Taking SMEs on practical learning journey to Myanmar

ECA Enrichment founder Dorothy Lee (in grey top) at a networking session with a social entrepreneur from Impact Hub Yangon, which is part of a global network of social enterprise community centres and business incubators.
ECA Enrichment founder Dorothy Lee (in grey top) at a networking session with a social entrepreneur from Impact Hub Yangon, which is part of a global network of social enterprise community centres and business incubators.PHOTO: NGEE ANN POLYTECHNIC CET ACADEMY

More local companies are venturing into emerging markets in search of growth, so it is more important than ever to find reliable partners in what can often be challenging environments.

Such markets can offer vast opportunities, but firms, especially smaller ones, need all the help they can get - help that is becoming increasingly available on various fronts.

The Government has ramped up its support in recent years for companies making the big leap overseas, through a range of initiatives such as the Global Innovation Alliance and SkillsFuture Leadership Development Initiative.

Another avenue of assistance is coming from Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which started a Travel and Learn Programme at its Continuing Education and Training (CET) Academy in December last year.

The scheme aims to help businesses here by improving their understanding of emerging markets with on-the-ground experiences. The inaugural trip - to Yangon in Myanmar - was held in March.

CET Academy deputy director Eunice Ho said: "The key objectives are to help individuals attain overseas start-up knowledge and skills in a practical setting, and provide connections for local firms to explore potential business or investment areas, as well as help business owners exploit new markets and forge strategic partnerships."

The programme gives participants a chance to meet government officials and entrepreneurs to gain insights into the country, while visiting co-working spaces and incubators.

The Myanmar trip has had a quick pay-off for local entrepreneur Alan Yeo, who was inspired to start a business that would bring Singapore cuisine to the country.

He is now in talks with food and beverage firms about setting up either a franchise or a direct outlet with partners in Myanmar. He also plans to establish an information technology (IT) consultancy training centre for Myanmar workers.

"The programme served as an effective platform for networking with Myanmar business owners and gaining knowledge of the opportunities and challenges," said Mr Yeo. "It was enriching and informative for Singaporeans looking to venture overseas."

He said that setting up an IT consultancy training firm would allow him to leverage the tremendous opportunities offered by Myanmar as an emerging market.

Noting that a large proportion of the population there is under 30 and that many are Internet-savvy, he said a big market exists for IT services such as cyber security or information storage, especially for firms setting up operations there.

However, he also pointed out the challenges: "Myanmar is still regulating its business and government policies - a slow process that might decrease business productivity.

"In terms of infrastructure, it is still very much lacking. It is a new learning ground, which means the outcome of such business models might not be up to expectations.

"There are also more unskilled workers, which equates to longer training hours before the business can become fully operational."

Some participants who went on the trip have experienced smoother journeys in starting businesses in Myanmar.

Ms Dorothy Lee, who founded education provider ECA Enrichment, has been a frequent volunteer at Myanmar pre-schools, specialising in training local teachers.

"Having volunteered in Myanmar for many years, I realised there is an urgent need for pre-schools. There is a big vacuum where youth development is concerned," she said.

"I already have proposals in place to set up pre-schools in Myanmar under existing Singapore brands that want to internationalise, such as Little Fellow Childcare and Charis Montessori.

"I intend to focus on training local pre-school teachers based on the Singapore pre-school education system, in terms of improving their command of the English language and using a more established and recognised education framework. Hopefully, this can mitigate the effects of the shortage of Myanmar pre-school teachers."

Ms Lee added that she has shortlisted two pre-schools to be jointly developed in Yangon with her Myanmar counterparts. Catering to families who are financially better off, each pre-school will accommodate around 150 students and require an investment of about US$150,000 (S$207,000).

In addition, she intends to set up a community pre-school and another catering to lower-income families in Yangon's suburbs. Each school will take in about 100 children and need an estimated investment of about US$100,000.

"The entire process of collaborating with Myanmar partners has been very enjoyable," noted Ms Lee. "They are very hard-working and spontaneous, and have very open mindsets. Many of them have worked in Singapore previously, and are used to Singapore's business landscape, so it is easier for us to understand one another."

Plans are under way for a second trip to Yangon, which is set to take place from Sept 25 to 29.

CET Academy also plans to run the programme in China and India, as well as other Asean countries such as Vietnam.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Taking SMEs on practical learning journey to Myanmar'. Print Edition | Subscribe