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Why is Kevin Carter bullish on VEON and Softbank-backed South Asian startups?

On this week’s episode of Opto Sessions, Kevin Carter, founder and chief investment officer of EMQQ Global, discussed investment opportunities in South Asia. Here, we dive into three of his favourite start-ups from Bangladesh and Pakistan, and explore how they are bringing new efficiencies to existing forms of commerce in both countries.

- Pakistan and Bangladesh among world’s most densely populated countries.

- Commerce in the region is driven by small, family-owned stores.

- ShopUp and Dastgyr offer digital inventory and mobile payment solutions for these businesses.

Kevin T. Carter, founder and chief investment officer of EMQQ Global, spoke on this week’s Opto Sessions podcast about the opportunities he sees in South Asia. Specifically, Carter pointed to the demographic trends that create the investment opportunity in the region, as well as three companies in Bangladesh and Pakistan that caught his eye during recent visits.

For Carter, there are two factors which make South Asia a particularly promising market: population density and digital adoption.

Bangladesh and Pakistan are well-positioned to benefit from both factors. Bangladesh in particular, as Carter points out, is a country the size of Iowa with a population of 170 million people. Pakistan and Bangladesh are the fifth- and eighth-largest countries by population in the world, respectively; Bangladesh is the more densely populated, at 1,265 people per square kilometre.

A report from the GSMA, a global non-profit which represents the mobile network industry, predicted in 2021 that Pakistan’s smartphone penetration would rise from 51% in 2020 to 74% by 2025, while in Bangladesh that figure was expected to increase from 41% to 62% during the same period.

ShopUp

ShopUp provides digital services to what in India are known as kirana shops, and in Bangladesh as mudir dokan. These small, often family-owned stores are “sometimes just a window on the street,” according to Carter. They sell basic items like milk, sugar and soda. Carter claimed that 10 million such stores account for over 90% of South Asia’s retail spending.

Companies like ShopUp are digitising this industry, “giving them an app that allows them to, first of all, take digital payments”, says Carter. This first element is a crucial component of the business model. “Once you get that and become the payments facilitator, you can really become the bank and provide lending, investment and savings products to the shop owners.”

Additionally, ShopUp provides logistics solutions to mudir dokan owners that use it, including digital inventory management solutions.

“Instead of closing the shop, and having to go across town to the wholesale market to get your product, it’s going to be delivered right to your store.”

Rather than upending a commercial system that has been in place for decades, ShopUp’s model instead adds efficiency — and therefore value — to all its incumbent stakeholders.

“The producers are the same,” says Carter. “The end customers are the same. It’s the middleman and the distribution and the logistics costs… that are being squeezed out, and that’s where the profits are going to come from.”

bKash

Given the rate of digital adoption in South Asia, and the increased digitisation of its commercial systems being driven by companies like ShopUp, there is further opportunity in the region for digital payments companies. Carter’s favourite of these in Bangladesh is start-up bKash.

“It now has about 70 million [users],” says Carter. “So almost half of the country is now paying for everything on a day-to-day basis using the bKash app.”

bKash recently extended its partnership with Huawei, which began in 2017 as a means of digitising its offering. Now, the two companies are collaborating on a “smart fintech” strategy which Huawei Bangladesh CEO Pan Junfeng has said should “drive the growth of the digital economy in Bangladesh”.

Dastgyr

Among the wave of start-ups sweeping Pakistan, Carter picked out B2B ecommerce platform Dastgyr as one to keep an eye on. The basics of Dastgyr’s business model are similar to those of ShopUp, and, like ShopUp, Dastgyr seeks to augment existing forms of commerce.

“Every 30 or 40 yards on a street, you'll find one of these [kirana] shops,” said Carter, “and they may have 100 families as their client base that they have served for, potentially, years.

“Rather than displace that distribution model, what [Dastgyr is] doing is digitising and making it easier for these people to take payments, to manage inventory, to not have to close down the [shop] to go and restock.”

Dastgyr is currently at the Series A stage, having secured $37m in a 2022 round led by VEON Ventures, the investment arm of Dutch-based telecoms company VEON [VEON]. This represented Pakistan’s largest ever Series A round.

“Pakistan’s start-up ecosystem is at a critical juncture, and only start-ups focused on addressing key challenges and adopting local solutions will survive and thrive,” said Aamir Ibrahim, CEO of Jazz, Veon’s Pakistan unit, at the time of the fundraise.

Investors wishing to tap into the growth potential of the trends that Carter discusses can look to Veon, which also holds a stake in ShopUp. As for bKash, its investors include SoftBank [9984.T] and Ant Group, a subsidiary of Alibaba [9988.HK].

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