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Blockchain: A Potential Disruptor in Car Rental and Leasing Industry

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Blockchain, with its ability to offer significantly more transparent and decentralized way of conducting operations, has the potential to come to the forefront of technologies which are disrupting the way most industries work today. While the application of blockchain is still currently focused largely on cryptocurrencies, the technology is slowly finding its way to a range of industries, including the car rental and leasing industry.

Car rental and leasing sectors are growing worldwide, driven by rising technological advancements in transportation and increased need for ease of mobility. A shift in demand from car ownership to car sharing (not to be confused with ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft) is driving the growth in car rental and leasing industries.

The process of renting a car is highly centralized, where the car rental company being the main point of contact for the driver to rent cars. Car rental companies need to maintain a fleet of cars, as well as car stations and staff to efficiently run their operations, which makes up for bulk of their operating costs. Car rental companies cover these costs from (high) rental rates charged to their customers.

In the peer-to-peer (P2P) care rental (or car sharing) model, there is no need to maintain any infrastructure or staff required to perform the task of renting, a fact that reduces the overhead costs. Lower costs offered by P2P car rental have resulted in the model gaining prominence. P2P car sharing has significant potential, highlighted by recent investments in car sharing services such as Turo and Getaround. In July 2019, US-based Turo raised US$250 million from IAC, an internet media company, taking its overall valuation to US$1 billion. Getaround, a US-based car sharing company established in 2011, raised US$300 million funding from SoftBank in 2018.

However, the P2P car sharing model is inherently prone to fraud and other illicit activities, causing lack of user trust, which in turn acts as a barrier to scaling of rental business, despite the growing demand for car sharing.

The issue can be aided by the emergence of blockchain, which is acting as the market disruptor. The use of a distributed ledger for car rental and leasing is likely to revolutionize the industry, especially P2P car sharing.

Blockchain to enable peer-to-peer car rental gain further prominence

There is a shift in paradigm from car ownership to car sharing, via car rental or leasing. The fact that vehicles are under-utilized and parked (and inactive) most of the time, while the vehicle owners incur ongoing fixed costs such insurance, tax, maintenance, and parking, is further driving this shift.

Emergence of use of blockchain in car rental offers a safe (from frauds) and reliable car-sharing platform, a fact that is likely to further promote P2P car sharing. Inherent unalterable properties of the blockchain offer a secure platform for both car owners (to list their cars) and the customers.

The concept of blockchain in car rental industry works similarly to any other blockchain transaction. Service providers (or car owners) and end clients registered on the blockchain can sign digital smart contracts which execute contract terms based on pre-agreed rules in place, similar to a regular rental model.

The smart contract also contains the necessary information, such as details of the renter (driving license proof, insurance, and credit card details) and data such as car registration number, rate, mileage, length of rental, and credentials of the car owner. All financial transactions (rental payment) can be done either through a card, or using associated cryptocurrencies and tokens purchased to get registered on the blockchain.

 

Blockchain - A Potential Disruptor in Car Rental and Leasing Industry - EOS Intelligence

The process is fully decentralized and digital without any intermediary required which is the key advantage of car rentals being executed over blockchain. Transparency of transactions made over a distributed ledger also adds to the credibility, thus lowering the risk of any fraudulent activity to a great extent.

Lower fee offered due to elimination of intermediaries is another major advantage of using the blockchain technology in car rental industry. For example, HireGo, a UK-based blockchain-based car rental start-up, claims to offer transaction fee up to 35% lower compared with traditional car rental charges under the existing B2C model. Moreover, use of smart contracts has made the system direct and reliable, as information on the contract is unalterable.

Blockchain technology is designed to encourage a sharing economy platform so that businesses such as P2P car rentals and leasing can become integrated and cost-effective, through collaboration among participants in a common, transparent, and “trustless” (or distributed trust) environment, which are the primary attributes of blockchain.

Blockchain in car leasing to improve visibility

When it comes to leasing, blockchain has even more potential. Tracking a car right from the OEM, transfer of ownership, tracking of repairs, mileage, fuel, and maintenance over a single distributed ledger can help bring visibility across the leasing journey. This in turn can help customers avert mileage fraud, while also eliminating any disputes at the end of the lease term.

With all necessary and unnecessary repairs being visible to all parties involved, calculation of charges and violation penalties is likely to become much easier.

The use of a distributed ledger also eliminates the need of undertaking time-consuming paperwork at each node (or stakeholder) of the leasing value chain, thereby improving the overall efficiency of the process, while also cutting costs, making it much more cost-effective to lease a vehicle.

Similarly to its function in car rentals, a distributed ledger also eliminates high costs charged by car leasing companies, resulting in increased popularity P2P leasing of vehicles through smart contracts. Blockchain can also be used as an open maintenance log, as well as for the provision of other value added services such as insurance and toll payments.

Blockchain - A Potential Disruptor in Car Rental and Leasing Industry - EOS Intelligence

Transparency across the lease to help minimize customer disputes

The benefits of blockchain are most prominent at the end of the lease term, when a customer returns a leased vehicle. The use of an open distributed ledger eliminates any disputes that may occur between the service provider and end client, with regards to end-of-lease charges. Transparency across the lease lifecycle, including open logs of vehicle usage, mileage, fuel, maintenance, tire changes, and insurance, make it easier to calculate any end-of-lease charges, based on the pre-defined terms of the smart contract. These charges can also be automatically paid in the form of cryptocurrencies or tokens, as per the provisions in the smart contract.

Blockchain entries can also help leasing companies estimate the approximate value of the vehicle at the end of the lease term, making it easier to decide whether to remarket (re-lease) or dispose of the vehicle, as well as reducing the overall time and resources required in the remarketing process.

Newer blockchain-based platforms expected to drive growth

The global automotive blockchain market is likely to witness growth of 31.1% CAGR between 2020 and 2030, with Asia witnessing the fastest growth. Majority of this growth is attributed to proliferation of car rental and leasing in countries such as India and China, where people are seeking easier means of mobility and are making cautious effort of reducing traffic in metro cities.

Several companies in the region started investing in building platforms using blockchain. In 2017, Mumbai-based Drivezy, an Indian car sharing company, successfully developed a car rental and leasing platform using blockchain, in which users can rent cars and make payments using cryptocurrencies and tokens. In 2018, the company raised US$20 million in a Series B funding through an initial coin offering (ICO). Such investment is encouraging further start-ups looking to utilize blockchain for car rental and leasing.

Darenta ICO, a Russian car rental start-up, developed a platform for existing car owners to rent out their cars using a digital solution that employs geolocation, smart contracts, and other blockchain technology. Launched in 2018, the company has already expanded its presence in 20 countries, and plans to enter the USA and Canada, followed by other European and Asian markets (including China) by 2020.

Several major companies have also invested in developing other technology platforms using blockchain technology, which could have applications in the rental and leasing businesses. In 2017, Ernst and Young, for example, launched a blockchain-based platform called “Tesseract” to support an integrated and autonomous mobility. Through this platform companies and individuals can share cars, while payment and insurance are handled through blockchain. In 2017, Renault also launched a prototype blockchain platform to track information about a car’s maintenance history, including repair shops and dealerships at one place, through a digital maintenance log prototype.


Explore our other Perspectives on blockchain


Lack of acceptance of cryptocurrencies likely to pose challenges

While blockchain has plenty of benefits, broad scale deployment of the technology faces certain challenges as well – one of the most crucial ones being recognition of cryptocurrencies in key emerging markets in Asia, including India and China. Most blockchain-based solutions are looking at ICO to generate funds, issuing their own cryptocurrencies (mostly based on Ethereum tokens), which also act as a mode of transactions and payments for the service. Lack of regulation of cryptocurrencies is currently limiting the adoption of blockchain technology in the rental and leasing space.

Also, for the blockchain technology broad scale implementation, there is a need for high performance computers (or supercomputers) along with highly skilled workforce to handle the blockchain. Such challenges can cause delay in widespread adoption of blockchain technology for car rentals and leasing system at a larger scale.

