I have recently spent a lot of time tracking the transition of Southeast Asia from a “digitally hungry” into a “digitally driven” region.  It is fascinating to see how rapidly this region has adopted cloud applications, social media and mobile Internet.

A few weeks ago, I attended the World Economic Forum on East Asia. There, Young Global Leaders (YGLs) had the opportunity to visit ICT industry leaders to discuss the future of “Digital Myanmar”.

Mobile penetration in Myanmar is < 4% and Internet penetration is < 1%.   It is hard to imagine that a nation sharing borders with countries like China, India and Laos, and with a population of 62 million, has such an underdeveloped digital infrastructure.

When we left Myanmar, it had just awarded licenses to two telecommunications companies to operate the nation’s mobile phones. The companies, Telenor and Qatar Telecom, will have their work cut out. Myanmar has a land area of 676,578 km2 and only 30% of the country has access to electricity; Telenor and Qatar Telecom plan to have full coverage of the country within five years. Perhaps the biggest challenge here is the fact that Myanmar ranks among the lowest per capita income in the world. Even if the telecommunications companies can achieve their roll-out goal, it will take some creativity to make mobile Internet affordable to the masses.

Myanmar’s iMobile penetration will have to be coupled with economic drivers to make it affordable. Because of the severe poverty in the area, as well as investing in new infrastructure, telecommunications companies must also motivate individuals to use the new technologies by providing incentives, such as subsidies for handsets.

However, they cannot fund this by relying on traditional income streams like Dial tone, SMS and Mobile Data. Stakeholders must look into additional revenue sources coming from mobile commerce, mobile banking, mobile entertainment and even mobile education.

The YGLs who participated in the ICT visit found a passionate and vibrant ICT industry eager to address the challenge of building a digitally enabled Myanmar. Entrepreneurship is alive and well here. As the foundations for mobile and Internet connectivity are being deployed, we left assured that the creative juices of Myanmar’s ICT community are already flowing, eager to create content and applications that will allow Myanmar to not only catch up but in some cases overtake its Southeast Asian neighbours.

Author: Winston Damarillo is Executive Chairman of Exist Global Corporation and is a 2010 Young Global Leader

Image: Students attend a course in the Myanmar ICT park in Yangon REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun