Innovations in Greater Mekong

Innovation and Technological Connectivity in Mekong  Region: Keynote Speech at Chiba University, Japan,11 February 2018.

 Sudam Pawar,  Mekong Institute, Khon Kaen, Thailand.


“Mekong” is a trans-boundary river(the 7th-longest in Asia) in Southeast Asia. The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries are Cambodia, the People’s Republic of China (PRC, specifically Yunnan Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

There is a significant increase in per capita income over the past few decades, in spite this region is now experiencing a decline in growth as well as productivity. The region faces increasing difficulty in competing against lower-cost locations in less skill-intensive economic activities while still lacking the technological know-how and human capabilities of moving into more sophisticated, higher value-added activities. Similarly, other major concerns relate to social inclusiveness and environmental sustainability.

Hence an innovation with an idea which is replicable at an economical cost and must satisfy a specific need. It involves a deliberate application of information, imagination, and initiative in deriving greater or different values from resources, and includes all processes by which new ideas are generated and converted into useful products. Any end-to-end innovation process is backed by several years of experience developing, optimizing and validating product campaigns.

Innovation is necessary to address challenges, Market requirement through new technologies, new products, and new services which will help to achieve economic growth. Regional need for stronger efforts to foster innovation through active participation and actions by economic stakeholders—upgrading technological level, research and Development, Organizational development, Enhancing production methods, new activities and new markets.

Innovation Global scenario-  GII 2017 (study jointly by WIPO, Cornell University, INSEAD and the 2017 GII Knowledge Partners -Innovative countries)  Switzerland leads the rankings for the seventh consecutive year, China became the first-ever middle-income economy in the top 25. GII 2017 Theme: “Innovation Feeding the World- Innovation is key to sustaining the productivity growth required to meet this rising demand and to helping enhance the networks integrating the sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management known as food systems.

Region’s modest performance compared with other economies at a similar level of development is partly due to relative weaknesses in its innovation system. However, the region has significant assets to help it become an innovation-based economy: a number of competitive industries, notably in automotive and electronic components, an agricultural sector that makes it a leading world exporter of several products, and a growing services sector. The region also has a sizeable research infrastructure, a reasonably well-developed higher education system and a large network of vocational schools.

The GMS region has shown encouraging Initiatives in Innovation- in the sectors such as Agriculture, Tourism, Smart cities and Fintech etc.

  1. Agriculture:

Agriculture is the backbone of the Greater Mekong Sub region’s economies. With over 60% of the sub region’s 332 million inhabitants engaged in small-scale agriculture, it directly supports the livelihoods of nearly 200 million people. While agriculture is the cornerstone of many families’ livelihoods, it is also exacting a toll on the environment, contributing to forest and biodiversity loss, water pollution and shortages, soil degradation, and greenhouse gas emissions. People and governments in the Greater Mekong Subregion are working to develop agricultural practices that simultaneously conserve land and water resources, while at the same time increasing the productivity and profitability of agriculture, particularly for small-scale farmers.

Case 1: Sustaining and enhancing the momentum for innovation: The System of Rice Intensification in the Lower Mekong river basin:  project(2013-2017) funded by EU and implemented by AIT in SEA region.

The overall objective is to enhance the resilience of rainfed farmers of  Lower Mekong region confront climate change. Using the System of Rice Intensification can lead to increased crop yield, productivity, and profitability on a sustainable basis for smallholders farmers’ field in rainfed areas of the region.

  • Cost of the project: €3.4 million; including EU contribution: €2.9 million (85%)
  • 11 000 farmers involved, managing 405 field experiments.
  • 66% more productive crops with 50% higher water productivity and 30% less energy expenditure.

Case  2:

Mekong Business Initiative ( MBI)  funded by Australian Aid and ADB for countries viz; Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam, promoting incubation and acceleration of enterprises by helping startups access a larger pool of resources. In addition to access to finance, MBI supports mentorship programs to help startups develop their business management skills.

The Mekong Agriculture Technology Challenge (MATCh) —–the first agribusiness acceleration program in the Mekong region. Aim to enhance the competitiveness, inclusiveness, and sustainability —- leading global supplier of “safe food for all” through innovation and entrepreneurship.  The program provides opportunities for businesses in agritech to win innovation grants, launch successfully, achieve profitability and in turn, create jobs and sustainable impact to communities in the Mekong region.

