“I believe Myanmar has the potential to leap-frog the challenges that often come with rapid development,” says Yanis Boudjouher.
The co-Founder and Director of Infra Capital Myanmar (ICM), Yanis believes InfraCo Asia has a crucial role to play in Myanmar – one of the last frontier markets in Asia.
In June 2015, InfraCo Asia signed a five-year Developer Services Agreement with ICM—a joint venture between ReEx Capital Asia and ADL Capital Developments. ICM provides development services for originating, developing and financing commercially viable infrastructure projects in Myanmar on behalf of InfraCo Asia.
[Pictured L-R: InfraCo Asia Investments NED Peter Bird, InfraCo Asia CEO Allard Nooy, Yanis Boudjouher and ICM Director and fellow co-Founder, Han Meng Chan]
ICM has a strong team located in Yangon, led by Christa Avery with support from an experienced team in Singapore providing financial and project development advisory.
Through InfraCo Asia’s parent company, the Private Infrastructure Development Group (PIDG), the UK Government provides donor funding to support ICM’s work in Myanmar.
Myanmar is a country with a highly rural population—just over a third of its 56 million people live in its cities. Life expectancy at birth of little more than 66 years places Myanmar 171 in global rankings, and health expenditure is under 2% of GDP.
Yet as a country with so much scope for development and so much need for infrastructure, Yanis argues that Myanmar is also fortunate.
“For Myanmar, it is about utilising what has worked for development in Asia. Development in countries like the Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam and Laos has paved the way for tailoring the best approach for Myanmar. I believe this is one of the last development frontiers in Asia, and we have a significant role to play.”
Yanis is an engineer by training, but early in his career he moved into finance. A focus on mergers and acquisitions took him from Paris to London, while he gravitated to the field of energy and infrastructure early in his career.
“When I moved to Asia six years ago, I decided to stay in the energy and infrastructure sector. I am based in Singapore, but frequently fly around the region, working as a project advisor for renewable projects,” he says.
Influence for good
Since he took the lead of ReEx Capital Asia almost 3 years ago, Yanis has provided advisory services to both the public and private sectors, and has honed a good sense of the complexities and risks associated with developing projects in emerging Asia. And of all the development landscapes in Asia, Myanmar’s is without doubt, one of the most complex, albeit promising.
“In Myanmar, the ‘shop’ has essentially been closed for over 50 years,” Yanis explains.
“This means you have to develop the framework as you develop the project, and this has its advantages as well as challenges. The down side is that it can double the amount of work and add risk of delays and further issues surfacing.
“The good thing is, if you’re serious and want to take the right approach, then you have the opportunity to help mold the regulatory environment towards more sustainable infrastructure projects that will benefit the people of Myanmar.”
What’s more, Yanis says Myanmar is fostering a culture of openness and facilitation when it comes to sustainable development prospects.
“I believe that Myanmar and its people are willing to move fast, and have the potential to do this. The ICM team is comprised of both Myanmar and foreign staff and has received a warm welcome by the local population and stakeholders.”
Of course, there have been development failures and delays in developing large infrastructure projects in the country in the past. ICM as well as its sponsors are well aware of the challenges and are bringing their collective experience to the venture.
“Myanmar welcome serious developers. They’ve seen so many so-called advisors trying to turn a quick profit in this nascent environment and trying to take advantage.
“They appreciate the fact that there are serious developers like ICM here for the long term. We have made a minimum 5-year commitment,” Yanis says.
Collaboration is critical
In partnership with the Myanmar government and its people, Yanis believes significant strides can be taken in the near-term.
“ICM are the only ones in Myanmar deploying early stage finance for developing project feasibility, which is the basis of our approach,” Yanis says, referring to InfraCo Asia’s model and mandate.
“This includes a clear focus on sustainable, commercially viable projects that must make a positive social, environmental and economic impact. ICM’s role is also additional, and must not compete where the private sector are able to participate without our assistance.
