• SERVICES
  • INDUSTRIES
  • PERSPECTIVES
  • ABOUT
  • ENGAGE

EMERGING MARKETS

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Decarbonization of Steel Industry: A Rocky Road Ahead

962views

Continuously rising carbon dioxide (CO2) emission is a leading cause of climate change which is considered to be one of the most pressing issues the world is facing today. Being one of the biggest contributors to CO2 emission, steel industry has garnered wide-spread criticism over the years. Several alternatives to conventional steelmaking process have been developed in an effort to reduce CO2 emission, however, the question is whether the producers of this shining grey alloy are ready to face the challenges in implementation of cleaner technologies.

Steel industry strives to move towards a low-carbon future

Global crude steel production increased from 1,808.6 million tons in 2018 to 1,869.9 million tons in 2019, registering 3.4% year-on-year growth. World Steel Association indicated that, on average for 2018, for every ton of steel produced, 1.82 tons of CO2 were emitted. In the same year, steelmaking accounted for 7% of the total CO2 emissions globally.

UN Paris agreement on climate change, inked in 2015, outlines a global framework to ensure global temperatures do not rise above 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. To align with the goals set out in the Paris agreement, the steel industry will be required to reduce its CO2 emissions by 65% by 2050, as compared to 2014 emission levels.

Leading steel producers along with other stakeholders in the value chain, including automotive giants, banking and financial institutions, raw materials suppliers, and environmental organizations, came together in 2016 to establish ResponsibleSteel, an initiative to develop global standards and certification program aimed at reducing carbon emission in the steelmaking process and improve sustainability. Besides ArcelorMittal, the biggest steel producer in the world and one of the founding members of the ResponsibleSteel initiative, other steel producers such as Aperam, BlueScope Steel, Outokumpu, VAMA, and Voestalpine have also joined the initiative.

Alternative technologies to reduce CO2 emission at every stage of steelmaking process

Steel is produced either from iron ore or scrap. Conventionally, ore-based steel is produced in blast furnace-basic oxygen furnace (BF-BOF) which is undoubtedly the most carbon-intensive steelmaking process. This is because BF-BOF route uses coking coal as reducing agent as well as source of energy. World Steel Association indicated that, in 2018, coal accounted for about 90% of a BF-BOF’s energy input, while 7% energy input came from electricity, and remaining from natural gas and other sources. Overall, for every ton of steel produced through BF-BOF route, about 2.3 tons of CO2 is emitted.

To reduce CO2 emission in BF-BOF route, it has been proposed to substitute coking coal with biofuel. Biofuel is also carbon-based but it does not contribute to greenhouse gases upon combustion. Hence, its impact on the environment is comparatively lower. By using biofuels in BF-BOF, the CO2 emissions can be almost halved.

Moreover, combining BOF route with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology can also help to reduce CO2 emission

by almost 60%. CCS technology allows to capture the CO2 emissions pro­duced from the use of fossil fuels in steelmaking process, thus preventing the CO2 from entering the atmosphere. CCS technologies are quite advanced and can be retrofitted with the existing infrastructure used for BF-BOF production processes.

Direct reduced iron (DRI) is another steelmaking technology in which the metal is reduced directly from the ore in solid state without the need to melt it. DRI route generally uses natural gas as reducing agent, which reduces the carbon emission by about 50% as compared to BF-BOF route. About 5% of the global steel production is done through DRI route.

Electric Arc Furnace (EAF) is a dominant technology used to produce recycled steel from scrap. EAF are smaller and less expensive than BF-BOF. Moreover, in case of EAF route, coking coal is not consumed as a reducing agent, and thus the CO2 emission is much lower. Further, as per World Steel Association estimates, in 2018, for EAF route, electricity was the main source of energy accounting for 50% of the total energy input, followed by natural gas which accounted for 38% of energy input. In the same year, coal represented only for 11% of the total energy input for EAF route. EAF emits only about 0.4 ton of CO2 per ton of steel produced. The CO2 emission can be further reduced in the EAF route by using zero-carbon sources for electricity.

There are a few other technologies which are still in the research phase, but have the potential to provide a breakthrough in future. For instance, research is ongoing on use of hydrogen in place of coking coal, as reaction of hydrogen with the iron ore generates water vapor as a by-product instead of CO2. Several leading steel companies including SSAB, ArcelorMittal, and Thyssenkrupp Steel are exploring and conducting feasibility studies to test this new concept. Another technology being explored involves reduction of iron ore through direct electrolysis at temperatures of about 1,600 degrees Celsius. This technology is already being widely used in aluminum production, but it is still in early phase of research for steel production.

Challenges in implementation

Eco-friendly steelmaking process is technically achievable but there are several challenges in implementation at commercial scale. Thus, steel industry lacks the incentive to adopt environment-friendly low-carbon technologies in the current business environment.

Even though a number of alternatives to BF-BOF route have been developed for ore-based steel production, about 95% of the ore-based steel is still being produced through BF-BOF route. The industry has been making constant efforts to make changes and improvement in BF-BOF process with a view to reduce carbon emissions. For instance, the replacing of coking coal with biofuel in BF-BOF route is a mature technology, but feasibility to implement this on large-scale depends on availability of biofuel, which varies from region to region. Thus, countries such as Brazil that have large biofuel resources have commercial-scale biofuel-based BF-BOF steel production, but it is not feasible for countries that do not have sufficient biofuel resources.

Similarly, DRI technology uses mainly natural gas as input and as the natural gas availability varies significantly from region to region, the feasibility of implementing DRI technology depends on the location.

CCS seems to be a promising alternative but it demands a large investment in construction of infrastructure for storage and transportation of CO2. A study released by Global Carbon Capture and Storage Initiative (GCCSI) in 2017 indicated that costs for capturing CO2 from steel furnaces could be estimated around US$65-US$70 per ton of CO2. For steel producers operating on competitive margins, this is a significant cost; thus, they seek strong incentives or policy reforms from their governments to support their investment in CCS. At present, only a handful of countries including, the USA, UK, Canada, Australia, and Denmark have CCS-specific policies and these policies vary significantly from country to country. Since steel is a globally traded commodity, the difference in government policies and framework may impact the competitiveness of the steel producers. Thus, lack of global regulatory framework for CCS is a major barrier in wide-scale implementation of the technology.

Scrap-based steel produced using EAF technology accounts for over one-fourth of the total global steel production and it is less carbon-intensive than ore-based steel. Hence, in order to keep the CO2 emissions in check, it is essential to increase the contribution of scrap-based steel in fulfilling the overall steel demand. But the quality of recycled steel is low compared to primary steel produced directly from iron ore, which makes it unsuitable for some specific applications such as construction. Moreover, steel scrap generally has high copper content which becomes problematic during the recycling process because it causes cracks. Application of such type of recycled steel is extremely limited. In order to give a boost to production of recycled steel over ore-based steel, it is important to overcome these downcycling problems.

Decarbonization of Steel Industry A Rocky Road Ahead by EOS Intelligence

EOS Perspective

While there are several challenges in implementation of alternative technologies in steelmaking process to reduce CO2 emission, steel producers are under pressure to act in wake of rising carbon prices. 86% of the industry’s production comes under the purview of existing or planned carbon pricing markets.

A study published in July 2019 by CDP, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, pointed out that the world’s 20 largest publicly-listed steel companies, which together account for over 30% of the global steel production, could suffer an average loss of 14% if the carbon price rise to US$100 by 2040. The report also indicated that about 60% of the companies have set some target for carbon emission reduction, of which, target of only two companies align with the Paris agreement goals. The 20 companies under study are expected to cumulatively reduce the CO2 emissions by less than 50% by 2050, which is much less than the target of 65% reduction in CO2 emission required to meet the Paris agreement goals. This clearly shows that the steel producers are underprepared to align with the global climate change goals. The need of the hour is to embrace radical technology changes, but high cost, limited resources, and lack of unified and global policy framework are the main barriers disincentivizing the steel industry to move towards low carbon future.

However, with the support of the governments, technology innovators, and other stakeholders, some steel giants are working on several green initiatives to reduce the CO2 emissions. Most pilot projects are concentrated in Europe, as companies in this region are receiving immense support from the European Commission in view of its goal to make EU carbon neutral by 2050. The table highlights key projects undertaken by the leading steel companies to move towards low-carbon future.

Decarbonization of Steel Industry A Rocky Road Ahead - projects by EOS Intelligence

Currency Conversion as on 26 March:
€1 = US$1.10
SEK1 = US$0.10

 

 

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Nigerian Power Woes Cripple Businesses

913views

Achieving efficient generation and distribution of electricity in Nigeria has over the years remained a sore point and a major threat to growth of the economy. Poor electricity supply has serious consequences for the businesses in the country, with several existing companies struggling to maintain profitability and new players shying away from entering the market. The government has undertaken several measures, including transferring majority of the power infrastructure from government to private hands, however, it has not managed to improve the situation. Ambitious policies and agreements with multinational energy companies might just be the key to solve Nigeria’s energy problems.

