicine and modern medicine practices are followed here, and preference for the former is evident. The rural areas have limited access to healthcare since very basic health problems can be resolved in their villages, and have to rush to neighboring cities for specialist treatment at Station Hospitals or Township Hospitals with 25-50 beds depending on the population of the township. Villages have primary health care centers, which have midwives and health assistants. All these come under the Township Health Department that is responsible for providing primary and secondary healthcare. Serious illnesses and deteriorating conditions push people towards specialist hospitals in Yangon and Mandalay, after traditional herbal medicines have also been tried and failed. The rural poor often seek treatment from untrained health workers since doctors are not easily available. Insufficient salaries, lack of learning opportunities and difficult conditions are some of the deterrents that discourage doctors from serving in rural areas. A few international NGOs provide free medical aid in rural areas. Hospitals are found in cities with specialist, children and women’s hospitals established only in Yangon and Mandalay.  Of late, private medical institutes including polyclinics have mushroomed in Yangon. The facilities, equipment and supplies, are not still state-of-the-art even in these private startups.  Foreign hospitals especially those from neighboring Thailand and Singapore have also set up representative offices with the aim of promoting medical tourism in their country. The contrast is striking.
  • Telecommunications- Telecommunication is the key to growth and development of economies. The telecommunication network in Myanmar is being built with participation of foreign companies like Qatar based Ooredoo, and Norway’s Telenor. At present telecommunication services are poor compared to other countries, and have been monopolized by MPT, the state owned enterprise. As of now, there is a single telephone for 169 people, and a SIM card for mobile phones costs between USD100-200. Oredoo has released its first lot of SIM cards costing only 1500 kyats. However, service issues, poor connectivity and other teething problems need to be addressed before it can be a threat to the reigning MPT.

Till these companies start full scale operations, less than 10% of the population has access to mobile phones, and the internet penetration is less than 1% of the total population, and this too is confined to big cities like Yangon, Mandalay, Nay Pyi Taw and Bagan. Only around 10,000 users exist beyond Yangon and Mandalay. Internet cafes are common, but again only in cities. The situation in rural Myanmar can only be imagined, with villagers and farmers having little or no access to telephones, leave alone internet. Till end 2012, most villages were without fixed line telephone services. In the last one year, with SIM card prices falling, the number of subscribers has increased, but connectivity remains poor due to lack of supporting infrastructure to cater to a larger clientele. People in rural areas who can afford handsets costing between $45-350, have started buying mobile phones, but service remains poor and it is not always possible to stay connected.

The rural urban divide is not going unnoticed and the government is keen to address this issue and efforts are on, to bridge the gap so as to improve economic efficiency. President U Thein Sein addressed the National Workshop on Rural Development Strategic Framework in November last year, and elaborated on making rural development a key focus area with emphasis on providing food security, poverty reduction and sustainable economic development.

The rural urban divide can be a potential cause of social and economic instability, since inequalities provide for an unhealthy climate for growth. With new laws being formulated, and regulations being put in place, the process of change, improvement and development is irreversible. The only way seems upwards and with it will come, rural development, which will improve the quality of life and work of the rural folk, bringing them closer to at least urban, if not, international living standards.


Can Myanmar Become The World’s Leading Rice Exporter Again?

Rice is the staple diet of over 3 billion people worldwide, close to half the global population, and over 11% of our planet’s arable land is given to rice cultivation. Rice is an essential part of Myanmar cuisine as well, and the country with its abundance of land, water and labor resources, provides the perfect rice-growing environment. Little wonder then, that Myanmar was the world’s top rice exporter between 1961 and 1963, a position it subsequently lost to Thailand, and today, is the 9th biggest rice exporter. As the sixth largest rice producing country, and a nation on the threshold of rapid development, getting aid and technical expertise from the most advanced economies, there are hopes of Myanmar becoming one of the top rice exporting nations in the next few years.

Myanmar’s largely agrarian economy has rice as one of its chief crops. Figures available for 2011, reveal that the rice industry accounts for 13% of the country’s GDP, and provides employment to 70% of the population. The current financial year has seen a 41% increase in rice exports with 530,000 tons of rice worth USD 196 million, being exported between 1st April 2014 and 15th August 2014.