Case  3: GMS Countries are pooling resources and expertise to increase the competitiveness of their agricultural products and encourage investment in agribusiness, conserving the environment and natural resources. This involves research and technology that emphasizes climate-friendly agricultural development, including participation by the private sector with a focus on food security. This work is being guided by the Core Agriculture Support Program Phase II (CASP II) 2011-2020, supported by the Government of Sweden (Sida), Nordic Development Fund, Water Financing Partnership Facility, and Asian Development Bank.

2. Tourism: 

Tourism is flourishing in the Greater Mekong Subregion, and countries are recognizing the need to develop tourism in ways that increase benefits to local communities and protect the environment. Today, governments see well-managed tourism as a powerful tool for reducing poverty, and growing national economies in a fair and equitable way.

Tourism sector assessment, strategy, and roadmap (ASR) document strategic investment priorities of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the governments of Cambodia, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar, and Viet Nam in the tourism sector. The ASR focus on poverty reduction and inclusive growth, the environment and climate change, regional cooperation and integration, and infrastructure development, with due consideration given to private sector development and knowledge solutions to foster innovation.

Mekong Innovative Startup Tourism (MIST): This is the first tourism accelerator in the Greater Mekong Subregion aiming to provide startups everything they need to launch successfully, achieve profitability, create jobs and impact communities. It is a joint venture of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office and the Mekong Business Initiative. It receives regional funding, advisory and technical support from the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the Government of Australia, Amadeus Next, the Pacific Asia Travel Association, and Village Capital. It has been endorsed by young entrepreneurs associations and startup groups in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam.


The Smart City Innovation Challenge is an initiative by the Mekong Business Initiative, a joint venture of the Asian Development Bank and the Government of Australia, to source deployable solutions to Vietnam’s urban challenges from global innovators. This is open to companies of all sizes looking to gain access to the Vietnamese market. Vietnam’s urban centers are growing faster in ASEAN and challenging the country’s cities to provide affordable housing, control traffic congestion, manage waste, supply clean water, integrate green spaces and effectively plan for sustainability.

The Global Smart City Innovation Challenge is looking for deployable solutions from across the globe that can address these issues facing Vietnam’s cities. The challenge invites businesses that have deployable solutions to these issues to Vietnam and match them with local program mentors to customize their market-ready solutions into contextualized prototypes ready for adoption across Vietnam’s growing urban centers.


The Fintech Challenge Vietnam program has been built around two main themes: collaboration and financial inclusion. The Challenge is open to fintech companies from both inside and outside of Vietnam who are interested to collaborate with commercial banks, other financial institutions.  the technology or business model that they have developed—and its usefulness for Vietnam.

MBI wants this Challenge program to create opportunities for Vietnam’s commercial banks to engage with fintech, and to consider how they might take advantage of the technology and creative new approaches that fintech have to offer.

The Challenge is focused on those financial technology solutions that improve or expand financial services to those people who may currently be poorly served by the financial sector in Vietnam.  Poorly served customer segments might include micro and small enterprises (MSEs) and people living in rural areas, but also urban consumers lacking access to the most up-to-date payment solutions.  Hence financial inclusion is another major theme for the Fintech Challenge in Vietnam Program.

Regional Strategies for promPromotingnovation

It is important to adopt specific strategies aimed at supporting innovation through;

  • . Increase awareness on Innovative Initiative.
  • Increase accountability
  • Provide training for major stakeholders
  • Strengthen Technology Innovation consultation processes
  • Develop a long-term vision for the major sector such as agriculture, tourism, industry etc.
  • Enhance coordination and active linkages between research, education and, industry
  • Strengthen business incubation programs and support research spin-offs and commercialization
  • Engage international experts on STI policies and program design and evaluation
  • Maximize international collaboration and mobility
  • Take advantage of mega projects


It is observed that political variability and a lack of policy continuity have weakened the ability of public institutions to provide an enabling environment for businesses and, equally important, to steer and sustain major reforms over time. In the current context of reforms, it will be important to adopt strategic policies aimed at supporting a new Innovative development path. Major efforts are required to enhance technology innovation governance and management, stimulating innovation efforts and upgrading the education system.

In general, the Mekong region has significant assets for innovation-driven economic growth and for inclusive and sustainable development. Most of the needed measures involve fostering discipline and collaboration within the overall innovation system and among the actors concerned. Decisive action and strategic reforms are required to ensure the long-term sustainability of region’s social and economic development.