Nigeria is considered most abundant in natural reserves and is the largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country has the potential to generate about 11,000-12,000 MW of electric power from existing plants. Despite this, Nigeria is only able to generate about 4,000 MW on most days, which is less than one-third of what is required to provide for its more than 190 million citizens.

According to a 2014 World Bank survey, about 27% of Nigerian businesses identified electricity as the main hurdle in doing business. Also, IMF estimated per capita electricity production in Nigeria to be less than 25% of that of the Sub-Saharan Africa average. The gap between the electricity generation capacity and demand in the country is a result of poorly maintained electricity generation facilities and very little investment in new power plants as well as an outdated transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Government action or lack thereof

Nigeria’s power sector has suffered from mismanagement and corruption for many years. Since Nigeria’s independence from the British rule in 1960, the government set up a heavily subsidized grid, which was subject to high level of corruption and was never able to generate enough profits to finance new power plants or upgrade the transmission and distribution network to meet the needs of the growing population. In addition to its inability to upgrade, the electricity sector suffers from a huge range of issues, ranging from leakages in power transmission and distribution, to lack of maintenance, to theft and vandalism.

In an effort to combat the country’s energy poverty, the government liberalized the power sector in the early 2001 in hope to attract foreign investments. However, the plan didn’t work as expected. Instead, privatization increased corruption as the political members tried to appoint political allies and family members to head the new distribution companies.

According to a 2018 publication by the Istituto Affari Internazionali, an Italian non-profit think tank, Nigeria has been steadily generating 4,000 MW/h since 2005, with no increase in output over the past decade. This is costing the Nigerian economy a great deal as businesses and industries suffer due to regular power outages. Moreover, as per a 2018 estimate by A2EI (a Berlin-based collaborative R&D platform in the solar off-grid industry), Nigerians spend NGN4.3 billion (US$12 million) annually on small gasoline generators, of which NGN2.9 billion (US$ 8 million) is spent on fuel.

Nigerian Power Woes Cripple Businesses by EOS Intelligence

Nigeria’s energy poverty affecting businesses across industries and sizes

Manufacturing and trading industry

Poor electricity supply is affecting the manufacturing industry in an immense way. A typical Nigerian factory experiences power outage or voltage fluctuations approximately eight to ten times a week, with each power outage lasting about two hours. This adds to the cost of production through lost material, damaged products, and restarting the factory equipment. This makes the manufacturing business unattractive to investors since the overhead costs are high, return is low, and the business environment is largely uncertain.

To combat the power issue, companies depend on diesel generators for power backup, however, this significantly adds to the cost of the product, which in turn affects the competitiveness of the business since whatever is produced in the country is more expensive when compared with production costs in other regions.

In addition to electricity shortage, prices and availability of fuel for operating the generators also impact businesses. While small business generators are powered by price-capped gasoline, the larger generators that power big businesses, apartment complexes, and big homes can only be run on diesel, which in turn is volatile with regards to pricing and supply.

According to a market intelligence firm based in Lagos, SBM Intelligence, diesel is among the top three cost heads for many Nigerian firms. Moreover, with the price of diesel also being volatile, many businesses operate with a constant risk of increasing overhead cost, which may result in reduction in output, downsizing, or even business closure. This was seen in May 2015 when Nigeria was hit by fuel scarcity, which caused many traders and businesses to shut shop as they could not afford diesel for their generators.

One business sector most impacted by Nigeria’s energy poverty is the perishable food sector. Nigeria’s fuel scarcity in 2015, caused the loss of approximately NGN10 million (US$27,000) worth of food items. Similarly, as per members of the Ajeromi Frozen Foods Market Association in Lagos, a severe bout of power outage in March 2016 resulted in the decay (and thereby loss) of frozen food worth NGN20 million (US$55,000) in just five days.

Apart from this, small businesses are also severely impacted by Nigeria’s power shortage. Most small shops cannot afford complete generator back up and therefore suffer with limited working hours and sub-par working conditions. For the ones that can afford a generator, the cost of it is very high, squeezing out profits from their already limited setup. For instance, a small tailor shop with a daily income of about NGN4,000 (US$11) spends close to NGN3,000 (US$8.2) daily on fueling their generator to keep the business going, highlighting the disproportionately high cost of electricity to run a small business in the country.

According to a market intelligence firm based in Lagos, SBM Intelligence, diesel is among the top three cost heads for many Nigerian firms. Moreover, with the price of diesel also being volatile, many businesses operate with a constant risk of increasing overhead cost, which may result in reduction in output, downsizing, or even business closure.

Technology sector

Nigeria’s tech industry accords for approximately 14% of the Nigeria’s GDP in 2019 and is poised to be the next frontier for growth. However, constant power outages have become a serious problem for the booming sector. Most tech companies operate around the clock to provide a 24*7 service to their customers, however, in Nigeria, most app companies operate for only 8-9 hours a day as they cannot sustain generator costs for the entire 24 hours. This impacts the quality of service provided.

As per Chris Oyeniyi, owner of a smartphone app called KariGo, electricity cost (including generator cost) on a monthly basis is about US$800 for the bare minimum number of operating hours. The same electricity bill would be around US$100 if the public power grid was dependable. This hampers growth for tech start-ups, which have to allocate significant amount of their funds towards power supply instead of using them for expanding, both in terms of scale and staff.

In an attempt to overcome this challenge, several technology start-ups prefer to work in co-working spaces that allow them to pool their electricity bills. This concept is becoming very popular in the country, however, despite this, generator costs remain very high to provide around the clock services.

In addition to the high costs, technology firms also operate with a constant risk of losing all their digital work (that is not backed up) or hampering important software updates in case of a sudden blackout.

According to a survey of 93 Nigerian tech start-ups by the Center for Global Development conducted in 2019, 57% of start-ups found power outages to be one of the biggest challenges for their business. Moreover, one-third of the firms surveyed reported losing more than 20% of their sales due to power outages.

Other sectors

Just like the manufacturing and technology sector, most of the other industries are also impacted by irregular power supply and thereby rely on large generators to run their operations. This puts additional cost pressures on the business.

In 2019, Temi Popoola, the West Africa chief executive of investment bank Renaissance Capital, stated that diesel accounts for approximately 20-30% of banks’ operating expenses in Nigeria, which is significantly higher compared with other developing countries.

The telecom sector is also vulnerable to the power outages faced by the country. In 2015, MTN, a telecom giant, stated that it spends approximately NGN8 billion (US$22 million) annually on diesel to keep its network online. This is a huge cost and accounts for about 60% of its operating costs. Due to such heavy operating costs, the company is forced to focus more on sustaining its day-to-day activities rather than investing in any other area such as expanding its network.

The road ahead

Currently there does not seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel for Nigeria’s power woes. With high level of corruption paralyzing the sector and limited amount of new private investment, the sector is in a state of limbo.

Moreover, there are constant disagreements between the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company (NBET) and the private power generating companies, which further impact electricity supply. Recently, in September 2019, another issue came into the light, when NBET directed all thermal electricity generation companies (GenCos) to pay an administrative charge. To oppose this, the GenCos have threatened to shut down power production and supply and argued that there is no policy directive to that effect by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC). The two sides have not managed to reach any consensus as of now. However, such additional charges will further put financial pressure on already struggling GenCos, who have largely failed to improve their generation levels due to lack of capital for maintenance and operation. This will further negatively impact the already dismal grid supply levels.

Nigeria is dealing with another legal dispute over a hydro power project with a proposed capacity of 3,050 MW. In 2003, the Nigerian government awarded the build-operate-transfer (BOT) contract to a local company, Sunrise Power and Transmission Company Limited (SPTCL) and followed it up with signing a general project execution agreement with the company in November 2012. However, simultaneously, the government also awarded the bid to execute the hydro project to a JV between China Gezhouba Group Corporation of China (CGGCC) and China Geo-Engineering Group Corporation (CGGC) in 2006.

Moreover, in 2017, it signed another engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contract with Sinohhydro Corporation of China, CGGCC and CGGC to form a joint venture but excluded SPTCL from the agreement. Following this SPTCL filed a legal suit against the federal government and its Chinese partners at the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) in Paris for breaching the contract. The government risks approximately US$2.3 million in fines in this legal tussle. Moreover, the Chinese government refused to provide the required funding for the project (US$5.8 billion) until the legal dispute is settled. Thus, the project is on hold until any legal solution is reached.

However, that being said, the Nigerian government is ambitiously trying to revive the country’s electricity sector. In 2017, the government developed a National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Plan, under which it aims to achieve 30,000 MW electricity by 2030, with renewable energy accounting for 30% of the overall energy mix (9,000 MW). The government plans to adopt ‘The Sustainable Energy for All Action Agenda’ (SE4ALL), which is a UN initiative to support sustainable energy in Africa, with targets of 90% Nigerians having access to electricity by 2030.