EOS Perspective

Currently, blockchain is considered synonymous to cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, which is still very unstable and is commonly seen as an investment rather than a mode of transaction. Such a perception is likely to continue to prevail in the short term. Once the paradigm shifts from cryptocurrencies being looked at as a mere investment tool, to being considered as a mode of transaction or a trustless platform, which utilizes inherent properties of blockchain, the overall acceptance of blockchain is also expected to increase. This shift is also likely to bring more stability in cryptocurrency prices, which in turn is also expected to generate a more positive regulatory outlook in favor of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology.

Once blockchain gains prominence, we are likely to witness a lot more start-ups promoting peer-to-peer car sharing (rental or leasing), driving a change in the way people look at their cars. Idle vehicles will increasingly be considered as assets which can generate a source of additional income via car sharing model, resulting in better overall utilization of cars.

ICOs are likely to remain the most common mechanism to generate funds. While the technology has several potential uses, which are expected to disrupt the car rental and leasing market in the near future, the state of blockchain acceptance currently remains highly speculative, primarily due to its close association with cryptocurrencies.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

China Accelerates on the Fuel Cell Technology Front

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For the past decade, China has been on the forefront of the New Energy Vehicles (NEVs) revolution. Although most of its focus has been on battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs), the government has recently also begun to put its financial might behind hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles. Unlike battery-powered vehicles that need regular and long-periods of charging (therefore are more suitable for personal-use vehicles), hydrogen fueled vehicles do not need frequent refueling and their refueling is quick. This makes them ideal for long-distance buses, taxis, and long-haul transport. However, the existing infrastructure to support fuel cell-powered cars is limited. Thus, despite having inherent benefits over electric vehicles (especially in case of commercial vehicles), fuel cell vehicles fight an uphill battle to build a market for themselves in China, owing to the challenges in acceptability, infrastructure availability, and sheer economies of scale.

Over the last decade, the Chinese government heavily backed the production and sale of electric vehicles through substantial subsidies, investment in infrastructure, and favorable policies. This resulted in the sector picking up rapidly and reaching 1.2 million vehicles sold in 2018. However, the government has begun to reduce the subsidies provided to the sector and the focus is slowly shifting to fuel cell vehicles.

How do fuel cell vehicles work?

Fuel cell vehicles use hydrogen gas to power their electric motor. Fuel cells are considered somewhat a crossover between battery and conventional engines in their working. Similar to conventional engines, fuel cells generate power by using fuel (i.e. pressurized hydrogen gas) from a fuel tank.

However, unlike traditional internal-combustion engines, a fuel cell does not burn the hydrogen, but instead it is chemically fused with oxygen from the air to make water. This process, which is in turn similar to what happens in a battery, creates electricity, which is used to power the electric motor.

Thus, while fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles (since they are solely powered by electricity), they are similar to conventional vehicles with regards to their range, refueling process, and needs. This makes them ideal for long-haul commercial vehicles.

Chinese government bets big on fuel cell vehicles

Under China’s 13th Five-Year Plan, the government has laid out a Fuel Cell Technology Roadmap, in which it aims to operate over 1,000 hydrogen refueling stations by 2030, with at least 50% of all hydrogen production to be obtained from renewable resources. In addition, it has set a target for the sale of 1 million fuel cell vehicles by 2030.

To achieve these ambitious targets, the Chinese government plans to roll-out a program similar to its 2009 program – Ten Cities, Thousand Vehicles, which promoted the development and sale of battery electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles. It currently plans to promote fuel cell vehicles in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu. Considering the vast success garnered by this program, it is likely that the government will also be successful in achieving similar targets for fuel cells.

Moreover, while the government is phasing out subsidies for BEVs, it is continuing them for fuel cells. As per the government guidelines issued in June 2018, US$32,000 purchase subsidy is available for fuel cell passenger vehicles, while US$48,000-US$70,000 purchase subsidies are available for fuel cell buses and trucks. However, for the buses to receive subsidy, they are required to drive a minimum of 200,000 km in a year.

While the government is phasing out subsidies for BEVs, it is continuing them for fuel cells. As per the government guidelines issued in June 2018, US$32,000 purchase subsidy is available for fuel cell passenger vehicles, while US$48,000-US$70,000 purchase subsidies are available for fuel cell buses and trucks.

Moreover, the government also provides subsidy for the development of hydrogen refueling stations. A funding of US$0.62 million is available for hydrogen refueling stations having a minimum of 200kg capacity.

In addition to these national subsidies, state-wise subsidies are also available for several regions such as Guangdong, Wuhan, Hainan, Shandong, Tianjin, Henan, Foshan, and Dalian. Local subsidies differ from region to region and are given as a ratio of the national subsidy. For instance, it equals 1:1 in Wuhan, while it is 1:0.3 in Henan province. On the other hand, local or state subsidies are cancelled for BEVs (except buses).

Apart from subsidies given to fuel cell infrastructure and vehicle manufacturers, the price of hydrogen is also heavily subsidized, making it cheaper than diesel in many cases.

China’s fuel cell vehicle market picks up steam

The government’s backing and subsidies have stirred interest of several international players towards China’s fuel cell vehicle market. Considering its success and dominance of the BEV market, these players are placing their bets on China achieving similar volumes and success in the fuel cell sphere.

Chinese companies have also begun to invest heavily in fuel cell technology companies globally. In May, 2018, Weichai Power, a Chinese leading automobile and equipment manufacturer, purchased a 20% stake in UK-based solid oxide fuel cell producer, Ceres Power. Similarly, in August 2018, Weichai Power entered into a strategic partnership with Canada-based fuel cell and clean energy solutions provider, Ballard Power Systems. As part of the strategic partnership, the company purchased 19.9% stake in Ballard Power Systems for US$163.3 million. In addition, they entered into a JV to support China’s Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle market, in which Ballard holds 49% ownership. Through this partnership, Weichai aims to build and supply about 2,000 fuel cell modules for commercial vehicles (that use Ballard’s technology) by 2021.

China Accelerates on the Fuel Cell Technology Front - EOS Intelligence

Global leader in industrial gases, Air Liquide, has also partnered with companies in China to be a part of the fuel cell movement. In November 2018, the company entered into an agreement with Sichuan Houpu Excellent Hydrogen Energy Technology, a wholly-owned affiliate of Chengdu Huaqi Houpu Holding (HOUPU), to develop, manufacture, and commercialize hydrogen stations for fuel cell vehicles in China. In January 2019, the company also partnered with Yankuang Group, a Chinese state-owned energy company, to develop hydrogen energy infrastructure in China’s Shandong province to support fuel cell vehicles in that region.

Another global player, Nuvera Fuel Cells (US-based fuel cell power solutions provider) has also engaged with local companies to foster growth in China’s fuel cell vehicle market. In August 2018, the company entered into an agreement with Zhejiang Runfeng Hydrogen Engine Ltd. (ZHRE), a subsidiary of Zhejiang Runfeng Energy Group based in Hangzhou. Under the agreement, Nuvera will provide a product license to ZHRE to manufacture the company’s 45kW fuel cell engines for sale in China. While the fuel cells will be initially manufactured in Massachusetts, it is expected that they will be locally manufactured by 2020.

In December 2018, the company signed another agreement with the government of Fuyang, a district in Hangzhou (in Zhejiang province), to start manufacturing fuel cell stacks locally in 2019. The agreement also includes an investment by Nuvera to establish a production facility in Fuyang region. These fuel cell stacks will be used to power zero-emissions heavy duty vehicles (such as delivery vans and transit buses), which comprise 10% of on-road vehicle fleet, but account for 50% fuel consumption.

In addition to the fuel cell energy producers, global car manufactures have also shifted their attention to fuel cell vehicles market in China. In October 2018, Korean car manufacturer, Hyundai, entered into a MoU with Beijing-Tsinghua Industrial R&D Institute (BTIRDI) to jointly establish a ‘Hydrogen Energy Fund’. The fund aims to raise US$100 million from leading venture capital firms across the globe to spur investments in the hydrogen-powered vehicle value chain. This agreement will help the Korean automobile manufacturer identify and act upon new hydrogen-related business opportunities in China and will eventually help pave the way for Hyundai Motors to make a foray into the Chinese fuel cell vehicle market in the future.

