Nineteen startups from the Asia region including one from Sri Lanka last week competed to represent their country at the Regional Finals of the Seedstars World Competition. Last week these innovative startups went head-to-head in the Seedstars Regional Stage.
First detected in China, it didn’t take long until COVID-19 was considered a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. From the first moment, services and manufacturing were immediately affected as lockdown measures were rapidly adopted in the region, with impacts not only on the supply side, but also on demand.
The lockdowns meant that normal economic activities, such as manufacturing or tourism, of great importance to the region, could no longer continue operating normally, driving falls in economic output. And the numbers speak loud enough: Oxford Economics estimates that China’s economy may have contracted 8.5% and Hong Kong’s economy 10% in the first quarter of 2020. With other countries relying heavily on China’s supply chain, the effect of the pandemic sent shock waves through the globe, with the World Bank forecasting a 5.2% contraction in global GDP in 2020.
In social terms, the pandemic seems to have affected more significantly certain groups in the society, mostly factions that were already struggling before the pandemic, revealing a pre-existing inequality in the region. Informal workers, not covered by social security or special rescue plans, are among the most vulnerable, together with women, who make up most of the health and care workers, thus more vulnerable to infection but also to increased working hours – an added weight on top of heavy unpaid domestic work performed. The World Bank projects at least 38 million people across East Asia and the Pacific to fall into poverty as a result of the pandemic.
The global panorama has changed and only time will tell what are the long-term effects of the disease on the region, both economically and socially. The trend suggests that most economies are aiming to increase their domestic production at the expense of foreign dependence. But a slow progressive demand for goods from the West is bringing Asian economies back on track. The power rebounds will depend on governmental policies and programs but also on entrepreneurship, know-how, and technology. And Seedstars is happy to bring the Seedstars World Competition 2020/21 local winners for the Asia region – led by people with ideas capable of bringing transformation and development into the region.
With mobility restrictions still in place, receiving goods at home became a standard practice in most of the world, with businesses offering such options thriving. In Sri Lanka, the buying of medication couldn’t be easier. Deeshana Basnayake is the mind behind Healthnet, a platform offering doorstep medication delivery and refill reminders. The startup offers two separate services: a mobile app for prescription medication and a traditional e-commerce style website for over-the-counter products, with all products being priced the same as on a retail pharmacy.
The great advantages are clear: customers don’t need to wait on queues at the pharmacy – critical in times of a pandemic, it fosters medication adherence and simplifies medication routines at the eyes of the patients, that can at any time make use of free video consultations with pharmacists. And Healthnet knows who their customers are: women. Women tend to be the primary decision makers when it comes to medical needs of the family so it’s to no surprise that approximately 70% of their customer base are women, which led the company to redesign their entire brand to cater for their preferences.
Foodie was born in Thailand with the ambition of giving back the power of e-commerce into the hands of restaurant operators, by providing a data-driven digital platform for these businesses to run multi-channel online sales and retention. The system is built in with CRM, payments and logistics services to create a sustainable online sales channel built over organic sales, all in one platform. “Customer acquisition is 5 to 25 times more expensive than retention. For restaurants this problem is exacerbated as online customers are often acquired and retained by the aggregators. This way, restaurants can only gain visibility but never maintain long term retention with their customers,” says CEO Gautam Ganguly.
Using this model, the startup believes that restaurants can become more sustainable being run as virtual stores, can scale faster and increase the income of the people involved in running and working at these businesses.
Wanting to bridge the gap between consumers and manufactures, Rohit Upreti created the very first and largest e-commerce value chain in Bhutan. The One Click Shop has eyes on the world, by working actively on the promotion of various products by local entrepreneurs, while giving them the international market exposure they need. In the process, the company helps develop the entrepreneurship movement in the country, which in turn will help boost the economy of the region. Employing underprivileged youths, using electric delivery options and offering additional trash-back policy service to customers is how the company bids to meet its social concerns.
Education: Other education products
iSchoolConnect, believes that getting university admissions right requires getting recruitment, assessment, and engagement right in the first place. Managed by Ashish Fernando, the winner from India created a one-stop solution to help students apply to more than 400,000 global degree programs through their website. This way, students can complete their entire process from admissions to visas and travel to accommodation, in one place. The solution is democratising a process that is normally long, unfamiliar, stressful and always requires expert guidance.
Financial services: Financial inclusion
Kiu means ‘Bridge.’ And there’s a digital bridge connecting people, communities, countries, and banks with SMEs and MSMEs to help them access capital in Asia. Led by Steven Landman, Kiu Myanmar Ltd. is solving the problem of access to finance for MSME/SMEs and farmers in Asia by bridging possible customers with partner financial institutions, all utilising the Kiu Business Management Platform. In the process, the company from Myanmar is facilitating local businesses’ access to training in accounting, financial management and digitalisation. This is a market where loan rejection rates are very high – over half of loans requested by SME’s, women owned businesses and farmers are rejected.
Financial services: Payments
Successful e-commerce businesses depend on platforms that are user friendly and appealing, but also on IT solutions that are reliant and accredited, such as Payment gateways, core solutions to make the business flow effortlessly. But what if there’s nearly none? shurjoPay, the online payment gateway, managed by Fida Haq, is one of the only two Payment Systems Operators (PSO) licensed by Bangladesh Bank. In absence of any international payment gateways in the country, shurjoPay is solving the very existential issue of e-merchants receiving payments online from all major payment instruments of the country.
During the onslaught and spread of COVID-19 in 2020, shurjoPay has played a crucial role in enabling a lot of e-merchants and institutional service providers like schools and hospitals to receive payments for their services in a safe and secure way. The solution allows e-merchants to place multiple payment options on their own websites quickly and start receiving payments in exchange of goods and services they sell. “Hence more and more MSMEs are coming online with their businesses recently. We believe shurjoPay’s impact in bringing about this change has been transformational,” says the CEO.
Enterprise: Enterprise software
Creating awareness of local products in the international market is never easy. Fiji and the Pacific have a wide and unique variety of products but the international market penetration for these items is very low. Facing the fact that Fiji did not have a central entity to lead e-commerce development, which drove most micro businesses losing out on the benefits provided by virtual shops, MultiDrua came into the picture as Fiji’s 1st Multi-Vendor eCommerce Platform.
The drua (canoe) in the olden days was a form of transportation carrying people and goods across islands for discovery and trade. MultiDrua wants to be the drua of the digital age, bringing Fijian made products to the forefront of the international market and empowering local communities to be self-sustaining, while aiming issues of financial and digital literacy.
According to the Health at a Glance:Asia/Pacific 2020 report by OECD/WHO, as of October 2020, around 12% of the deaths reported in the world to COVID-19 were in Asia. In a period where the region needs assistance the most, these startups come into the game bringing solutions that put small and medium businesses at the forefront of the economy. By helping businesses, they’re driving transactions, creating jobs, increasing locals’ proceeds and supporting a much larger ecosystem made out of people – always on the foreground of any great idea. Bridging gaps, offering solutions where there were none, projecting the region’s products, these Seedstars winners shine light on the region’s future.