To this effect, in May 2019, Central Bank of Nigeria announced the disbursement of NGN120.2 billion (US$330 million) to different distribution companies, power generating companies, service providers, and gas companies in order to improve their liquidity situation. Furthermore, in 2018, the government secured a loan of US$485 million from the World Bank to upgrade the country’s electricity transmission network and infrastructure and is currently in talks about a US$2.5 billion additional loan to uplift the power sector.

The government has also signed a six year power deal with the German energy giant Siemens, with an aim to generate a minimum of 25,000 MW of electricity by 2025. As a part of this deal, Siemens will work alongside the Transmission Company of Nigeria to achieve 7,000 MW and 11,000 MW of reliable power supply by 2021 and 2023, respectively. Thus in addition to building new generation capacity, the government is also focusing on improving supply from the existing grids, which has been stagnant at around 4,000 MW over more than a decade.

Moreover, the country’s energy sector is receiving significant support from international bodies such as PowerAfrica, which is a wing of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Over the past few years, PowerAfrica has been assisting the government in agreements on solar projects that help Nigeria in diversifying its energy mix. In 2015, PowerAfrica supported Nigeria’s first private IPP Project (the Azura Edo Project) to reach financial close in 2015. It also assisted it in securing a US$50 million investment by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). The Azura plant (the first project initiated by Azura power) became operational in 2018 with 461 MW capacity. It is the first phase of the 1,500 MW IPP (Independent Power Project) facility that is being developed in Nigeria. In December 2019, Africa50 (a pan-Africa infrastructure investment platform) expressed its plans to invest in the Azura power plant.

Growing private investments, international support, and supportive government policies as well as investment may just lift up the Nigerian electricity sector, which has been in dire need for reform over several decades.

In 2017, the Nigerian government developed a National Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Plan, under which it aims to achieve 30,000 MW electricity by 2030, with renewable energy accounting for 30% of the overall energy mix (9,000 MW).

EOS Perspective

As per the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), the Nigerian government has spent approximately NGN1.164 trillion (US$3.2 billion) on the power sector during 2011-2018 without any significant improvement in energy supply. Poor power supply has been crippling the country for many decades now.

Large businesses, especially in the technology sector, could help boost the economy but like any other business, they require electricity to run successfully. Nigeria lacks the basic business environment at the moment. Moreover, ongoing issues with the private generation players further hamper the sectors growth and performance.

Recently, the government has made several moves in the right direction (especially with regards to investment in renewable energy sources), but it is too early to comment if they could solve Nigeria’s decades-long energy problem. Moreover, the real issue is not about investment levels or government policies, but about the implementation of these initiatives. As seen previously at the time of privatization of the sector, the government failed to uplift the sector as it was plagued by corruption, favoritism, and bureaucracy.

Similarly, the government adopted a policy in 2010 called Vision 20:20, wherein it aimed to be featured in the top 20 economies globally by 2020. Within the power sector, Vision 20:20 aimed to increase generation capacity to 20,000 MW by 2015 and 35,000 MW by 2020. However, it failed to make significant investments or incentivize private players to invest in the sector and failed miserably in its goals. If the same is repeated now, the result will not be very different.

The government’s plans can only be implemented if there is substantial transformation of the entire sector, with the private sector participating equally in the upliftment. The government needs to provide significant financial incentives for new power projects and must also restructure the distribution companies to improve liquidity. Lastly it must counter the corruption and bureaucracy seeped into the sector and ensure that generating companies receive complete and timely cost-reflective tariff from the government. While these measures are difficult to achieve, they are the only way the sector can see any respite in the coming years.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict

Talk to any top executive at Gucci, Prada, Tiffany (or any luxury brand for that matter) and they will tell you the importance of Hong Kong as a market in their business. For years, Hong Kong has ranked among the top five luxury hubs and accounted for about 5-10% of the estimated US$285 billion luxury goods market. However, the recent pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong against China have left luxury brands grappling, with many undergoing store closures. With the situation seeming to worsen by the minute, luxury brands must act fast and with prudence to limit their losses, formulate strategies, and identify other regions that may help them offset loss of revenues from Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has been one of the top destinations for luxury brands with several leading brands operating multiple stores in this small area encompassing 427 square miles and housing a population of 7.5 million. Hong Kong achieved this cult status due to a large number of visitors from mainland China (as well as other Asian countries) who travel to Hong Kong to shop. This is due to Hong Kong’s tax-free policy and an assurance that the products purchased are genuine (unlike in China where stores are distrusted).

Most of the leading luxury retailers derive a significant portion of their sales from Hong Kong. Richemont Group (which owns brands such as Cartier, Chloe, Dunhill, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Panerai, Piaget, and Roger Dubuis, among many other) derives about 11% of its global sales from Hong Kong, while Burberry derives about 8-9% of its global sales from the territory. Brands such as LVMH and Prada attain about 6% of their global sales from Hong Kong. Despite having one of the highest real estate costs, brands have always been bullish about Hong Kong, opening multiple stores and stocking their best and most recent collections.

Recent protests impact luxury retail sales

However, since mid-2019, Hong Kong’s retail market has taken a big hit. What started as a protest over an extradition law has translated into a full-fledged pro-democracy movement challenging China’s grip over Hong Kong and has brought the latter to a standstill.

Along with a large fall in visitors from China, several other countries have issued travel warnings against Hong Kong. Visitor numbers declined by 39% in August 2019 (compared with August 2018), with visitors from China falling more than 42% during the same period. In addition to fewer tourists, the local population is also avoiding malls and other public places owing to the ongoing protects. In fact, about 30 shopping malls shut down across Hong Kong in October due to violent protests. These closures have come around the peak festive time (the Golden Week holiday) and have continued to remain closed during the otherwise well-performing Thanksgiving week.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

This has converted one of retail’s best performing markets into one of the poorest. Brands such as Burberry, Hermes, Prada, and Tiffany have been forced to shut down few of their stores in Hong Kong. The sales of premium goods, such as jewelry, watches, and other high-value items plunged by nearly 50% in August 2019, when compared year-on-year.

Brands are estimated to suffer a 30-60% quarterly drop in sales in Q3 2019 and considering how the protests are widening and worsening, the sales are expected to drop further in Q4. For instance, as per UK-based financial services firm, Jefferies, Burberry’s sales from Hong Kong are expected to fall by about GBP100 million (US$131.6 million) in 2019. While the brand is expected to offset half of the loss from growing sales in other regions, the remaining loss will be incurred by the luxury retailer.

Given the steep fall in sales and high real estate cost, brands are now revaluating their presence in Hong Kong. In October 2019, Prada announced its plan to shut down one of its flagship stores in Causeway Bay. The company used to pay HK$9 million (US$1.2 million) monthly rent for the 15,000 square feet store and could not justify the high costs anymore. While a few brands are shutting down stores, few others, such as Burberry, are talking to their landlords about rent reduction to cope with the gloomy sales in the short run.

The impact on luxury sales may not be just short term in Hong Kong. Several brands are re-strategizing their approach towards Hong Kong, especially with regards to the Chinese customer. Chinese customers are increasingly going for shopping trips to Japan and South Korea instead of Hong Kong.

Moreover, the Chinese government is also encouraging customers to shop in mainland China by reducing taxes and thereby narrowing the price gap between China and overseas. In 2018, the Chinese government reduced import taxes on luxury goods and followed it with a cut in value-added tax in April 2019. Post this, several brands such as Gucci and Hermes reduced their prices by about 3% in China. This might show that several brands are trying to offset their losses in Hong Kong by targeting the Chinese consumer in their home country.

Brands are also shifting their marketing investments from Hong Kong towards the mainland. Hermes and LV have been extremely bullish about the Chinese market and have opened new stores in the region. Hermes opened its 26th store in China in 2019 and has been expanding its e-commerce presence in China since launching it in 2018.

Luxury Brands Become Collateral Damage of Hong Kong-China Conflict by EOS Intelligence

Brands are extra careful about their design and communication

In addition to focusing on reaching the Chinese customers (in their home market as well as new travel destinations), brands are also being extra cautious about not supporting Hong Kong in the conflict. China has been prompt at bringing brands to task if and when they identified Hong Kong as an independent country in any of their designs or brand communication.

Brands such as Givenchy, LVMH, Versace, and Coach have publically apologized to the Chinese nationals for their clothing designs that labeled Hong Kong as a separate country (from China). Moreover, they removed all such designs from their collections, globally, to ensure they remain in good books of the Chinese customers.

The Chinese have also been very sensitive about any support or sympathy shown to Hong Kong with regards to the conflict. For instance, Tiffany received significant backlash for one of its print ads, which showed a female model covering her right eye with her hand. The Chinese saw this as a sympathetic shout out to the Hong Kong protester who was shot in the eye in August 2019. While Tiffany clarified that the campaign was not a political statement and was conceptualized and shot much before the incident, they eventually removed the image from all digital and social media platforms.