The chief paddy growing areas include Irrawady, Sittuang and Chinwin besides the Ayeyarwady delta zone in the southern part of the country. The main rice ecosystems of the country include the rain-fed and irrigated lowlands and uplands. The largest part of the ecosystem include the rain-fed lowlands, the deep water rice growing areas include the Delta region and the Rakhine State’s coastal strip. Rain-fed rice is cultivated in approximately 60% of the Delta region, including the Yangon, Bago and Ayeyarwady regions in the lower part of the country. The uplands include the Manadalay and Sagaing states.

Position as leading rice exporter lost forever?

The rice sector in Myanmar is complex due to the interplay to various factors like the diverse ecosystems of rice cultivation, the varying skills and technologies used in different parts of the nation and lack of cohesive government policies.

Exports become important, since the world markets can absorb increased output which small markets with limited purchasing power of the population, cannot. The foreign exchange inflows become essential since this facilitates investment for modernizing processes and introducing efficient systems of production, and optimal allocation of resources.

Myanmar lost its position as the top exporter of rice due to the sequence of events that unfolded in the post World War II period. In a short period of time, rice production came down to half its previous levels. While the other rice-producing nations like Thailand, Vietnam, China, Philippines, Cambodia and India, mechanized processes, introduced modern systems of irrigation and cultivation, invested in research to produce high-yielding varieties and found solutions to damages caused by floods and droughts, Burma continued in the same traditional manner, with extreme interference and control of the government, without gaining any access to credit, modern equipment, infrastructure or irrigation facilities.

Additionally, paddy procurement prices were kept at low levels by the government and this severely discouraged investment in rice cultivation, and even more so in rice milling and storage facilities desperately needed to secure the ready crop. Low procurement prices for premium varieties like Basmati, deterred farmers from growing them. Though the total area under rice cultivation continued to expand, the expansion rate was so slow that even in the 1960s, it remained lower than pre-war levels. A major setback to rice production was due to the government banning private money lenders from funding farmer needs, which left the latter without resources to buy essential inputs, and the government also did nothing to meet their credit requirements for a long time. It was only in 1976 that the Myanmar Agricultural Bank was set up. Progress, if any, has been very gradual. This perhaps explains why paddy yield per hectare did not increase for nearly two decades since 1980. Technical advancement and introducing machinery and equipment to mechanize the rice-growing process are limited to very small areas, even today.

Rice exports continued to fall for a number of reasons. Myanmar’s currency valuation by the government made rice uncompetitive and unprofitable. Its interventionist policies also affected prices, supply and procurement prices offered to farmers. Farmers had to face adverse weather conditions and related problems like droughts or floods, and their low input use due to lack of sufficient availability, made yields lower than other countries. Moreover, the country faced the imposition of sanctions that led to a sharp fall in foreign aid. Exports, till five years ago, were erratic and inconsistent, since they were discontinued each time there was a shortfall for domestic consumption.

Myanmar today, faces tough competition from other exporters in the region like Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Added to this is a higher demand for better quality rice, while Myanmar rice loses out on quality, partly due to lack of modern milling facilities, which lead to a 15-20% loss in both quality and quantity. The country is only able to focus on markets that accept lower quality rice, and unfortunately, demand for these varieties is declining. According to a World Bank study, rice price volatility is highest in Myanmar, out of all South East Asian nations.

Efforts to regain lost glory

Agricultural experts are convinced that Myanmar has the potential of doubling its rice production, and there is sufficient room for quality improvements. Since Myanmar rice is $10-20 cheaper than rice of equivalent quality from other countries, capturing a segment of the export market may prove easier, especially for its 25% broken, Emata variety.

At present, Myanmar exports rice in large quantities to Australia, Singapore Thailand, China, and India, besides having resumed exports to Japan after 45 years. The EU has opened its markets for duty free imports from Myanmar. The vast, relatively untapped market of Africa, has started importing Myanmar rice, and has the potential to annually absorb thousands of tons more. According to sources, a surge in demand for rice from Russia has helped in enhancing rice exports by 41% between April and 15th August, 2014, as compared to the same period last year.

Due to the interplay of previously listed factors, productivity of rice is low as compared with global producers. The average yield of rice is 3 tons per hectare, which is half of the 6 tons per hectare yield in Japan. The yield is adversely affected by wastage at post-production and pre-consumption stages. Uneven distribution of inputs and dated farming skills also has an adverse impact on production.

