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Laos, The Minnow Nation with Gigantic Development Ambitions

Although it is one of the smallest nations in ASEAN, Laos boasts one of the highest economic growth rates in the region today. Propelled by fast-developing energy, tourism, manufacturing, and agriculture sectors, major transport projects, and young population, Laos is projected to maintain its current seven percent growth rate for the next two-three years.

Energy has been identified as a key long-term driver of growth – Laos has a theoretical hydropower potential of 26.5 GW, To realize its “battery of Asia” ambitions, the country aims to generate 10,000 MW of hydropower by 2020, with up to 75% of this expected to be exported to regional nations including Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.

This focus, and other infrastructure, and healthcare initiatives tabled by the government led GE to open its first office in Laos on June 9.

The GE Laos office was opened by, from left: Sinnasone Boulom, Mrs. Chansawad Boupha, Vice Minister, Ministry of Energy and Mines, Wouter Van Wersch, President and CEO, GE ASEAN, Rena Bitter, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, and Kovit Kantapasara, President and CEO, GE Thailand and Laos.

Located in the Vientiane Center, Khouvieng Road, the office is the base for the local GE team headed by Laos/French national, Sinnasone Boulom, the Chief Country Representative for GE Laos, and in this online Q&A, he shared more about the nation, its development plans and how GE hopes to support these.

Sinnasone please tell us more about Laos – the population, key industries, and economic growth rate?

We are a nation of seven million people, and about 700,000 live in Vientiane. We also have the youngest population in Asia, with a median age of 21 years, six months. Economically, the 2016 growth rate was 7%, and this is the expected rate until 2019.

Industry-wise, mining is a major sector as we are resource-rich with copper, gold, lead and zinc. And with the Mekong River running through Laos, and bordering Thailand, our hydroelectric potential is also immense – it’s an estimated 26,000 MW opportunity, with up to 75% to be produced for export.

This potential has attracted investors from China, France, Japan, Norway, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, the U.S., and Vietnam who are planning, or constructing, hydroelectric dams nationwide.

Finally, as 80% of the population lives in the countryside, agriculture is a major earner and exports include vegetables, coffee, sugarcane, tobacco, cotton, tea, peanuts, rice, and cassava.

Compared to neighbors – China, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, how developed is Laos?

While Laos has grown tremendously in the last decade, the country remains the poorest in Asia. Right now, the services industry is being developed in-line with a national plan designed to lift Laos from its current LDC “least developed country” status.

Laos has a theoretical hydropower potential of 26.5 GW, and plans to become one of the biggest producers, and exporters, of energy in the region.

What are the primary business opportunities for GE in Laos?

As the Laos government has ambitions of becoming the “battery of ASEAN” – a big energy producer and exporter – we work closely with Électricité du Laos (EDL), the state corporation that owns, and operates, the nation’s electricity generation and transmission/distribution assets. We support EDL’s renewable plans – mainly hydro, where we recently signed deals to provide equipment to projects in development.

As the government accelerates nation-building programs, we believe there are also good opportunities for solar and wind energy, as well as Energy Connections and Healthcare.

Regarding healthcare, and its development in Laos, what are the primary challenges and opportunities today?

Despite notable progress on some fronts, Laos continues to have some of the worst maternal, and child outcome, indicators in the region. By international standards, government spending on health – around 1% of GDP- is low, and has been erratic over the years. Thus, a lot of medical equipment used today, comes from donations from NGOs, and foreign governments. As such there was no training to use, or maintain the equipment.

My initial focus, with support from GE Healthcare colleagues, and local channel partners is to help customers improve skills, and standards, through training and education programs. We believe this is a strong foundation to build long-term partnerships between public, and private hospitals, and GE.

How does it feel to return home to Laos after many-years living abroad in France?

It is very moving to return to your homeland after 42 years of exile. In terms of emotions I feel proud, but also recognize the challenge ahead.

Proud, because I am bringing Western education, and expertise to help the country to grow and provide a better life for my compatriots. GE solutions, especially in Healthcare and Power will make a big difference. And challenges, because having lived abroad so long, it will take time to adjust to life here. For example, bureaucracy that can slow business deals, and inconsistencies in some laws and regulations.

Finally, for people who have never visited Laos, what do you recommend as highlights?

Laos is one of the few truly exotic destinations left in the world. It has a charming ‘back-in-time’ feel, and the people are very friendly. There’s lots to see – Buddhist temples and beautiful Luang Prabang – a city that is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site! The city is home to royal palaces, many temples, French colonial architecture, and lush jungle, waterfall and river spots. The mysterious Plain of Jars is another famous attraction. Laotians are also food and coffee lovers – our cuisine is delicious and full of variety.

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