The garment industry in Myanmar is dominated by Chinese, Korean and Japanese companies. Even though Europe is one of the biggest export destinations, European investment is precious little to speak of. An exception is Belgium's Sioen Group, writes Jozef De Coster

In September 2017, Daw Khine Khine Nwe, general secretary of the Myanmar Garment Manufacturers Association (MGMA), presented before an international audience in Paris her vision on the future of Myanmar's garment industry. She explained that great expectations were set on foreign investment flowing in from advanced textiles and fashion countries.

Statistics indicate that such countries are indeed investing in Myanmar, with however one notable exception. There's not yet one single Indian investor manufacturing garments in Myanmar. There's also little European investment in the sector. The only Belgian garment company in Myanmar is Sioen Myanmar Ltd, and it is led by an Indian.

At the time of Daw Khine Khine Nwe's presentation, the fast-growing Myanmar garment industry was already employing over 400,000 people in 425 factories. Among them were 161 locally-funded factories, 224 foreign investments and 34 joint ventures. Foreign investors in the Myanmar garment industry are mainly Chinese, Korean, Japanese and other Asian companies. Though Europe is now the biggest exports market, there's little European investment. For the time being there are not Indian investors in the sector either, though India is a neighbouring country, just at the other side of the Bay of Bengal, and is also sharing 1,468 km of land border with the "country of the thousand pagodas."

There are of course some reasons, too complicated to explain here, why Indian investors are currently absent in the Myanmar garment industry. Also, expatriate Indian talent is surprisingly rare in the sector. There's only one Indian plant manager at work in the Myanmar garment industry: Manoj Bhardwaj, general director at Sioen Myanmar Ltd, a subsidiary of the Belgian manufacturer of technical fabrics and professional protective clothing Sioen.

Why Sioen went to Myanmar

The Sioen Group is a vertically-integrated producer of high-tech technical fabrics and garments. The group turnover amounted to €363 million in 2016, and increased by 32 per cent in the first half of 2017. This solid and long-term oriented family business was established in 1907, and is since 1996 quoted on the Brussels Stock Exchange. In 2017, the King of Belgium honoured Michele Sioen, the president of the Sioen Group, with the title of baroness for her exceptional merits as an industrialist and chairperson of several industry associations.

Sioen Apparel, with headquarters in Belgium, has factories in Finland, Estonia, Romania, Tunisia and Indonesia. Indonesia especially has become less attractive as a production location. Indonesian garment workers saw their wages increase by nearly 300 per cent in five years. The availability of workers in the Jakarta area is dwindling. Some buyers threatened to stop buying garments 'made in Indonesia' because of less competitive pricing.

After careful deliberation, Bart Vervaecke, CEO at the Sioen Apparel division, concluded in May 2014 that Myanmar was the best place for a new investment. Vervaecke's comparative research focused on Sub-Sahara Africa (no raw materials, little skilled people) and five Southeast Asian countries (Bangladesh, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam).