The Uber of Myanmar

Tim McLaughlin

Ho Ho Taxi is facing a lot of obstacles.

​On a recent day in Yangon, Lwin Maung Maung, was making a tough sales pitch. A smart phone in each hand, the 27-year-old Android app developer was trying to sell one of the city's taxi drivers on a new app aimed at connecting drivers with passengers in need of a ride.

Saw Moe Aung, who said that he has been driving a taxi in Myanmar's largest city for the past 17 years, looked slightly bewildered, sat cross-legged on a bench in the developer's office as he nodded along to the demonstration. He said that he liked that the idea could save him from lurching through Yangon's gridlock traffic looking for his next fare and would consider downloading it.

The staff at Myantel, the company behind the Ho Ho Taxi app, which links riders with registered taxis, watched the pitch from their nearby desks. They were pleased at the prospect of having their app on another phone, but admitted this was just the first—and easiest—step in getting the app to take off.

Their idea is hardly groundbreaking.

Dana Aung, a 22-year-old Myanmar national, and the CEO and founder of Myantel, admitted that half of the inspiration came from seeing other taxi and ride sharing apps take off abroad.

"Uber and Lyft were on CNN all the time," he said.

The other half of the inspiration was the constant complaint by employees that finding taxis in Yangon's outlying regions is difficult.

Waiting by the roadside for a taxi is a frustration at the best of times, but can be unbearable during the country's monsoon season when daily downpours often flood the city streets with putrid water.

Photo: Tim McLaughlin

A spokesperson for Uber said that the company has no current plans to expand to Myanmar.

Ho Ho Taxi launched in early February and, to date, around 2,000 people have downloaded it. The number of users who have successfully used it to take a ride is far lower, however. Just over 50 taxi drivers have the app, and even fewer turn it on. 

The conventional issues facing Myanmar's fledging tech scene—poor internet and electrical infrastructure—are not huge problems for Myantel. Its app is designed well and works smoothly, even on the country's spotty internet connection.

The hurdles the company has run up against are more unique to Myanmar. The problems it has encountered highlight the headaches of adapting seemingly simple tech solutions that have worked elsewhere to a market where young, enthusiastic developers find their products mismatched with levels of development here.

Chief among these obstacles is getting those 50-odd taxi drivers who have downloaded the app to turn on their phone's 3G networks, allowing passengers to send them a ride request.

The hesitancy to connect via 3G is one born out of frugality.

Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), the state-controlled telecoms provider that until last year held a monopoly of the country's telecoms market, charged for 3G use by time, rather than data usage, until earlier this year.

Mobile phone users constantly toggled their 3G on and off, not wanting to burn through phone credit. Though MPT has since changed to a system that charges by data, and two foreign telecoms firms have launched services, habits have proven hard to break.

Taxi drivers who have the app rarely link up to 3G for more than a few minutes at a time.

"[Taxi drivers] are interested, they want to use it, they love it and then when we get to the 3G, they stop there," Dana Aung said.

Myantel is hoping that they might be able to pitch telecoms providers on giving free 3G connections to taxi users in an attempt to boost usage.

Another issue is the app's use of English language—a seemingly odd choice in a country whose 51.4 million people predominantly speak Myanmar, or Burmese.

Photo: Tim McLaughlin

The answer as to why it was chosen lies in a contentious debate over how to display Myanmar's looping script on computers, tablets and smartphones.

Developers are divided between using Unicode, the global standard for font display supported by the likes of Google in its Myanmar translation tool, and locally developed fonts, most popular of which is Zawgyi.

A phone that loads a webpage using Unicode, for example, but does not support the font, will display an indecipherable set of squares. To make the app usable across a broader spectrum of mobile phones, English was the only choice.

There are other, less technical obstacles to account for as well. Yangon taxis do not use meters. Passengers and drivers agree on price before a trip. The app still relies on a phone call to hammer out a final price, usually around $2 USD. A second version of the app, set the launch within the next few months, will allow customer and driver to bargain via the phone.

Myantel attributes the limited success to being ahead—sometimes a bit too ahead—of the curve. 

"Every country has to go through this," said Sai Myo Myint Oo, the company's marketing head. "We have to start somewhere. It has to be something."

Photo: Tim McLaughlin