A bumpy road ahead for fuel cell vehicles

While the industry players are working along with the government to meet the ambitious targets set by the latter, fuel cell vehicles must overcome several challenges for them to be a realistic alternative to conventional and electric vehicles.

Currently, the infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles is by far insufficient. More so, it is extremely costly to develop, costing about US$2 million to build a refueling station with a capacity of about 1,000 kg/day. While the government is investing heavily in developing hydrogen refueling stations (for instance, China Energy, China’s largest power company, has been building one of China’s largest hydrogen refueling stations in Rugao City, Jiangsu Province), it requires long term partnerships and investments from private and global players to meet its own targets. Until an adequate number of refueling stations is constructed, especially on highway routes (facilitating truck and bus transportation), fuel cell vehicles will remain in a sphere of concept rather than commercial and mass use.

Another challenge faced by the industry is that hydrogen, the main fuel, is also considered to be highly hazardous, and storing and transporting it is currently difficult. Moreover, it is difficult to convince customers to purchase hydrogen-powered vehicles because of this perceived notion of hydrogen being unsafe. In addition to providing subsidies and incentives for building fuel cell vehicles, the government must also invest in marketing campaigns and enact policies that raise awareness about hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles as a safe and green energy.

In addition to providing subsidies and incentives for building fuel cell vehicles, the government must also invest in marketing campaigns and enact policies that raise awareness about hydrogen in fuel cell vehicles as a safe and green energy.

A lot of new technologies are also being explored to further make transporting and storing hydrogen safer. A German company, Hydrogenious Technologies, has developed a carrier oil that can carry hydrogen in a safe manner. This oil is non-toxic and non-explosive and thus makes transporting, storing, and refueling hydrogen safe. Moreover, using hydrogen mixed with this carrier oil to refuel fuel cell cars follows a similar refueling process as that of a conventional car, with one cubic meter of the oil carrying about 57kg hydrogen, which in turn is expected to give a car a driving range of 5,700km. However, the carrier oil is still in its nascent stage of development and would take time and resources to gain commercial applicability.

However, one of the largest challenges that fuel cell vehicles face is direct competition from battery electric vehicles. BEVs have a 10-year head start over fuel cell vehicles whether it comes to government support, technological development, infrastructure, or acceptability. Moreover, BEVs are cheaper both in terms of cars price and cost of running, which is an important factor for consumers. In addition, BEV players are constantly working towards reducing charging time and increasing driving range. Since both are green technologies, it is likely that the consumer prefers the one which has now proven to be a successful alternative to conventional vehicles in terms of pricing and supporting infrastructure. Although higher subsidies for fuel cell vehicles may help bridge the gap, it is yet to be seen if fuel cell cars will be able to give stiff competition to their green counterparts.

EOS Perspective

There is no doubt that the Chinese government intends to throw its weight behind the fuel cell technology for automobiles. In 2018 alone, the central and local governments spent a total of US$12.4 billion in supporting fuel cell vehicles. This has helped attract the attention of several local and international companies that want a share of this growing market.

It also helps that hydrogen as a fuel has several benefits when compared with battery power, the key advantages being short refueling time and long driving range. Moreover, some consider hydrogen to be a cleaner fuel when compared with battery power as the electricity required to create hydrogen (which is created by pumping electricity into water to split it into hydrogen and oxygen) can be derived from renewable sources from China’s northern region, which are currently going to waste.

Despite these inherent benefits, it will be difficult for fuel cell vehicles to catch up with battery-powered vehicles as the latter have significantly advanced over the past decade (leaving fuel cell vehicles behind).

Moreover, China’s model of promoting green energy is yet to pass its ultimate test, i.e., to sustain and flourish without government support. Since the government has now begun to phase out its support to BEVs, it is to be seen if the large group of domestic electric vehicle makers can survive in the long run or the market will face significant consolidation along with slower growth. Thus it becomes extremely critical for the Chinese government and companies in this sector to understand the feasibility of the market post the subsidy phase. Fuel cell vehicle market should take advantage of learning from the experience of battery powered vehicles sector, which was the pioneer of alternatives to conventional combustion vehicles.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Infographic: Google’s Tech Initiatives Transforming Industries

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Google, beyond being the leading search engine worldwide, is also one of the largest and most innovative companies. Through its innovations, Google along with other Alphabet companies (parent company of Google and its subsidiaries) is transforming various industries by empowering them with technology. Its solutions have reached diverse industries such as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, energy, and fishing, among others.