Although not directly related to luxury brands, in October 2019, the Chinese government sanctioned the NBA for a pro-Hong Kong tweet by Daryl Morey, who is the GM of Houston Rockets team. The NBA and Tiffany cases show China’s lack of tolerance towards any pro-Hong Kong message by any brand or organization and thereby brands must ensure that they distance themselves from any pro-Hong Kong sentiment (real or perceived).

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Thus it is quite possible that Hong Kong market may lose its luster for luxury goods for good, especially if the Chinese customers stray elsewhere for their shopping. In that case Hong Kong market will only remain relevant for its own residents, which may not justify more than 2-3 stores for a brand in the city.

Most brands are currently following a wait and watch strategy, where they are not sending large amounts of their inventory to Hong Kong as has always been the case. They have temporarily shut down shops and given unpaid leaves to their employees. They will wait and gauge if the Chinese consumers do return to Hong Kong when the situation settles and decide the future course accordingly. In case the Chinese customer takes a fancy to other shopping destinations (such as Japan) or start shopping domestically, Hong Kong may lose its position as the luxury hub of Asia.

Opportunities that may arise

In case the Hong Kong conflict has any permanent impact on luxury sales in the region, brands will have to go back to the drawing board to ensure a strong position in Asia. In addition to identifying and developing new shopping hubs for the Chinese customers, brands will also have to alter their strategy and approach to retain Hong Kong’s resident customers. Hong Kong’s resident customers are also avid shoppers but they are more price sensitive in comparison with their Chinese counterparts.

Targeting solely the local residents may also widen the scope of e-commerce in luxury retail sales. Unlike most other markets, e-commerce has not been a major driver of sales in Hong Kong. This is due to the fact that a large number of shoppers are travelers and therefore prefer to make their purchases from retail stores. Moreover, the presence of multiple stores within a small area further reduced the need for e-commerce.

However, if brands plan to reduce their footprint in Hong Kong (only to cater to local residents), they may look at shutting down few stores and promoting e-commerce sales. Hong Kong residents are also more likely to purchase from online multi-brand aggregators (such as Farfetch and Net-a-Porter) that offer deals and discounts. Thus working with such aggregators to promote their brands may also be a good avenue for luxury retailers.

A growing focus and investment towards developing the e-commerce part of the business may also result in growing demand and thereby investments in the mobile payment technologies (which are used for easy payments for purchases) in Hong Kong. While this technology never really took off in Hong Kong as it did in China, this may help in providing the push that it needed.

EOS Perspective

While it is yet to be determined if the ongoing conflict will have a permanent effect on Hong Kong’s position as a prime shopping destination, it is safe to say that the situation will remain unfavorable for the next few months. While some brands such as Prada are already shutting down stores permanently and limiting their exposure in Hong Kong, others such as Burberry are a little more optimistic and want to wait before taking any such decision. This is due to the fact that Hong Kong previously faced a similar situation in 2014, when the umbrella revolution disrupted sales. However, sales bounced back shortly after and Hong Kong continued to be one of the most important luxury markets.

That being said, current protests have become much more intense than anything Hong Kong has endured before and do hold the ability to permanently contract Hong Kong’s role as a leading travel and shopping destination. This may force brands to rethink their strategy for the region with increased focus on e-commerce. This in turn could create opportunities for Hong Kong’s e-commerce and its ancillary markets.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Commentary: India’s Automobile Sector Breakdown Causing Economic Distress

Over the past few months, a lot has been said about the shrinking automobile sales in the Indian market. Touted as one of the key drivers of India’s economic growth, the automobile industry is facing the worst slowdown in two decades as production and sales numbers continue to drop month after month sending the sector in a slump. While the government has made efforts to improve the situation, it will take more than just policies and measures to flip the status quo and bring the industry back on the growth path.

Indian automotive industry witnessed a period of growth during the first term of Modi government – we wrote about it in our article Commentary: Indian Automotive Sector – Reeling under the Budget in February 2018. However, over the past year, the auto sector is in shambles and far from recovery. The sector that contributes 49% of the manufacturing GDP in the country (and more than 7% to the country’s total GDP) has shown decline in growth in the past 18 months as the numbers continue to fall each month. The slowdown is so severe that it has affected all aspects of the business leading to piled up inventory, stalled production lines, decelerating dealership sales, delayed business investments, and job loss.

Quintessential factors that triggered the slowdown

There are various reasons that have plagued the auto industry in the recent months. One of the key factors is the inability of NBFCs (Non-Bank Financial Companies) to lend money. NBFCs, which largely depend on public funds (mainly in the form of bank borrowings, debentures, and commercial paper), have been facing liquidity crunch in the recent past as both public sector and private sector banks have discontinued lending money. This had a double effect on the auto sales – firstly low liquidity has restricted NBFCs ability to finance vehicles, thus having an adverse impact on sales, and secondly, the limited availability of funds bulleted the cost of financing vehicles thereby making them relatively more expensive, further worsening the sales scenario.

In October 2018, the Supreme Court of India announced that no BS-IV cars shall be sold in India with effect from April 1, 2020 (all automobiles should be equipped with BS-VI compliant engines, with an aim to help in reducing pollution in terms of fumes and particulate matter). Owing to this, consumers have delayed their plans to purchase vehicles expecting automobile companies to offer huge discounts in the early months of 2020. And to clear out their existing stock of BS-IV vehicles, it is highly likely that the companies will offer massive concessions before the deadline hits. Delay in purchase of vehicles on consumers’ end has contributed to the overall low sales.

Additional factors that add to the downfall include changes in auto insurance policy (implemented in September 2018) under which buyers have to purchase a three-year and five-year insurance cover for car and two-wheeler, respectively (as against annual renewals), inclusion of additional safety features (including airbags, seat-belt reminders, and audio alarm systems) in all vehicles manufactured after July 1, 2019 adding to the manufacturing cost for the OEMs, and stiff competition from growing organized pre-owned vehicle market which has doubled in size in less than a decade (the share of the organized channel of the pre-owned car market has increased to 18% in 2019 from 10% in 2010). Customers have been passive on buying new vehicles as the total cost of ownership goes up due to an increase in fuel prices, higher interest rates, competition from used cars segment, and a hike in vehicle insurance costs.

Government initiatives to help the auto sector recover

To boost demand for automobiles and offer some respite to the businesses operating in the space, the government announced a number of measures and policies. These include lifting the ban on purchase of vehicles by government departments (the ban was introduced in October 2014), which is hoped to result in loosening of stocked-up inventory and getting sales for automakers, component manufacturers, and dealers. Government also announced additional 15% depreciation on new vehicles for commercial fleet service providers acquired till March 2020 with the aim to clear the high inventory build-up at dealerships.

Other than lifting the ban and price reductions, the government also announced that all BS-IV engine-equipped vehicles purchased until March 2020 will remain operational for the entire period of registration. This will have a two-fold effect – firstly, automakers will be able to push out their stock without having to upgrade existing models and make them BS-VI-complaint (since no more BS-IV-complaint vehicles will be registered post March 2020 and manufacturers will have to upgrade to BS-VI from BS-IV emission standard on the old stocks) thus clearing old inventory, and secondly, consumers can expect much higher discounts. This is expected to provide enough movement within the auto sector, both in terms of sales and revenue generation.

Government has also taken steps to stabilize the NBFC crisis where a separate budget of US$ 14 billion (INR 100,000 crore) has been announced to refinance selected NBFCs. While it is clear that these limited funds will not last long, currently, any step taken to recover from the situation is welcomed.

Though considered temporary, the relief measures offered by the government have gained traction in the industry and players believe that these provisions will have a positive impact on the buyers’ sentiment, even if for a short period of time.

Implications of the auto industry crisis

The slowdown is expected to have a negative impact across all aspects of auto business, especially in the short term. Drop in sales has led manufacturers to decrease production (and even stop production for a certain period of time), cut down overall costs, and reduce headcounts thus weighing down the overall automotive sector.

The months leading to reduced sales did not only impact the production capacities but also resulted in the loss of more than 350,000 jobs. In the coming months, many more risk losing their jobs owing to plant shutdowns, dealership closures, and small component manufacturers going bankrupt.

The cost of vehicle ownership has also increased. Automobiles attracts the highest GST slab of 28%, and this, coupled with the varying road and registration charges imposed by state governments, makes the upfront cost of the vehicle exorbitant for a large segment of consumers (especially the working middle class for whom a two-wheeler or a small segment car is a basic necessity rather than a nice-to-have convenience) making it almost impossible for them to but it.

Given that the automobile sector works in conjunction with other industries, the current slump in auto sales will pull down ancillary industries including parts and components, engines, battery, brakes and suspension, and tire, among others. Considering the fact that the sector contributes nearly half to the country’s manufacturing GDP, if the issue at hand is not addressed immediately, it will further add to the ongoing economic crisis within the country worsening the situation altogether.

EOS Perspective

Policies announced by the Modi government to revive the tumbling automobile sector only seem to mitigate the negative sentiments circling about the future of the industry. However, at this stage, what the industry really needs is a stimulus package in the form of tax incentives or liquidity boost to immediately change things on the ground level.

