How Super Apps are Creating Economic Empowerment in Southeast Asia

Among the millions of apps available on the Apple and Google marketplaces, you can find an app for just about everything. But only a few are recognized as so-called super apps. These apps have many functions, such as financial transactions, ride hailing and ordering food, and they’re especially popular in Asia.

One of these catch-all apps is Grab. It lets users book a ride, order food, get daily essentials, send packages and more. It’s operated by Singapore-based Grab Holdings, a company founded as a ride-share startup 10 years ago in Malaysia by Anthony Tan and Hooi Ling Tan, two Harvard Business School graduates.

Previously known as MyTeksi and GrabTaxi, Grab Holdings quickly gained millions of users, added services and expanded overseas. It went public on the Nasdaq Stock Market after closing a SPAC merger in which it was valued at $40 billion, and as of Q2 2022, logged more than 30 million monthly transacting users. Grab now serves users in 480 cities across eight different countries. 

At Rakuten Optimism 2022, Grab Holdings President Ming Maa sat down with Yasufumi Hirai, Rakuten Group Executive Vice President, CIO & CISO, to chat about the company’s mission to create economic empowerment in Southeast Asia for small and medium-sized businesses.

Grab Holdings President Ming Maa at Rakuten Optimism 2022.
Grab Holdings President Ming Maa at Rakuten Optimism 2022.

Super apps are products that provide the most relevant daily services within a 3-kilometer radius of a user, according to Ming. However, Grab aims at much more than providing convenient services. It wants to improve the lives of millions of people.

“The way we create this economic empowerment is by creating a platform that provides for effectively all of your local on-demand services,” said Ming, who oversaw SoftBank Group’s investments in Grab before he joined the company himself. “Millions of consumers are using Grab to order breakfast, they’re ordering lunch, booking a ride for work, purchasing online using our digital wallets, they’re ordering groceries and paying for their utility bills.” 

Grab operates three super apps targeted at consumers, drivers and merchants that include services ranging from food delivery to micro insurance. These were the result of a learning process, Ming explained. As Grab provided a solution for one need, it learned about more needs. For instance, many of its ride-hailing customers lacked access to banking and many preferred to get delivered food instead of waiting in traffic to get to a restaurant.

The model has proven successful, in part because Grab’s engineers are focused on problems that people face in real-life settings, or genba in Japanese. The company has helped millions of users open their first bank account, offered micro-loans to hundreds of thousands of its driver-partners, and helped grow their earnings on the Grab platform over time.

“The best way is to go on the ground and feel the pain of the people we serve, to go to the genba,” said Ming. “For example, our Grab Maps team does immersions in Jakarta to better understand how different roads are in Indonesia to the roads in Singapore, and that informs our engineering and how they develop our routing technologies. Going to the genba really gives us a lot of unique insights that you can’t get sitting in the office and staring at spreadsheets.”

Rakuten Group Executive Vice President, CIO & CISO Yasufumi Hirai discusses the positive impact of Grab as a super app with Ming Maa at Rakuten Optimism 2022.
Rakuten Group Executive Vice President, CIO & CISO Yasufumi Hirai discusses the positive impact of Grab as a super app with Ming Maa at Rakuten Optimism 2022.

Ming attributes Grab’s success to what he described as a combination of the Japanese notion of kaizen, or continuous improvement of services, and a corporate culture enshrined in “the Grab Way,” emphasizing the Four H principles of honor, heart, humility and hunger as well as servant-leadership. The company also tries to empower its own staff to make decisions in the spirit of the Grab Way, and this is what allows them to help empower customers.

“We constantly find and learn new things that are unexpected, and constant experimentation really helps us to improve ourselves, product or services, and hopefully our marketplace,” said Ming.

Touching on Rakuten Optimism 2022’s theme of “tech and green,” Ming noted that Grab plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040. To accomplish this, it is building an electric vehicle ecosystem targeting middle- and middle-lower class populations, setting up charging stations, giving drivers the option to use low-emissions vehicles, and letting customers opt out of receiving plastic cutlery with their food orders, saving 774 million sets’ worth of plastic. 

Grab President Ming Maa states Grab's plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040 at Rakuten Optimism 2022.
Grab President Ming Maa states Grab’s plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040 at Rakuten Optimism 2022.

“Our carbon-neutral target is very ambitious but we hope that putting greater attention and a larger spotlight and collaboration with everyone in the ecosystem will accelerate that green economy,” said Ming. “The key for us is about driving social economic impact and really helping individuals evolve from the informal economy to the formal economy…It’s really about creating economic impact that requires us to tackle the three aspects of income, financial inclusion and upskilling.”     

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