There is a fervent need to improve cultivation in existing fields, modernize existing irrigation infrastructure and build new facilities, convert more land for rice cultivation, provide farmers with agricultural credit and also help them procure essential inputs like fertilizers, pesticides and stronger seedlings from high quality seeds. The need for technical development is severe, and farmers need to begin proper crop management, and the government will have to invest in physical development by building access farm roads, provide harvesters, dryers, storage and milling facilities. This is imperative for an economy dependent so much on agriculture.

Successful initiatives and Myanmar’s potential

Myanmar may well succeed in regaining its top position in rice exports even though this target may take more than a decade to achieve. This is because it possesses the most favorable natural environment for rice cultivation with abundance of land, water and cheap labor that are the essential prerequisites for this crop.

Efforts to reverse the damage witnessed in the aftermath of World War II, began through multiple initiatives taken by the government to revive the rice industry. An attempt to introduce the high yielding variety seeds released by the International Rice Research Institute through imports in 1968-69 was not well received, since the short height of the plants made them inappropriate for the flooded rice fields of the country, and the taste was also not acceptable to local palettes. The government’s tractor scheme also failed since small sized farms could not afford to use them, both due to impracticality and cost.

Policy changes began in the 1970s which led to doubling of rice procurement prices, increase of  procurement levels, offering credit through the Myanmar Agricultural Bank, and establishing connections with the International Rice research Institute. The Township rice production program initially launched in Shwebo and Taikke in Upper and Lower Burma respectively, was highly successful due to the new technology introduced.

It was only in 2010 that the setting up of Myanmar Rice Industry Association has finally brought together producers, traders and millers and it now works in tandem with the Ministry of Commerce to manage rice exports. Serious efforts are being made to foster public-private partnership. The Department of Agricultural Research (DAR) is encouraged to maintain contact with international rice research institutes to gain access to improved high yielding variety seeds that are then transferred to the seed division, a subsidiary of the Myanmar Agricultural Service (MAS). The Seed Division then uses its 32 seed farms across Myanmar to reproduce these seeds on mass scale. Hybrid variety seeds have already been introduced in parts of Shan State and Nay Pyi Taw.

Non-governmental organizations are actively involved in educating farmers and contributing to enhancing farm output with a long term perspective. The principal idea has been to educate farmers about effective and optimal pesticide use, handling weeding problems, improving soil fertility, and use appropriate agricultural tools while protecting the environment.  A project funded by UNOPS-managed Livelihoods and Food Security Trust Fund (LIFT), and run by the Metta Development Foundation, has led to the setting up of 200 farm field schools in Shan and Kachin states to promote sustainable agricultural productivity. This has helped over 4700 rural households increase their rice production, which also translates into improved levels of earning and better living standards.

With earnest efforts in place, it is only a matter of time before the industry catches up with neighboring rice producing nations. The long and winding road to becoming a leading rice exporting nation will require a multi-pronged approach by the government, starting with improvements in infrastructure like, developing better port facilities, handling land ownership issues, introduction of easier credit facilities and assistance in use of technology for agriculture. On the finance front, it is important to change farm credit rules and permit other assets to be pledged as collateral for loans. Direct foreign investment in milling, warehousing and trading will bring the much needed foreign exchange to modernize the farm sector.

Myanmar is likely to see a part of the $80 million World Bank aid that the country received after a gap of 25 years in 2012, invested in agricultural infrastructure, which when combined with diverse farming techniques, is likely to push rice exports to 3 million tons by 2015, and 4 million tons by 2020.

Rice Facts

  • Rice is the staple diet of half the human race
  • Over 40,000 varieties of rice are grown worldwide
  • Rice originated in China and South East Asia in 10,000 BC
  • Only 5 % of the rice produced is exported, the rest is domestically consumed
  • Rice and rice products are considered healthier than wheat
  • Rice provides 20% of the world’s dietary energy supply

Some Myanmar Rice Industry Details

  • The Ayeyarwady regions is called Myanmar’s ‘rice bowl’.
  • Rice production has increased in the last decade due to increased area being used for summer rice production.
  • 80% of rice growing is done through transplanting, 20% through dry seeding and only a small amount by dry seeding.
  • In the last twenty years 228 large and small rural dams have been built to improve irrigation
  • 70% of land preparation through tillage is still done by using animal power. Only 30% is mechanized.
  • Nearly 100% threshing is done mechanically.