The Mobility ‘Super App’: A Middle Eastern Specialty Coming Your Way

The Mobility ‘Super App’: A Middle Eastern Specialty Coming Your Way

Launched in 2016, UAE-based mobility startup ekar provides on-demand access to car sharing, peer-to-peer rental and subscription leasing in the UAE and Saudi Arabia through a ‘super app’. What makes the app really great: its expanding range of services, which will soon include refueling, parking and cleaning. “Super apps” are fast becoming a specialty in the Middle East and Africa (MEA). Here’s why – and what other regions can learn from it.

“Super-apps” are smartphone-centric platforms that offer a wide range of services, often based on on-demand mobility and/or microfinance. They first appeared in China about 10 years ago, when the innovative possibilities of mobile connectivity became apparent.

90% online

Chinese super apps like AliPay and WeChat have revolutionized the way people find transportation and pay for things. For example: in 2010, 45% of banking transactions were done online or via mobile. In 2020, this proportion increased to 90% (by the way, also endangering the jobs of 500,000 Chinese bank tellers).

Super apps have now found a natural home in Africa and the Middle East, where the conditions are right:

  • Almost everyone has a smartphone, even the poorer sections of the population.
  • It is precisely poorer people who have traditionally been excluded from easy access to mobility or banking services.
  • Both investors and decision makers are taking full advantage of this previously underserved audience.
  • Connecting a wide range of services offers additional benefits for both the customer (greater access) and the service provider (greater scale).
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Basic service

A typical growth trajectory for super apps: a core service—often but not always a ride-sharing or other mobility offering—attracts a large following. This allows the application to expand into other areas. The logical third step is therefore to offer third-party services.

Super apps come in all shapes and sizes. Some choose international expansion, others deepen at the local level. Some collaborate with third parties, others choose to go it alone. However, the elements of success are largely the same: customer trust is a prerequisite, a large customer base is essential, and local expertise is essential.

The most prominent “super apps” in the Middle East and Africa are:

  • Careem. It launched in Dubai in 2012 as a ride-hailing app that already offers food ordering and payment. Careem, now an Uber company, aims to facilitate the mobility of “people, things and money”.
  • Fish. Based in Egypt, it also started as a travel app. It now includes a wallet where customers can deposit money for any of the platform’s services.
  • Safaricom. The Kenyan-based mobile operator launched its M-Pesa super app in 2021. It offers bill payments, e-commerce and international money transfers.
  • VodaPay. It was jointly launched by South African telecommunications provider Vodacom and China’s Alipay. It offers online shopping, financial services, and food ordering.

Natural biotope

Several others provide a similarly broad range of services or are working on providing them. These include food delivery service Smiles (UAE), digital wallet STC Pay (Saudi Arabia) and Talabat (Kuwait), another food delivery service.

The MEA region may be a natural habitat for super apps, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy environment. The region has a lot of people—more than 1.5 billion, give or take—but it’s divided into dozens of separate jurisdictions, each with their own laws, making it difficult to expand business.

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Crypto and digital

And mobility providers – a key starting point for the development of super apps – are in an uneasy symbiosis with local banks. Both sides need each other, but many financial institutions are either wary of the super-app boom or building their own. However, the imminent emergence of crypto and other digital currencies could dramatically change the playing field, sweeping away the need for traditional banking services.

And this could finally bring these MEA companies to more mature markets like Europe or North America. Soon, Berliners and Parisians will be able to order food, transport, loans and cleaners from the same “superapp”, as Saudis and Emiratis already do today.

To learn more about this, check it out The Super App in the Middle East and Africaspecial report The economist.

Picture: Ekar

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