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Updated on May 22, 2020 From Myanmar Times

Social distancing, and the new Rice ATM

The world seems to be facing a turning point, with governments shutting down economies and businesses around the world. Social distancing has become the norm, and large sections of the world’s population has been advised to stay indoors.

All of these safety measures come at a cost. As people in Myanmar are slowly returning to work, many businesses have been forced to close or at least downgrade their profits.

Supply chains that bring food have been affected, and market traders in the city have been forced to relocate or shut down altogether. Fear of contamination is waning, but government restrictions have had a lasting impact.

But amidst all of these disruptions, innovation also occurs. Consider the thousands of new online retail and food delivery jobs that have been created over the past two months, along with hundreds of new medical jobs and services.

One such innovation is called the “Rice ATM”, a vending machine that dispenses rice. The invention was first used in Vietnam during the early outbreak of COVID-19. After being trialed in Vietnam for a month, the Rice ATM has now made its way to Myanmar.

The machine cuts out the need for close human interaction when purchasing rice, thus helping to reduce the risk of viral transmissions in crowded markets. Invented by two engineering groups called Kinetic Internet Pleodata and Myanmar Trillion Group, the ATM was first installed at the Hlaing Tha Yar Hluttaw MP's office on May 16.

In Vietnam the Rice ATM is available for anyone wanting to buy rice. Though still a trial installation here, customers are encouraged to register to make purchases. Located on 572 Magwe Street in the 8th quarter of the township, the ATM is able to distribute rice in a fast and efficient way – without people needing to come into contact with each other, said U Htet Phyo Wai, manager of Kinetic Internet Pleodata Company.

“It’s a safe and easy way to buy rice, and the machine is really easy to use,” said Ko Htet Phyo Wai.

People wanting to purchase rice from the new ATM will have to register in the chat box on the “We Love Hlaing Tha Yar” Facebook page. After that, they will be directed to a registration page where they enter their personal details. Applicants will receive a message when their registrations have been approved.

From there it’s a matter of entering a code and the ATM number on the phone. For people without phones and elders who might have trouble to using the technology, they can register at the office to receive a QR code to make purchases.

Around 100 people have made transactions each day since the Rice ATM was first installed. The machine can service between 200 and 300 orders per day, without needing to be refilled. Most people register with their phone numbers at the office, rather than via the Facebook page.

The program is very popular among locals, particularly those who don’t have a regular income. One person in each family will be able to buy the rice every other day.

“Even people without mobile phones can still use it, and the machine can keep track of all the transactions. It’s a taste of the future for commerce in Myanmar, and a good introduction for people who otherwise wouldn’t use this technology” said Ko Htet Phyo Wai.

People like Ma Than Soe Aung, who have a mobile phone but aren’t familiar with the internet, prefer withdrawing the rice by registering via mobile phone and using the QR code. “Using the internet is too complicated, but it’s not difficult to register with just my phone,” she said.

Daw Hla Hla Win, who lives in the nearby 7th ward, said “it’s a great way to buy rice, and a good way to make sure everyone has enough when people are out of work. It’s very valuable when we’re all out of cash,” she said.

“Hlaing Tha Yar’s Rice ATM a test model, with the data collected from purchases will be submitted to the relevant ministry after a month of use. If the program turns out to be a success, we’ll arrange for machines to be installed in other townships,” said Ko Htet Phyo Wai.

As people have grappled with mobile payment apps like OK Dollar and WavePay over the past few years, new opportunities for transferring money has opened up for many people who don't have access to bank accounts.

Addressing the need for social distancing during the pandemic, the Rice ATM also introduces many of Myanmar’s many consumers to the new world of e-commerce – albeit in a very public space. If all goes well, who knows where the wonderful world of vending machines and e-payments may lead.

IMAGE: Volunteers using the Rice ATM at the NLD office, Hlaing Thar Yar township in Yangon, on May 19, 2020. Photos: Kyet Thayay Tone.
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