Remember back when the internet was slow, and life was horrible? When you had to pause YouTube videos partway through so that the rest of it could load up? There, there, it’s over now. Chin up.

But Myanmar’s (also known as Burma) long-suffering internet users are actually looking forward to the bad old days that I just mentioned. A time when they can click on a video, and watch even a bit of it. Thiha Aye Kyaw, a self-taught 20 year old Android app developer in Myanmar, told the New York Times that he has to download instructional YouTube videos overnight, in the hope of getting to watch them the next day. It’s a country where the internet is so unreliable that businesses send electronic documents across town in a taxi, rather than try to email them. It makes work slow and expensive.

While these inconveniences make it awfully difficult to keep up to date with Rihanna’s music videos, it’s about much more than that. Thiha is part of Myanmar’s small but ambitious tech scene – people who are dedicated to harnessing technology to make life easier and better for people in their country. Even with telecommunications infrastructure as outdated and unreliable as it is, Myanmar’s app developers have created an app to enable people to type on phones in the local Burmese language, another to help kids practice writing in the language, and another is under development that will help local farmers to be better connected to information about pests and diseases. Innovations like these help people to be informed, productive, and to make the most of their hard work and talent. In a low income country like Myanmar, it can make a big difference.

Image: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA

These infrastructure challenges are certainly not unique to Myanmar – most low income countries around the world are being held back by unreliable, highly expensive internet connections. But bit by bit, it’s improving. Two foreign companies are currently in the process of building modern, high capacity mobile networks in Myanmar, which will bring down costs and boost reliability. The government is also loosening its grip on the telecommunications industry, allowing for more innovation. Soon, more people will be able to benefit from internet access, and the country’s web and app developers will be able to unleash new waves of innovation to bring their country forward.

The percentage of Myanmar locals using the internet has jumped from 1% to 25% in just three years, which is very good timing considering the severe floods that struck the country in the middle of 2015. Newly accesible methods of spreading information and receiving advice have the capacity to save lives during disasters.

As it currently stands, Myanmar’s most talented programmers and developers head to places like Singapore, where they can work more efficiently, and earn more money. Hopefully the new generation of mobile infrastructure will help Myanmar to hold onto more of its best people, and have them working on problems that can improve the lives of millions of their countrymen. And maybe sometimes watch a Rihanna music video.


Defeat Poverty

The internet revolution in Myanmar

By Michael Wilson