Uber makes a tactical retreat from South-East Asia


BEING a commuter in much of South-East Asia requires reserves of patience. In city after city, bar Singapore, jams confine people in taxis for hours, or force them onto the back of motorbikes that weave precariously through traffic. These qualities of perseverance are not shared by Uber, an American ride-hailing firm. This week it announced that after five years and $700m of investment in the region, it would be selling its business there to Grab, a Malaysian startup based in Singapore.

South-East Asia is not known for giving birth to Silicon Valley-beating tech companies, says Ming Maa, Grab’s president. “This acquisition shows that this is changing,” he boasts. Under the terms of the deal Uber will take a 27.5% stake in Grab, which is valued at $6bn. The deal makes Grab, which started in 2012 after its two co-founders met at Harvard Business School, the dominant ride-sharing app in a market of 634m people. It operates in 191 cities across eight countries, and will now hoover up customers of Uber, who have two weeks to make the switch to the local service.

For Uber, cracking the market was always going to be a struggle. With the exception of Singapore, most rides in the region are astonishingly cheap, particularly if perched on the back of a motorbike. In order to stay competitive, Uber has had to burn through cash.

Local companies such as Grab and an Indonesian competitor, Go Jek, which is valued at around $5bn, also offer more than just ride-hailing services. Indonesian users of Go Jek can order food, massages and manicures at the touch of the app. GrabPay provides mobile payment services, particularly useful for a region where an estimated two-thirds of people are “unbanked”. Two weeks ago Grab also started providing microloans to businesses in a partnership with Credit Saison, a Japanese firm. With the acquisition of UberEats as part of the deal, it will also expand its food-delivery service.

In their core businesses, too, local companies have innovated successfully. “In San Francisco, most vehicles are four-wheel cars,” points out Mr Maa. By contrast, most of Grab’s fleet consists of two-wheeled motorbikes and drivers wearing lurid green helmets. In Cambodia three-wheel tuk-tuks also chug along, ready to be hailed through a smartphone. In Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where motorbikes can outnumber people, the company also introduced a new kind of payment system: rather than hail a rider through the app, only to miss them in the crowd, a customer can now pick their rider on the spot and instantly book their journey.

This week’s deal is also a coup for Masayoshi Son, chief executive of SoftBank, a Japanese telecoms and internet conglomerate. In January his SoftBank Vision Fund, with $93bn to spend, closed a deal to take a 15% stake in Uber. SoftBank itself was already Grab’s biggest shareholder. Both firms could benefit from less competition. Grab gets the market, but Uber’s losses of $4.5bn worldwide last year should shrink as it hunkers down before a planned initial public offering next year. Mr Son aims eventually to ensure that none of the many ride-hailing firms in which SoftBank holds stakes waste money fighting each other.

A similar deal in 2016 in China with Didi, in which Uber took a 17.7% stake, has worked out well for both: the initial value of the holding has risen from $6bn to $8bn. Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s boss since November, recently visited two other markets where his firm is either still battling or preparing to rival another SoftBank-backed firm—India, where Uber competes with Ola, a local firm, and Japan, a nascent ride-hailing market where Uber and Didi both have big plans. Whatever happens in these markets, ride-sharing increasingly seems to mean firms divvying up the spoils.



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