The clock is ticking for a Grab exit. Southeast Asia's most valuable startup has been in business now for almost nine years. It has been losing money that entire time. To be sure, Grab has seen its user base, valuation and revenue grow exponentially over that time. The company has evolved from an Uber lookalike into an aspiring super app betting on digibanking to deliver it from the red ink into the black. That could be easier said than done.
While many countries have experienced a surge in cashless payments during the pandemic, for the Philippines fast-tracking the financial sector's digital transformation is a game changer. The reason is that the Philippines is a fast-growing, highly connected and populous country (108 million people) that lacks payments incumbents. There are no entrenched credit card companies in the market. That means ascendant e-wallets like Mynt's GCash have the chance to become dominant players in one of Southeast Asia's largest emerging markets.
In Vietnam's fiercely competitive e-wallet market, Momo stands out. The company has attracted deep-pocketed backers including private-equity firm Warburg Pincus and Silicon Valley fund Goodwater. Momo has is Vietnam's largest e-wallet by users, with 25 million, which it plans to double in two years. Momo recently completed a mammoth funding round that reportedly raised US$100 million that the company will use for strategic acquisitions and to enhance its app with biometrics technology.
WhatsApp has something most other would-be super apps do not: the stickiness of an immensely popular messaging service. And unlike China's WeChat, WhatsApp is a global phenomenon, with large user bases in a diverse array of countries: India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa and the United States to name a few. Having eschewed advertising, WhatsApp hopes to monetize all those users with digibanking and e-commerce services. If WhatsApp becomes a global one-stop shop for communication, shopping and banking it will be the only app of its kind.
Afterpay has to be feeling pretty good heading into 2021. It has become one of the largest buy now, pay later (BNPL) firms in the world and is growing fast just as the sector hits its stride. BNPL is not a new idea, but Afterpay has repackaged it neatly: four interest-free installments with no fees at all for customers as long as they pay on time. Retailers are willing to take on the risk of late or missed payments because Afterpay is bringing in more business for them. The company's sales grew 112% year-on-year in November to a record US$2.1 billion. Its share prices have risen roughly 270% to A$113.29 from A$30.63 when the year began.
South Korea's digital payments market has grown at a brisk clip amid the pandemic. From January to November, contactless payments rose 17% as businesses and consumers shifted to online transactions, according to the Bank of Korea. E-commerce transactions rose 26% during that period. It is against this backdrop that the Korean startup CHAI sees an opportunity for an API that allows online merchants to accept more than 20 payment systems.
E-commerce is an ideal platform from which to launch a digital payments business. Alibaba figured that out early on, launching Alipay back in 2004. Today, it is hard for any e-wallet to become as dominant as Alipay, especially in a market as competitive as Indonesia. Yet Sea Group's ShopeePay is fast becoming one of Indonesia's most popular e-wallets on the back of Shopee's ascension. Shopee was Indonesia's top e-commerce platform by site visits in 2019 and looks set to repeat that feat this year.
Gojek began more than a decade ago as Indonesia's answer to Uber. It since has evolved into a large platform company with super app ambitions. For Gojek, the key to becoming Indonesia's dominant app lies in mass monetization of its e-wallet services. The trouble is, that's easier said than done. Indonesia has a surplus of e-wallets all trying to cash in on the booming segment. User loyalty is shaky.
Grab has long had its eye on Indonesia, the home turf of its rival Gojek and Southeast Asia's largest economy. If Grab is going to be region's dominant super app, it needs to have a strong foothold in Indonesia, which by population is nearly as large as the Philippines, Vietnam, and Thailand combined. By leading a US$100 million Series B funding round in Indonesia's homegrown e-wallet LinkAja, Grab is signaling its intention to challenge Gojek more forcefully in the country's burgeoning digital finance segment.
After years of solid growth, global remittance flows are set to shrink in both 2020 and 2021, weighed down by the pandemic and its associated economic fallout. Asia, one of the fastest growing regions for remittances in recent years, will be one of the hardest hit regions, the World Bank estimates. Remittances in East Asia and the Pacific are projected to fall by 11% in 2020 and 4% in 2021. In South Asia, remittance flows are predicted to fall 4% this year and 11% the following year.
