The Myanmar Phar-Med and Dental Myanmar, held last July in Yangon, offered global medical suppliers a chance to gain a foothold in the untapped Myanmar market.

“Not so long ago, the fastest-growing demand for healthcare services came from the developed countries of the West, then shifted to Japan, China and Korea” said Hyunjoo Park, International Sales Director for Daihan Scientific, a South Korean specialist in laboratory-testing equipment.

Primarily focusing on the manufacture of a range of medical products, including open incubators, autoclaves, freezers and glassware, Daihan has franchise operations and distribution deals in several locations, including Shanghai, Istanbul and Taipei.

“Now we think the focus is moving again, with higher levels of demand stemming from the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) bloc. We think the time is right for us to expand into countries such as Thailand and Myanmar.”

French supplier BioLab, meanwhile, currently has distribution deals in 80 countries. “We supply a wide range of products, including reagents and analysers for medical testing, all of which are targetted at the needs of local laboratories,” said Export Sales Manager Axel Rodella.

“Based on our global strategy, we are now looking to expand our footprint into Myanmar and throughout the rest of the ASEAN bloc. In line with this, we have already established operations in Vietnam and Laos.”

Another newcomer to the Myanmar market was Joinsoon Medical Technology, a Taipei-based manufacturer of diabetes diagnostic devices. “While we are not that familiar with the Myanmar market, we are aware that it is opening up and growing fast,” said Sebastian Hofstede, the company’s Sales Manager.

“This is partly because the Myanmar government is providing subsidies to hospitals, while actively looking to ensure wider access to an improved level of healthcare. For our part, it is particularly appealing, as a number of our production facilities are covered by trade agreements that give us relatively straightforward access.”

Many exhibitors were keen to secure the services of experienced local distributors. But one local distributor warned overseas suppliers to be prepared for some hurdles. “Nowadays, although people definitely have a higher level of disposable income, many government procedures remain unchanged and can seem offputtingly complex.

“While most importers have no real problems with import taxes, they find the delays in getting things processed and the excessive paperwork hugely frustrating. As a result, many importers choose to import via the border areas, bringing goods in illegally and skipping the paperwork altogether. In the case of European imports, for instance, they are often initially dispatched to China, before arriving here.”

For many overseas companies already operating in the country, the excessive red tape required for the registration of any foreign-made product, such as pharmaceuticals, has also been an impediment to growth.

One company with direct experience is India’s Hiral Labs, which has been manufacturing pharmaceutical products since 2000 and has four distribution deals across Myanmar. To date, its big sellers have been citicoline – a recognised treatment for stroke patients and a number of dementia-related syndromes – and a range of antibiotics. Another popular item is disulfuram, a treatment for chronic alcoholism.

“Some seven years ago, we decided to move into export markets,” said Alfia Saiyed, International Sales Manager. “At that time, overseas traders were buying pharmaceuticals from our operations in India and selling them to other markets. In the case of those markets, such as Myanmar, which directly border India, we decided to launch our own direct sales operations.

“As the local people trust Indian drugs and find them very affordable, sales have been really good and we are now looking for more distributors. From our point of view, the only big drawback has been that it takes between 18 months and two years to get a pharmaceutical product approved in Myanmar.

“Although we have started the process for a few of our drugs, by the time we get approval from the local equivalent of the FDA several years down the line, we have no idea what the market value of these products will be at that point.”

Business with Teeth

Domestic diagnostics: right Laboratory
Domestic diagnostics: Right Laboratory
Myanmar Phar-Med 2017: a healthy market
Myanmar Phar-Med 2017: a healthy market

While overseas companies dominated the expos, much as they do in the country’s overall medical sector, several businesses showcased their products and services at the fairs, including Right Laboratory and Health Screen, a local medical diagnostic laboratory that opened in 1997.

“We primarily provide laboratory and clinical services to individuals. Overall, business so far has been very good for us, partly because of the investment into healthcare made by the government,” said Technical Manager Zin Min Htike.

The local dental-equipment market appears to be largely driven by many of the same dynamics as the broader medical sector. Overall, demand for dental services has grown rapidly, largely on account of the free clinics and the educational programmes run by several of the country’s non-government organisations, including the Dental Health Care Foundation.

“Our mission is to provide free dental treatment and oral screening, as well as to supply the elderly with dentures,” said Dr Aung Than, the charity’s President. “We are a largely self-funded private organisation and currently have 20-30 dental surgeons and dental nurses on our books. As we travel across the country, providing free treatment at our clinics, we also distribute toothpaste and toothbrushes as a way of promoting dental hygiene.

“Overall, the level of dental care available is improving rapidly. In 1965, there was only one dental college in the entire country. Now, there is one in Mandalay, as well as a separate military institute. When I started out, only about 20 dental surgeons qualified every year, now it’s more like 4,000.”

Htet Paing, Managing Director of the Yangon-headquartered Biodent Dental Laboratory Group, which runs three high-end dental clinics and a dental laboratory, noted the market transformation. “People have more money to spend and hospital dental services are getting a higher level of government funding. As a result, the market is booming.

“Patients are also far more knowledgeable when it comes to dental care. This has led to far greater demand for aesthetic dentistry procedures, such as orthodontics and cosmetic dental surgery.”

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