There is an urgent need of a remedial course of action on the government’s part to stop the vehicle sales from dropping further. As an immediate relief to boost sales and invigorate the auto sector, the government should implement a GST cut on vehicles. This would kick-start vehicle demand almost instantaneously that would work in favor of the automobile industry – manufacturers (to resume halt production), dealers (to clear inventory), and parts makers (to resume small parts and component manufacturing), help resuscitate lost jobs, and contribute, to a small extent, to strengthen country’s slow economic growth.

However, with the government turning a blind eye to industry needs (lowering the GST slab), there is only so much the business owners can do. Under this current scenario, unless the government takes some drastic measures that ensure validation in backing automakers, auto ancillary businesses, and dealers, the sector is unlikely to recover soon. Provisional policies and short-term measures can offer momentary relief but not the survival kick the auto industry is in dire need of.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Tax Cuts – Enough to Make India a Global Manufacturing Hub?

319views

India has recently announced an unprecedented reduction in its corporate tax rates. Not only is this a respite for domestic and existing foreign companies, but it is also expected to boost India’s position as a preferred investment destination for international companies looking to diversify their manufacturing footprint. Amidst the ongoing trade war between China and the USA, many companies, such as Apple, are looking to relocate a chunk of their manufacturing facilities away from China as part of a de-risk strategy. This presents the perfect opportunity for India to swoop in and encourage manufacturers to set base there instead of other Asian countries. However, tax reduction alone may not be enough to score these investments as the government needs to provide additional incentives apart from improving logistics and infrastructure, as well as land and labor laws in the country.

For the past three decades, India had one of the highest corporate tax rates in the South Asian region standing at 30% (effective rate of about 35% including surcharge and cess), making it one of the biggest sore points for investors looking at setting up a shop here.

However, September 2019 brought an unprecedented move, as the Indian government slashed the corporate tax rate to 22% from the existing 30%. Moreover, new manufacturing units established after 1 October 2019, are eligible for even lower tax rate of 15% (down from 25%) if they make fresh manufacturing investments by 2023.

The effective tax rate in these cases (subject to the condition that companies do not claim benefits for incentives or concessions) will be 25.75% (in case of 22% tax rate) and 17.01% (in case of 15% tax rate). These companies will also be exempt from minimum alternate tax (MAT). The tax cuts in effect are believed to have improved India’s competitiveness among investment destinations in the region.

The tax cuts in effect are believed to have improved India’s competitiveness among investment destinations in the region.

To put this into perspective, India’s new tax rate is lower than the rate in China (25%), Korea (25%), Bangladesh (25%), Malaysia (24%), Japan (23.2%), however still a little higher than that of Vietnam (20%), Thailand (20%), Taiwan (20%), Cambodia (20%), and Singapore (17%). However, for new companies/MNCs looking to set up a unit in India, the country offers the most competitive rates in the region.

This tax break by India is also well-timed to exploit the degrading US-China relationship, which is resulting in several US-based companies, such as Apple, Google, Dell, etc., to look for manufacturing alternatives outside of China. Currently, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Thailand have been the prime beneficiaries of the trade war, with the three countries attracting about 80% of the 56 companies that have relocated from China during April 2018 to August 2019. However, India’s recently introduced tax cuts may act as a major stimuli for companies (that are looking to partly move out of China or are already in the process of doing it) to consider India for their investments.

While the tax reform stands across all industries, India is looking to boost investment in the labor-intensive electronics manufacturing sector including smart phones, televisions, etc. To achieve this, the government recently scrapped import tax on open cell TV panels, which are used to make television displays. In addition to large brands such as Apple, India is also targeting component and contract manufacturers for such companies (such as Wistron, Pegatron, and Foxconn) to shift their business from China and set a shop in India.

India's Tax Cuts Not Enough by EOS Intelligence

Is a tax break enough?

While this is a big step by the Indian government to attract foreign investments in the manufacturing space, many feel that this alone is not enough to make India the preferred alternative to its neighbors. Companies looking to relocate their manufacturing facilities also consider factors such as infrastructure (including warehousing cost and set-up), connectivity (encompassing transportation facilities and logistical support), and manpower (such as availability of skilled manpower and training costs) along with overall ease of doing business, which covers the extent of red tape, complexity of policies, and transparency of procedures.

The Indian government has to work towards improving the logistical infrastructure, skilled labor availability, and cumbersome land-acquisition process, among many other aspects. As per the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2019, India ranks 70 (out of 141 countries) in terms of infrastructure. While India heavily depends on road transportation, it needs to invest in and develop modern rail and water transportation and connectivity if it wishes to compete with China (rank 36).

India also ranks poorly with regards to skilled workforce and labor market, ranking 107 and 103 on the indices, respectively. To put this in perspective, Indonesia ranks 65 with regards to skilled workforce and 85 for labor market, and Vietnam ranks 93 for skilled workforce and 83 for labor market. Other than this, India also struggles with complex land acquisition laws and procedures, and must look into streamlining both to position itself an attractive investment destination.

Apart from this, the government also needs to provide additional incentives for investments in sectors that are its key priorities, such as tech and electronics manufacturing for export. As per industry experts, electronics manufacturing in India carries 8-10% higher costs in comparison with other Asian countries. Thus the government must provide other incentives such as easy and cheaper credit, export incentives, and infrastructural support, to steer companies into India (instead of countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand).

Several experts and industry players suggest that the government should provide the electronics manufacturing industry incentives for exports that are similar to those under the ‘Merchandise Exports from India Scheme’, which provides several benefits including tax credits to exporters.

In August 2019, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) proposed incentives to boost electronics manufacturing in India. These include a 4-6% subsidy on interest rates on loans for new investment, waiver of collateral for loans taken to set up machinery, and the renewal of the electronics manufacturing cluster (EMC). EMC creates an ecosystem for main company and its suppliers to operate in a given area (the previous EMC scheme ended in 2018).

Apart from this, industry players are also seeking an extension of another scheme, Modified Special Incentive Package Scheme (MSIPS), which also ended in 2018. MSIPS provided a subsidy of about 25% on capital investment.

EOS Perspective

India’s tax break came at an extremely opportune time, with several MNCs having expressed their plans to branch out of China (for at least 20% of their existing manufacturing facilities). From imposing some of the highest corporate taxes, India has now become one of the most tax-friendly markets, especially for new investments.

This is likely to put India in the forefront for consideration, however, it is probably not enough. The government needs to work on several other facilitating factors, especially infrastructure, land laws, and availability of skilled labor, which are more favorable in other Asian countries.

Moreover, the appeal of some countries, such as Vietnam and Thailand, seems to remain high, as several of them introduced a ‘single point of contact’ facilities for investors. Under these facilities, in various forms, investors are provided with investment-related services and information at a single location, and/or are provided with single point of contact within each ministry and agency they have to deal with. This makes the access to information and investment procedures much easier for foreign investors, and increases the perception of transparency of the whole process. India on the other hand struggles with bureaucracy, fragmented agency landscape, and red tape. Despite initiating a single window policy, multinational representatives need to visit multiple offices and meet several officials (also in many cases offer bribes) to get an approval of their proposals and subsequently get the required permits. Bureaucratic and procedural delays, as well as poor work culture remain to be considerable deterrents for foreign investors.

India struggles with bureaucracy, fragmented agency landscape, and red tape. Bureaucratic and procedural delays, as well as poor work culture remain to be considerable deterrents for foreign investors.

Also in 2018, India only managed a mere 0.6% of its GDP from manufacturing FDI, indicating a low confidence level among foreign companies to make medium to long-term commitments in India. However, large part of the reason for this were also the high tax rates. Therefore, the recent tax reduction is a major step in the right direction, while the government still has some distance to bring India to replace China in the position of manufacturing giant of Asia, especially in the electronics sector.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Africa’s Fintech Market Striding into New Product Segments

823views

Fintech is certainly not a new concept in the African region. More than that: Africa has been a global leader in mobile money transfer services for some time. The market continues to evolve and the regional fintech players are now moving beyond just basic payment services to offer extended services, such as credit scoring, agricultural finance, etc. With Africa being significantly unbanked and still lacking financial infrastructure, fintech industry is at a unique position to bridge the gap between consumer needs and available financial solutions.

The African subcontinent is much behind many economies when it comes to financial inclusion and banking infrastructure owing to low levels of investment, under-developed infrastructure, and low financial literacy ratio. As per World Bank estimates, only about 20% of the population in the sub-Saharan African region have a bank account as compared with 92% of the population in advanced economies and 38% in low-middle income economies.


Related reading: Fintech Paving the Way for Financial Inclusion in Indonesia


This gap in the formal banking footprint has been largely plugged by the fintech sector in Africa, especially with regards to mobile payments. While in the developed economies, the fintech sector focuses on disrupting the incumbent banking system by offering better services and lower costs, in Africa it has the advantage of building and developing financial infrastructure. This is clear in the uptake of mobile fintech by the African population, making Africa a global leader in mobile payments and money transfers.

