Myanmar's Bean Industry Playing Catch-Up As Country's Economy Regains Momentum

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Farmers walk in a bean field in Phyu township in Myanmar on January 25, 2012.

Beans are a profitable export commodity for Myanmar. The production of the cash crop supports one-sixth of the country's population. The nation currently exports 1.9 million tons per year to 52 countries, but just like its rice production, Myanmar has the capacity to produce and export more beans, if the junta hadn’t left the country decades behind in economic development, that is.  

Despite being lower profile than rice, beans and pulses are vital cash crops for as many as 10 million Myanmar citizens who are tied to the trade – most of them farmers and their families, which means up to one-sixth of the population of Myanmar make a living from beans.

“Many people are often surprised to hear that farmers make more money growing beans and pulses than they do from rice,” said Dr. Myint Oo, an executive committee member of the Bayintnaung commodity exchange center, where Myanmar’s agricultural products are traded, according to the Irrawaddy, a Myanmar news outlet.

Nearly three-quarters of the beans exported end up in India, a legacy from days when both countries were ruled by the British. India currently imports between 3 million and 4 million tons of beans and pulses annually, but it would be difficult for Myanmar to capture a bigger share of that market with its current level of output.

“One of the chief legacies of military governance found in agriculture is the erosion of skilled farming between generations,” Christian Lewis, Southeast Asia analyst for the Eurasia Group, a leading global political risk consulting firm, told the International Business Times. “Practices that took decades or centuries to perfect were replaced by central planning, which reduced market efficiency and constrained annual output.”

“The economic value that is destroyed in the long term is difficult to quantify,” added Lewis.

In addition, most of the farms that produce beans and pulses are small, without the funding to buy better seeds and the technology to increase output.

“Farmers often resort to mixed or inferior quality seeds as high-quality seeds are either unavailable or inaccessible because of their high prices,” said a report on the sector from Thura Swiss, a research firm based in Myanmar, according to the Irrawaddy.  

Myanmar’s poor infrastructure also hikes up the cost of transport. It is cheaper, on average, to ship beans from Yangon, the commercial center of Myanmar, to Singapore or Malaysia, than it is to ship from Myanmar’s Shan state to Yangon.

Even though Myanmar has rivers that could be used for cheaper transport, most of the country’s vessels are too old or too small, according to Myat Soe, a beans and pulses trader. During the dry season, the water in the rivers is low, and it becomes impossible for larger vessels to pass.

In the face of the challenges, for Myanmar to revitalize its beans production, and reach its full capacity, it’s important to both educate farmers and provide funding to modernize their operations.

“We would like to see some financial support from the government and from the donor countries, especially for seed purchase,” said Myint Oo, according to the Irrawaddy. “The farmers don’t have money for better seeds and they need financial support.”

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