7 mar 23

The mobility ‘super app’: a Middle Eastern specialty coming your way

Launched in 2016, UAE-based mobility startup ekar provides on-demand access to carsharing, peer-to-peer rental and subscription leasing in UAE and Saudi Arabia via a ‘super app’. What makes the app really super: its expanding range of services, soon to include fuelling, 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-centred platforms that offer a varied range of services, often anchored on on-demand mobility and/or microfinancing. They first emerged 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 thoroughly transformed how people find transport, and how they pay for things. For example: in 2010, 45% of banking transactions were done online or by mobile. In 2020, that had shot up to 90% (incidentally also threatening the job of the 500,000 bank tellers in China).

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

  • Just about everyone has a smartphone, even the poorer sections of the population. 
  • It is exactly those poorer people who have traditionally been excluded from easy access to mobility or banking services. 
  • Both investors and policy makers are fully exploiting the possibilities of this access to this previously unserved audience.
  • Bundling a wide variety of services offers added advantages, both for the customer (more access) and the provider (greater scale). 

Core service

The typical growth path for a super app: a core service – often but not always ridesharing or another mobility offer – attracts a large following. This allows the app to diversify into other fields. The logical third step then is to offer third-party services. 

Super apps come in various shapes and sizes. Some choose international expansion, others go deep locally. Some do partner with third parties, others choose to go it alone. The elements of success, however, are largely the same: customer trust is a prerequisite, a large customer base is indispensable, and local expertise is essential. 

Among the Middle East and Africa’s most prominent ‘super apps’ are:

  • Careem. Launched in 2012 in Dubai as a ride-hailing app, now also offering food ordering and payments. Now an Uber company, Careem aims to facilitate the mobility of “people, things and money”.  
  • Halan. Egypt-based, also started as a ride-hailing app. Now includes a wallet into which customers can deposit money for any service on the platform.
  • Safaricom. Kenya-based mobile operator, launched its M-Pesa super app in 2021. Offers bill payments, e-commerce and international money transfers. 
  • VodaPay. Launched by South Africa’s telecoms provider Vodacom together with China’s Alipay. Offers online shopping, financial services, food ordering.

Natural biotope

Many more have a similarly broad range of services, or are working on delivering them. These include food delivery service Smiles (UAE), digital wallet STC Pay (Saudi Arabia), and Talabat (Kuwait), another food deliverer.

The MEA region may be a natural biotope for super apps, that’s not to say it’s an easy environment. The region has plenty of people – more than 1.5 billion, give or take – but is divided in dozens of separate jurisdictions, each with their own legislations, making it hard to scale any business. 

Crypto and digital

And mobility service 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 are building their own. However, the imminent arrival of crypto and other digital currencies may dramatically change the playing field, sweeping away the need for traditional banking.  

And that could finally propel these MEA companies into more mature markets like Europe or North America. So pretty soon, Berliners and Parisians may be ordering food, a ride, a loan, and a house cleaner from one and the same ‘super app’, as Saudis and Emiratis are already doing today. 

For more on this, check out The Super App in the Middle East and Africa, a special report by The Economist.

Image: ekar

Authored by: Frank Jacobs