While in the developed economies, the fintech sector focuses on disrupting the incumbent banking system by offering better services and lower costs, in Africa it has the advantage of building and developing financial infrastructure.

However, mobile payments have simply been the first phase in the development of digital finance in Africa. The penetration and mass acceptance of mobile wallets have opened doors for the next phase of digital financial services in Africa. These include lending and insurance, agricultural finance, and wealth management.

Moreover, owing to the success achieved by mobile wallets, global investors are keenly investing in fintech start-ups that are innovating in the sector. For instance, Venture capital firm, Village Capital, partnered with Paypal to set up a program named Fintech Africa 2018. The program aims to support start-ups across Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, which provide financial services beyond mobile payments (especially in the field of insurtech, alternative credit scoring, and fintech solutions for agriculture, energy, education, and health).

Africa’s Fintech Market Striding into New Product Segments

Agricultural finance

Agriculture is the livelihood of more than half of Africa’s workforce, however, due to limited access to finance and technologies, most farmers operate much below their potential capabilities. Due to this, Africa homes about 60% of the world’s non-cultivated tillable land.

However, in recent years, several established fintech players as well as start-ups have built solutions to provide financial support to the region’s agricultural sector.

In late 2018, Africa’s leading mobile wallet company, Cellulant, launched Agrikore, a blockchain-based digital-payment, contracting, and marketplace system that connects small farmers with large commercial customers. The company started its operations from Nigeria and is expected to commence business in Kenya in the second half of 2019.

Under their business model, when a large commercial order is placed on the platform, it is automatically broken into smaller quantities and shared with farmers on the platform (based on their capacity and proximity). Once the farmer accepts the order for the set quantity offered to him, the platform connects the farmer with registered transporters, quality inspectors, etc., who all log their activities on the blockchain and are paid through Cellulant’s digital wallets. All this is done on a blockchain to ensure transparency.


Related reading: Connecting Africa – Global Tech Players Gaining a Foothold in the Market


Another Nigeria-based company, Farmcrowdy, has been revolutionizing financing in Nigeria’s local agriculture sector by connecting small-scale farmers with farm sponsors (from Nigeria as well as other regions), who invest in farm cycles. Farmers benefit by receiving advice and training on best agriculture practices in addition to the financial support. Sponsors and farmers receive a pre-set percentage of the profits on the harvest in that cycle. In December 2017, the company received US$1 million seed investment from a group of venture capitalists including Cox Enterprises, Techstars Ventures, Social Capital, Hallett Capital, and Right-Side Capital, as well as five angel investors.

In addition to these, there are several other players, such as Kenya-based Twiga Foods (that connects rural farmers to urban retailers in an informal market), Kenya-based Tulaa (that provides famers with access to inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, as well as to finance, and markets through an m-commerce marketplace), Kenya-based, FarmDrive (that helps small farmers access credit from local banks through the use of data analytics), etc.

While most ventures in this space are currently based in Nigeria and Kenya, the sector is expected to grow significantly in the near future and is likely to expand into other parts of Africa as well.

In terms of expected trends in services development, with growing number of solutions and in turn apps, it is likely that consumers will tilt towards all-inclusive offerings, i.e. apps that provide solutions across the entire agricultural value chain.

Alternative credit scoring and lending

Large number of Africans have limited access to finance and formal lending options. Since there is a limited number of bank accounts in use, most people do not have a formal credit history and the cost of credit risk assessment remains high. Due to this, large portion of the population resorts to peer-to-peer lending or loans from Savings and Credit Cooperative Organizations (SACCOs), usually at rates higher than the market rate.

Fintech sector has been working towards reducing the cost of credit risk assessment through the use of big data and machine learning. It uses information about a person’s mobile phone usage, payment data, and several other such parameters, which are available in abundance, to calculate credit score for the individual.

Several companies, such as Branch International, have been following a similar model, wherein, through their app, they analyze the information on customer’s phone to assess their credit worthiness. On similar lines, Tala (which currently operates in Kenya), collates about 10,000 data points on a customer’s mobile phone to determine the user’s credit score.

Fintech sector has been working towards reducing the cost of credit risk assessment through the use of big data and machine learning. It uses information about a person’s mobile phone usage, payment data, and several other such parameters, which are available in abundance, to calculate credit score for the individual.

Other business models include a crowdfunding platform, on which individuals from across the world can offer small loans to local African entrepreneurs. Kiva, a global crowd lending platform, has been partnering with several companies across Africa over the past decade (such as Zoona for Zambia and Malawi in 2012) for providing financial support to entrepreneurs. Kiva vets the entrepreneurs eligible for the loan and the loan is repaid over a period of time. Post that lenders can either withdraw the amount or retain it with the company to support another entrepreneur.

Currently, about 20% of all fintech start-ups in Africa are focusing on lending solutions, with investors backing them with significant amount of funding. This is primarily due to a growing demand for financing in Africa. Moreover, limited barriers with regards to regulations for digital lending start-ups also make it easy for companies to enter this space and test the market before investing large sums of money or entering into a partnership with a bank.

This may change in the long run, however, with regulators increasingly monitoring this growing sector. For instance, in March 2018, the Kenyan government published a draft bill under which digital lenders will be licensed by a new Financial Markets Conduct Authority and lenders will be bound by interest rate caps that are set by the authority.

Insurance and wealth management

Apart from agriculture financing and credit scoring and lending, there are several digital start-ups in the space of insurance and wealth management. There are limited traditional solutions for insurance and wealth management in Africa, a fact that presents significant potential for growth in these categories.

South Africa’s Pineapple Insurance is a leading player in the insurtech space. The company operates as a decentralized peer-to-peer insurance company wherein members take a picture of the product they want to insure and the company uses artificial intelligence to calculate an appropriate premium. The premium is stored in the member’s Pineapple wallet and when a claim is paid out, a proportionate amount is withdrawn from the wallets of all the members in that category. Moreover, members can withdraw unused premium deposits at the end of every year making the process completely transparent.

In addition to Pineapple Insurance, there are several other companies that are making waves in the insurtech sector. These include, South-Africa based Naked Insurance (which uses artificial intelligence to offer low cost car insurance), Kenya-based GrassRoots Bim (which leverages mobile technology to develop insurance solutions for the mass market), and Tanzania-based Jamii Africa (which offers mobile micro-health insurance for the informal sector). Companies such as Piggybank.ng in Nigeria and Uplus in Rwanda, also provide digital solutions for savings and wealth management.

Apart from these fintech solutions, a lot of innovations are also taking place in the payments space. Several companies are working towards extending the reach of Africa’s mobile payment solutions. For example, a leading Kenyan mobile payment company, DPO Group, partnered with MasterCard to launch a virtual card that can be topped with mobile money by the end of 2019. The card has a 16-digit number, an expiry date, and a security code similar to a debit card, thereby facilitating transactions beyond Kenya, with rest of the word as well.

EOS Perspective

There is an immense opportunity in the fintech space in Africa at the moment. Most start-ups are currently operating in Kenya, South Africa, and Nigeria, and are expected to move to other parts of the continent once they have achieved certain scalability and outside investment. Having said that, foreign investors are also keenly observing movement in this space and are on the lookout for fresh concepts that have the capability to build new offerings as well disrupt existing financial solutions.

At the same time, with the industry being relatively new, many of its aspects remain unknown, a fact that increases risk of investing in the sector. Currently, a lot of these solutions depend heavily on data (especially through mobile usage). However, there are increasing regulations regarding data privacy across the globe and over the course of time, this trend is also expected to reach Africa.

Moreover, direct regulations regarding the fintech sector may also impact the business of several new players. Currently the companies are evolving fast and the regulators are playing catch-up, however, once the industry becomes seasoned, clear regulations are expected to ensure safety of the money involved. Fintech companies are also vulnerable to risks arising from online fraud, hacking, data breaches, etc., and regulations are extremely important to keep these in check as well.

While the sector enjoys limited scrutiny at the moment, entry and operations may not be as simplistic in the long run as they seem now. Despite this, the sector is expected to prosper and witness further innovation that will drive it into new territories to satisfy the currently unmet financial needs of the African population.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

The Rapid Rise of India’s Food Tech: Yet Another Tech Bubble?

2kviews

In the past few years, food tech (online food delivery) industry in India has seen substantial growth in terms of daily order volumes (DOVs), revenue, and funding. While the business is growing for all players, they are still posting losses. A closer look into their financials and business models reveals that the current operating margins are very thin, and much of the recent rapid growth has been on the back of heavy discounting offered by players to attract customers. At present, the growth strategy is loud and clear: to acquire new customers, enter new markets, and expand current market share at any cost. This has raised a question whether such a model is sustainable in the long run or is it another tech bubble just waiting to burst?

Less than five years ago, the way Indians consumed food was completely different. Eating out was predominantly occasion-driven, while ordering food was limited to calling local restaurants or ordering a pizza from Dominos or Pizza Hut through their own websites. Online food ordering through apps was not at all a part of consumers’ culinary vocabulary.