“InfraCo Asia is a leader in employing a model where public sector money is used to de-risk projects. Taking the risk out of development so that private sector capital may be attracted, unlocked and enabled to flow is an entirely unique approach,” he says.
The ICM team combines years of infrastructure development and financing experience in Asia with strong local expertise.
“This is a country that has a history of conflict, and now has a new government recently elected. We do still face legacy issues here and hope that the new government will address them as a priority. These challenges all require a good breadth of understanding,” Yanis says.
One of ICM’s invaluable partners on the ground is the UK’s Department for International Development, a PIDG donor directly providing the funding for InfraCo Asia’s Myanmar programme.
“They’re a great sponsor to work with, because they’ve been in Myanmar for many years,” Yanis says.
“They know the political environment, they know the stakeholders and we’re grateful to have their team to support us.”
A pipeline to benefit people
In its first year of partnership with InfraCo Asia, ICM has identified a solid pipeline of eight sustainable projects differing in scale, covering four focal areas: sustainable energy; transport and logistics; agriculture and agri-support and rural development.
These carefully selected sectors represent areas of vital need to Myanmar’s development.
“There’s so much to do; there is such a high need for development. Every project we identify will have a positive social benefit—bringing power to people, bringing jobs, bringing access to infrastructure is key, as is demonstrating financial viability for the private sector,” Yanis says.
Two of ICM’s most advanced projects in agrarian Myanmar, not surprisingly, fall under agriculture.
The first is an agri-waste-to-fish-feed plant supporting farmers moving from rice to fish production. Myanmar lacks a strong commercial fishing industry and has started to suffer from sea fish stock depletion. With a small amount of innovation, many primary producers have discovered that some land can be converted to raise fish to supply the domestic market.
“There is a lack of expertise in how to feed the fish and access the right products,” Yanis explains.
“What they eat is directly related to how they grow, so we’re assisting farmers to get the know-how and the right product to improve the growth of their fish and improve their revenue. We recruited technical experts to help us find the right mix of agri-waste components for this fish feed production facility,” he says.
The second project taking early shape is a rice processing facility. Due to generally poor rice milling facilities, the industry ends up with a lot of broken rice, which can’t be sold to consumers at a high value. The rice is generally shipped elsewhere to Asia to be turned into vermicelli and noodles, of which some are imported back in to Myanmar.
“What we’re doing is working with a local partner to bring this manufacturing capacity and knowledge into Myanmar, so that they can use the broken rice and produce vermicelli themselves and capture the margin,” Yanis says.
“These projects are highly replicable and demonstrably bankable. There is strong interest from the private sector to acquire these projects and replicate our approach.”
Striking the right balance
“The environmental and social aspects are just as important to ICM’s work as financial viability,” Yanis says.
“Ultimately we need to have the buy-in of local communities and local government and central government to ensure that these projects are sustainable.
“There have been developments in Asia in the past that went ahead without considering those communities surrounding a project site. For me, the only sustainable approach is involving the local community.
“It’s important that they are incentivised in these projects, so that longer-term they will be economically and environmentally integrated, which is a win-win.” He says.
The other key ingredient, according to Yanis, is passion.
“We enjoy our work in Myanmar because we are doing good things in a very unique way—the right way,” he says.
“I love seeing these happy kids where we work in Myanmar whose health and education will benefit through an infrastructure project that brings reliable power or more jobs,” he says.
“The other conviction I have is that sustainable projects have to be financially viable to be developed. I don’t believe in the grant approach where you give free money.
“The amount of money required to meet infrastructure development needs in Asia is trillions. The public sector won’t be able to finance that. It’s impossible.
“The equation is very simple. We need private sector money, or it won’t work. We need to give the private sector the interest and the willingness to invest.” Yanis says.
InfraCo Asia and ICM’s leadership in this area will play a critical role in creating a space where private investors are comfortable to step in.
“If you have a real success story to show, that makes a huge difference here. What we are aiming to do in Myanmar is grow these success stories for the benefit of all.”