Chinese companies are aiming to shape the future of the fintech field and to expand the idea of a cashless society. South East Asia has incredible potential.
Fintech is already an established sector in China and it is now part of the daily life of Chinese citizens. This is why the giants of the technology sector in China are looking beyond the Middle Kingdom’s borders for investments opportunities.
Due to the low access to bank services and low credit cards penetration, South East Asian nations are struggling to include a large size of the population into the financial system and fintech can be the key to solve the problem. It is the right environment to invest as the underdeveloped financial sector will allow the technology to evolve really fast and disrupt the current situation.
Alibaba and Tencent are not alone in the race to fintech investment in South East Asia, players such as the ride-hailing unicorn Didi and the e-retail giant JD.com are also joining in, making South East Asia “the battleground for fintech investments”.
The Indonesian Government aims to make the country the largest digital economy in Southeast Asia by 2020. The country is one of the biggest markets in South East Asia and has a large number of people who are not included in the formal banking system, it is no surprise that almost of all the major chinese companies have jumped in the fintech race.
In 2016, Tencent, JD.com and Didi Chuxing all made huge investments in the ride-hailing app Go-Jek to help it develop its e-wallet, insurtech and lending features with great ambitions. Investing in Go-Jek means investing in the wider South East Asia region as the app is not only active in Indonesia, but it is competing with the Singaporean Grab for the leadership in ride-hailing and fintech services in the entire region.
Alibaba entered later in Indonesia but it has made multiple investments in different fintech firms in the country. In 2017, the company invested $1.1 billion in Tokopedia, an online marketplace that created its e-payment service. The same year, it announced a partnership with Emtek Group, the leading media company in Indonesia in order to launch a mobile payment platform called “Dana“ that allows easy payment services also for utility bills and health insurance.
The country has all the right cards to be the leader in fintech and digital payments thanks to the composition of its financial sector and the increasing interest of foreign firms.
Thailand is a highly cash-centred society where only 10% of the populations has a credit card . In such a context, it was easy for Chinese companies (and very welcomed by the Thai Government) to position themselves as major investors in the fintech sector. In 2016, Ant Financial acquired 20% of shares in the online payment firm Ascend Money. The company registered $2.5 billion transactions in 2017 and aims to expand its business across South East Asia, reaching 100 million customers by 2020.
However, the most interesting investment has been done by the e-retail giant JD.com, who firstly established a collaboration in the retail and e-commerce sector with the Thai conglomerate Central Group and then expanded into e-wallet services. In 2018, the newly formed JD CENTRAL launched the e-wallet feature called “Dolfin Wallet” that will become available by May 2019, targeting over 5 million users in the first year. The online financial service will integrate artificial intelligence as well as big data analytics for its e-commerce features and it will support payments and transfers through all channels, opening the way to the shift to a cashless society in Thailand.
3. The Philippines
The Philippines are one highly fertile market for the development of fintech. Two-thirds of the country lacks access to bank accounts and only 5% of the population has a credit card, not to mention the flourishing market for remittances. In this context, both Alibaba and Tencent entered the market with very important investments. The first to move was Alibaba branch company, Ant Financial who in 2017 bought s 45% stake in Mynt, a financial company that provides money transfers and loans services and which is directly affiliated to the major telecom provider in the country. The company has over 4 millions registered customers and claims an average weekly transaction of 1.5 billion Phillipines pesos.
A year later, in 2018, Tencent, together with the American Private Equity KKR, stepped in by announcing the acquisition of a significant minority stake in Voyager worth $175 million. Voyager is a fintech firm who operates services like e-wallet, digital money lending and the largest mobile-based remittances network in the Philippines. The country aims to further develop this technology and more investment are to be expected.
Singapore presents a society that it has a way higher financial inclusion rate than its neighbours. Meaning that the fintech sector is dealing with a much more mature environment where the population is looking for more convenience.
In this context, the main player to watch is Grab, an app headquarted in Singapore but with huge presence in Malaysia. Grab started off as an online ride-hailing service but soon branched off into the fintech sector, creating the GrabPay app that allows users to pay for bills and healthcare through a smartphone. The company pulled in a $2 billion investment from Didi Chuxing and the Japanese Softbank. The company co-founder, Tan Hooi Ling wants to make Grab the leading payment platform in South East Asia.
Ant Financial entered the fintech race in Singapore by merging with the HelloPay Group, which operates the payment platform on Lazada, a major e-commerce company for which Alibaba already owns the highest stakes. After this move, Hellopay was rebranded as Alipay Singapore.
In 2017, Ant Financial entered in partnership with Touch’n Go, a subsidiary of a major Malaysian bank, that provides prepaid payment cards in order to launch an e-wallet platform that will allow users to access many services on their mobile phones including e-commerce. However, Alipay was already active in Malaysia and it is backed up by important companies such as Starbucks and 7- Eleven as well as Malaysian Banks such as Maybank and CIMB.
Furthermore, Malaysia is the first market in Asia to operate Wechat pay, the e-wallet feature of Tencent’s messaging app. More than 20 million Malaysian Wechat users will be able to pay and transfer money to each other, putting the Chinese app in direct competion with all players including Grab. It is clear that all Chinese players are fully harnessing the benefits coming from a vast ethnic Chinese population already in the country and the incoming Chinese tourists to establish their influence.