However, this has been transforming over the past few years. There is a growing trend among Indians to order their food online via food aggregation apps. Today, Indian consumers, especially in metro and larger cities, are ordering food online more often than before. As a result of this, food tech has become one of the fastest growing internet sectors in India with an astonishing triple-digit growth rate in gross merchandize value (GMV) and DOVs in 2017 and 2018.

Huge potential waiting to materialize

After an initial hype among entrepreneurs and investors in 2015, the food tech industry saw a slump and market consolidation in 2016 and 2017. Yet in 2018, India’s food tech industry rekindled investors’ appetite for the sector with huge spending spree. Driven primarily by rising disposable income, rapidly growing internet and smart-phone penetration, urbanization, and a young and working-class consumer base, India’s food tech industry stood at around US$700 million in 2017 and is expected to reach US$4 billion by 2020. In 2018, DOVs went up to 1.7 million orders from 0.2 million in 2016. The current market consists of four key players. Leaders Swiggy and Zomato currently hold a combined market share of ~70%.

The Rapid Rise of India's Food Tech

The market still in its infancy

While order volumes have gone up significantly in the last 12-18 months, the industry is still in its infancy considering its outreach and adoption rates across the nation. At present, online food ordering is available in just over 200 cities across India and contributes to merely around 5% of the total food delivery business.

Further, India’s US$1.7 billion food tech market is pretty small compared to US$10.5 billion in the USA and US$36 billion in neighboring China. Out of the 90 meals consumed each month, Indians eat out or get their food delivered less than five times a month as compared to around 40-50 meals in countries such as Singapore, China, and the USA. In a nutshell, food aggregators have just begun to scratch the surface in India and there is a long road ahead for the industry to develop and grow further.

Growth driven by deep discounts

While the recent growth numbers draw a compelling picture of the industry, it should be noted that much of the current growth is driven primarily by deep discounts that are offered by the players to attract customers onto their platforms. With the recent funding boom, all players are deep-pocketed. In a fierce battle for market share, companies are spending heavily on advertising, low-cost and complimentary deliveries, and discounts as their primary growth strategy. Given the huge potential of the internet economy, even investors are willing to throw in money and keep the incentives going. However, recent history in India as well as similar experiences from other internet companies globally reveal that while this can be a good strategy to attract customers and penetrate markets, it is unlikely to be sustainable.

The recent growth is not entirely organic. A significant part of it is inorganic, pushed by discounts and offers, as players focus more towards acquiring new customers, increasing their order frequency, and entering new geographies.
Satish Meena, Senior Analyst, Forrester

Again, customer loyalty is very hard to come by in the food tech industry. With India being a price-sensitive market, consumers will often flock to the platform that offers the best deal. Just like in India’s cab aggregation industry, it will be interesting to see how the food aggregators find their revenue and DOVs impacted once these offers will start to disappear.

Penetration beyond tier-II cities

Till 2018, orders were highly concentrated among top ten cities of India. These markets accounted for around three-fourths of the total business for all players. In order to move away from these gradually saturating markets, and to scale up their outreach across India, food tech players are pushing to capture the untapped potential in tier-III cities and smaller towns with first-mover advantage. While they consider these markets to be lucrative with improving demand appetite, rising spending power, and profitability, these cities are very different from metros in terms of size and customer preferences. E-commerce adoption rates as well as user base in these cities are relatively small, and therefore it will be challenging for food aggregators to create demand here, as consumers are not acquainted to online food ordering.

On the demand side, it will be difficult for aggregators to generate order volumes from smaller cities in India. Considering that Indians are very price sensitive, once these offers are gone, the drop-out rates will be much higher in these markets as compared to metros. –
Satish Meena, Senior Analyst, Forrester

Back in 2016, Zomato tested the potential in smaller cities and had to shut down its business in four cities including Lucknow, Coimbatore, and Indore due to poor demand. Similarly, Grofers, an online grocery delivery platform expanded into several tier-II and tier-III cities. But they also had to suspend operations in nine cities, citing the same reason. While the advent of Jio (an Indian mobile network operator) and its cheap internet data packages are proving to be a boon for e-commerce players, the question still remains how food aggregators will be able to create a sustainable demand in cities where population prefers to cook its food every day.

In addition, unorganized players dominate food delivery in these markets. It will be tough for aggregators to compete with them, especially in terms of pricing, since the local players operate with very low overhead costs without the need to worry too much about hygiene, safety, and other quality standards.

Weaker financials and unit economics

With the ongoing discounts and offers, the cost of customer acquisition is very high at present. A closer look at the financials of Zomato and Swiggy reveals that their monthly cash burn has increased five times within 2018, as they resort to aggressive discounting to grow further across the country. At present, all players are posting losses. This is very common even in the global food tech industry where most players are still operating with losses. For example, China’s Meituan-Dianping and ele.me are still far from reaching the break-even point, even after 10 years in the business. The story is the same even in developed markets such as USA and the UK. The aggressive cash burn model requires food aggregators to keep raising funds at regular intervals in order to further scale up and grow. This is a major concern raised by many industry experts.

Look at China! The top two players have still not managed to turn profitable even with far superior market penetration and order volume rates as compared to India. – Former Executive, Swiggy

Another major challenge faced by all the players are the inefficiencies in their operations, a fact that has a direct impact on their unit economics and thereby profitability. Although food delivery logistics is slowly getting better, it still constitutes a major chunk of the overall cost. Players are in a dire need to leverage innovative technologies and processes to streamline their logistics operations and make the most out of their logistics infrastructure and assets.

In order to improve their unit economics and operational margins, everyone is trying to streamline their logistics operations and to make the most out of their current infrastructure and assets. –
Vaibhav Arora, Former Associate General Manager,
RedSeer Consulting

Playing by the same playbook?

For the Indian market, food tech industry’s current growth story may seem to be a flashback from the ride-hailing industry, which really took off in the early days. On the back of heavy discounts and attractive offers, it looked like a win-win situation for all. In recent years, when cab aggregators slowly started to move away from discounts, at the same time increased fares for customers on one hand, while reducing incentives for drivers on the other, they started to witness challenges on both demand and supply sides of their business.

Strategies such as surge pricing, hike in fares, cutting-down driver salaries and incentives, etc., have impacted their businesses and resulted in unhappy customers and driver partners, unreliability in services, and a tussle with local associations. Cab aggregators in India have still not found the right balance to continue to grow without leaking money.

Many industry experts believe that food aggregators will also face the same set of challenges in the coming years, as players will start moving away from discounts along with hike in delivery charges and restaurant commission in order to improve their operating margins. This is already becoming evident as delivery partners from Swiggy in Chennai went on a strike for wage-related demands in December 2018, while UberEats faced a similar situation in April 2019 in Ahmedabad.

You can connect the dots with cab aggregation business and foresee similar challenges coming up for the food tech sector. In the long run, they will start charging higher delivery fees from customers and higher commissions from partner restaurants. –
Vaibhav Arora, Former Associate General Manager,
RedSeer Consulting

EOS Perspective

In recent years, food aggregators in India have definitely created a market for themselves by inculcating consumers with online food ordering concept. There is no doubt that the Indian food tech market is still developing and has a huge potential. But it is also a difficult one to crack. As seen in the past few years, many start-ups folded up early on. Similarly to India’s cab aggregators and e-tailers, food tech companies have started to believe that discounts are the way to a customer’s heart and eventually increasing their market shares.

None of the major players within the Indian internet sector is profitable yet. Even for Indian food tech players, profitability looks elusive, at least in the short to medium term. They will require massive funding injected regularly to finance their aggressive growth strategies. Uber in its recent initial public offering (IPO) prospectus made a bold statement admitting that if may never be profitable. This is one of the deepest concerns across the industry, and many industry experts are not sure whether sustainable growth can be achieved with the present business models.

In India, it looks like a certainty that both Swiggy and Zomato will be still posting losses for at least the next two to three years. –
Former Executive, Swiggy

There are many areas which are not streamlined enough, and therefore a significant amount of money is lost there. In order to grow, players will have to address the fundamental issues around unit economics and operational efficiencies. Companies will have to find multiple ways to improve their operational efficiencies such as looking at alternative revenue streams, monetizing their fleets, building other businesses, etc. Therefore, Swiggy has ventured into hyperlocal business by starting deliveries of groceries and medicines to further optimize its current delivery fleet. Similarly, Zomato has started Hyperpure, a service wherein they deliver food products to restaurant partners in order to grow further.

On the one hand, the above mentioned strategies seem to be logical for food aggregators and the way forward to scale up their businesses. On the other hand, this approach also raises concerns whether they are trying to juggle too many balls with just one pair of hands. Are players diversifying too early and rapidly, considering that they have not yet mastered the trade of online food delivery? Will these diversifications shift their focus away from the core business? Do they have the bandwidth as well as the expertise to manage these new businesses?