By at least a few metrics, Ant Group-backed GCash is the Philippines' top e-wallet. GCash, a subsidiary of the Globe Telecom-owned fintech startup Mynt, recorded 10 million downloads in the first nine months of the year, more than any other finance app, according to analytics firm AppAnnie. User growth rose 130% over that period. GCash expects transaction volume to reach P1 trillion this year, an amount that it took the company the three previous years combined to reach.
Buy now, pay later is taking the payments world by storm in Europe, the United States and Australia. Firms like Klarna, Afterpay, Sezzle and PayPal (with its "Pay in 4" product) are tapping strong consumer demand for interest-free installment payments. In Southeast Asia, however, BNPL remains at a nascent stage. None of the big BNPL players have launched their services in the region yet. There are some promising local startups though.Singapore-based hoolah is one of Southeast Asia's ascendant BNPL startups. In March, Hoolah raised an undisclosed eight-figure sum in its Series A round. Hoolah will use the cash to expand regionally. Investors participating in the round included venture-capital firm Allectus, iGlobe Ventures, Genting Ventures, former Lazada group CEO Max Bittner, and FNZ CEO Tim Neville.
Hoolah has been in Singapore since 2018 and works with merchants including HipVan, Castlery, Sennheiser and Skin Inc. The firm charges merchant-partners a fee for every successful transaction. Hoolah's BNPL service lets shoppers make purchases in three interest-free monthly installments. The company's key customer segments are youngsters (aged 18-26) who are not yet able to qualify for a credit card, some 26 to 35-year-olds and gig-economy workers. The latter segment likes using hoolah because the workers do not receive fixed salaries.
Hoolah enjoys a first-mover's advantage in Singapore. In an interview with Vulcan Post last year, co-founder and COO Arvin Singh explained why BNPL has been slow to arrive in Southeasts Asia. “There’s a high degree of complexity of achieving a seamless checkout experience while managing a flexible payment solution that includes risk management, consumer payback, direct merchant integration, merchant side funding and the commercials," he said.
In September, hoolah launched its BNPL service in Singapore's physical retail stores, where it sees an opportunity to grow sales as the pandemic eases in the city-state. To use the service, customers scan a QR code at the point of sale with hoolah's app. They then enter the total order amount, which is divided into three monthly payments.
Hoolah launched in Malaysia earlier this year and plans to expand to Hong and Thailand before the end of 2020.
Meanwhile, of the major global BNPL players, Afterpay is likely to be the first to expand to Southeast Asia. The Australian firm is reportedly mulling the acquisition of EmpatKali, which like hoolah is based in Singapore, but is focused on the Indonesia market. EmpatKali has "an established, albeit, very early stage position in Indonesia,” Afterpay's CEO Anthony Eisen told Reuters.
Ant Group's IPO is a big deal. In fact, the listing is expected to raise US$34 billion, would make it the biggest IPO of all time. Ant's valuation based on the pricing will be roughly US$313 billion, similar to Mastercard (US$319 billion) and JPMorgan Chase (US$309 billion). Can Ant justify that valuation? After all, the company derives the vast majority of its revenue from just one market: mainland China. And Ant has long benefited from a dearth of digital competition. Once the IPO is over, Ant will likely use some of the proceeds to fund its expansion in Southeast Asia. Ant has invested in a large number of e-wallets across the region and applied for a digital bank license in Singapore.
TransferWise is one of the few European fintechs making inroads in Asia. That's because the UK-based firm has a coherent Asia strategy: Enhance payments of every stripe - cross-border, domestic, real-time, credit card, e-wallet and more - and enable its partners to integrate the TransferWise open API directly into their infrastructure. TransferWise's APAC headquarters are in Singapore and it operates in Australia and New Zealand as well. The company has inked a deal with Alipay that allows it to begin serving the China market, albeit in a limited manner.