Furthermore, it will be also difficult for players to continue their current growth momentum beyond 2019, since they have penetrated all metros as well as tier-I and tier-II cities in India. Growing in smaller cities with low e-commerce penetration will be a daunting task, especially without the discounts. All these challenges are likely to cause the industry growth to slow down. To continue the growth momentum, food aggregators will also have to customize their strategies for smaller towns in India. Since availability of cuisines and quality of food is the biggest pain-point in these markets, players will have to compete by offering more choices with higher quality standards. Variety and quality of food will be one of the key differentiators for them to succeed in these markets.

In order to succeed in the long run, players will have to leverage the vast consumption pattern data at their disposal, and convert them into insights. By harnessing technologies, they can smartly identify the demand-supply gaps in each market, and address them by launching relevant products and services. For example, aggregators can assess and identify particular cuisines, dishes, order time-slots, etc. that are trending in each market, based on which they can either collaborate with restaurants and push them to expand their offerings and outreach to meet the increasing demand, or themselves start to move up the value chain by setting up own cloud kitchens (delivery-only kitchens) to fill such gaps, and thus further improve their profitability.

Additionally, players will have to further innovate their offerings. For instance, since migrant workers and students are the prime target, introducing subscription based meals in this segment could allow players to gain customer loyalty as well as earn steady stream of revenue. Similarly in the B2B (business-to-business) space, they can forge partnerships with small and medium enterprises (e.g. Indian Railways) to supply meals to their employees and customers. This is another market segment with huge latent demand where variety and quality of food is the need of the hour.

While these are early days to comment on the long-term growth potential of the industry, we can expect the market and current players evolve over the next few years. Considering that no one in the Indian aggregation space is profitable yet, and the fact that the path followed by food aggregators closely resembles to the one followed by cab aggregators in India, who have found it to be bumpy, unless players can build a solid business model with a clear path to profitability, for now, the rapid rise of food tech sector looks like another tech buzz that will eventually slowly down over the years to come.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Europe Fights Back to Curb China’s Dominance

685views

Given the swiftness of China’s economic development in the past three decades, transitioning from an impoverished and insular country to one of the formidable economic powers of the world, it has taken some time for Europe to accept China’s growing power and influence. Not only does China sit on largest currency reserves worldwide, but it has also become a significant provider of foreign investments, including in EU nations. This has recently strengthened China’s influence over the EU, which has created a sense of caution amidst European policymakers.

How is Europe benefiting from China’s growing investments?

Europe-bound Chinese investments were six times higher than Chinese investments in the USA – in H1 2018, Chinese investments in Europe stood at US$ 12 billion as compared to US$ 2 billion in the USA. For some of the economically struggling EU countries, Chinese investments are critical for developing and upgrading infrastructure, including energy plants, railways, motorways, and airports.

China’s Belt and Road initiative, under which cross-border infrastructure will be developed, will reduce transportation costs across Europe and China, creating an opportunity to facilitate trade expansion, regional integration, and attract foreign investments.

Besides infrastructure development, the investments are likely to create job opportunities and enhance economic competitiveness across Europe.

Then why is China’s growing influence alarming Europe?

Europe now sees a range of threats that China’s rising dominance in the region could bring along. Recently, the European Commission labelled China as economic competitor seeking technological leadership and systemic rival encouraging alternative models of governance. Europe realizes that China pursuits to shape globalization to suit its own interests.

The EU is deeply concerned regarding China exercising divide and rule tactics to strengthen its relationship with individual member countries that are susceptible to pressure, which could eventually harm the European cohesion. Recently, Italy signed the Belt and Road initiative, a landmark move against the counsel of western European nations, such as France and Germany, thus, raising questions on cohesion of EU countries.

The other concern is China’s rising influence over key governments of EU nations, thus, empowering itself with political leverage across the continent. China has already yielded political returns by wearying EU unity, particularly, when it is related to European policy on international law and human rights. In 2017, Hungary broke EU’s consensus by refusing to sign letter on human right violation against China. During the same year, Greece blocked an EU statement, which condemned China’s human rights record, at the UN human rights council.

Besides politics, China has also spread wings across key sectors of economy such as infrastructure, high-end manufacturing (including critical segments such as electronics, semiconductors, automotive, etc.), and consumer services, among others – growing dominance of China across these sectors is another cause of worry for the EU.

Europe also condemns China’s discrimination against foreign businesses, rendering limited market access to European firms and employing a non-transparent bidding processes. European firms operating in China face several trade and investment barriers such as joint venture obligations and discriminatory technical requirements that entail forced data localization and technology transfers. On the other, European markets have been open to foreign investments leading to massive Chinese FDI. However, lack of reciprocity harms European interest and could lead to unfulfilled EU-China trade ties.

The EU also criticizes China’s Belt and Road project for its lack of respect for labor, environment, and human rights standards. Other concerns include non-transparent procurement procedures with majority of contracts being awarded to Chinese companies without issuing public tenders, meagre use of domestic labor and limited contractor participation from host country, and use of construction materials from China – all of which undermine Europe’s interests.

Europe Fights Back to Curb China’s Dominance

How is Europe responding to China’s actions?

Europe is adopting strategies to limit China’s influence and reach across Europe and beyond, in African and Pacific countries.

Development of EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy

The EU’s new initiative, EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy, is an implicit response to China’s Belt and Road initiative, signifying a crucial first step to promoting European priorities and interests in terms of connectivity. The initiative aims to improve connectivity between Europe and Asia through transport, digital, and energy networks, and simultaneously promote environmental and labor standards.

The EU’s initiative emphasizes sustainability, respect for labor rights, and not creating political or financial dependencies for the countries.

Robust FDI screening process

European nations have been increasingly alarmed due to state-owned Chinese companies acquiring too much control of critical technologies and sensitive infrastructure in the continent, while China shields its own economy.

For the same reason, EU parliament is developing an EU-level screening tool to vet foreign investments on grounds of security to protect strategic sectors and Europe’s interests. The regulation will protect key sectors such as energy, transport, communication, data, space, technology, and finance.

While the EU still remains open to FDI, the regulation will protect its essential interests. Nonetheless, stringent investment screening procedures are likely to limit foreign investments in the continent, particularly from China.

Tackling security threat posed by China

In March 2019, the EU Parliament passed resolution asking European institutions and member countries to take action on security threats arising from China’s rapidly rising technological presence in the continent.

The resolution is likely to impact the ongoing debate of whether to eliminate China’s Huawei Technologies from building European 5G networks. The EU is concerned that the Chinese 5G equipment could be used to access unauthorized data or sabotage critical infrastructure and communication systems in the continent.

To minimize dependence on Chinese technology firms (such as Huawei Technologies), EU countries would need to diversify procurement from different vendors or introduce multi-phase procurement processes.

EU countries expanding footprint to counter China’s reach

Since 2011, China has invested US$ 1.3 billion in concessionary loans and gifts across the Pacific region, and has established its supremacy by becoming the second largest donor. China has been trying to build its influence, as the Pacific is bestowed with vast expanse of resource-rich ocean and the regional countries have voting rights at international forums such as the United Nations.

To counter China’s reach and ambitions across the Pacific countries, European nations such as the UK and France plan to open new embassies, increase staffing levels, and engage with leaders in the region. The UK plans to open new high commissions in Vanuatu, Tonga, and Samoa by the end of May 2019 and France is looking to meet and engage with Pacific leaders during the year.

Investment in Africa to limit China’s influence

As a strategy to curb China’s growing influence, the EU plans to deepen ties with Africa by boosting investment, creating jobs, and strengthening economic relations. The plan is to create 10 million jobs in Africa over the next five years. Europe is also aiming to establish free trade agreement between the two continents.

In recent times, China has been blamed of neo-colonial approach towards Africa, which is aimed at emptying the continent of its raw mineral in exchange for inexpensive loans, extensive but inferior infrastructure, among others. Europe aims to curb such influence by attempting to do business ethically. 

EOS Perspective

Unnerved by flurry of Chinese investments in the continent, the EU is looking to regain its control over matters. Europe has adopted a defensive approach against China’s initiatives, reflected through measures taken to protect critical sectors using investment screening system. The EU understands the downsides of enormous Chinese investments/loans, which may seem hugely enticing in the beginning, but could saddle vulnerable countries in debt they cannot repay – for example, a Chinese-built highway in Montenegro is likely to increase the country’s debt to about 80% of its GDP.

Currently, the key issue is the fact that Europe is standing divided on the right strategy to respond to bolder and ambitious China. While countries such as Germany, France, and UK have grown skeptical of China and are revolting against it, Italy, Hungary, Portugal, Greece, among others, are generally China-friendly. Europe has certainly become stern and tougher on China, but cannot pursue its interests without standing united.

The current situation does not demand Europe opposing China outright, but rather ensuring fair business conditions and equal market access through dialogue and cooperation with China.

Nonetheless, the EU has been quite slow to wake up to the various challenges that excessively ambitious China brings to the table. However, if Europe is able to become united now, there is still a chance to build a decent Sino-European partnership that serves interests of both parties.

Top