Innovation has always been at the core of Google’s strategy and it is bringing artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, augmented reality, robotics, among others to shape various industries. It has introduced surgical robots to medicine, Google glass to manufacturing, AI-enabled programs to energy, among various other solutions that are revolutionizing these industries. We are taking a look at where Google has already left its innovative footprint.

Google’s Tech Initiatives Transforming Industries - EOS Intelligence


Alphabet companies included in the infographic:
Verily – Alphabet’s key research organization dedicated to the study of life sciences
Verb Surgical – A joint venture between Johnson & Johnson and Verily
DeepMind – Alphabet’s artificial intelligence company
Global Fishing Watch – An organization founded by Google in partnership with Oceana and SkyTruth
by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Africa’s Fintech Market Striding into New Product Segments

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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?

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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

Blockchain Paving Its Way into Retail Industry

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Blockchain technology, which initially became popular with cryptocurrency (especially bitcoin), is now making its way into many other industries, including retail. Though still in its infancy, blockchain holds tremendous potential for retailers and has applications across supply chain data management, customer retention through loyalty programs, digital advertising, among many others. While several industry experts have proclaimed blockchain to be the next revolutionary technology in the retail sector, it is yet to be seen if these applications gain commercial acceptability (or remain niche solutions for niche products).

While the financial services industry has been one of the early adopters of blockchain technology, other sectors are also increasingly realizing the potential that blockchain can unlock for their businesses.

One such sector is retail, which is increasingly going digital – shedding its paper-based and centralized way of doing business. With an increasingly demanding customer and growing need for transparency, blockchain technology is expected to play a big role in the retail sector.

In addition to its inherent application as a payment-medium supporter (i.e. increasing acceptance of cryptocurrencies as a payment mode by retailers), blockchain has several other applications in the retail space – encompassing supply chain management, customer loyalty programs, and digital advertising.

Blockchain in supply chain

Blockchain helps improve transparency

Blockchain technology makes it possible to record every touchpoint of the product’s life as it moves through the supply chain – from manufacturer to shipper to supplier to seller – adding blocks of verifiable record to the product’s heritage.

For instance, if a supermarket is selling a box of cookies, blockchain data would record exactly when, where, and by whom the cookies were made, as well as what ingredients were used during manufacturing. By placing the cookies supply chain on the blockchain, the process becomes more transparent through inerasable tracking of how cookies have been handled at each node all the way up to the store shelves. This makes any affected ingredient traceable faster. For instance, if milk or eggs used in the cookies were affected due to poor storage, the affected ingredient (or its batch) could be traced back to the storage location and could be withdrawn from the warehouse without the tedious and error-prone process of checking each supply chain node. This ensures greater food safety and helps hold suppliers accountable throughout the chain. This is also useful in case of tracing of organic products where it is particularly important to trace whether each ingredient used to make a product is organic and matches the claims made by the producer.

There are several players in the industry who are already taking advantage of the benefits brought to their operations by blockchain. One of the largest retail giants, Walmart, has partnered with IBM and has been working together since October 2016 to develop a food safety blockchain technology called, IBMs Food Trust, to facilitate the digitization of the food supply chain process. The technology, which was previously in its testing phase, was launched for commercial use in October 2018. With the help of this technology, the source of the product can be tracked in 2.2 seconds, which previously could take up to seven days (with the use of paper-based ledgers).

In September 2018, Walmart announced a Food Trust Initiative, under which it has requested all its greens suppliers to upload data about their produce on the blockchain and ensure end-to-end traceability by September 2019. It is likely that the company extends the use of this technology to other fresh foods and vegetable suppliers in future.

Post the commercial launch of the IBM Food Trust platform in October 2018, France-based retail giant, Carrefour, also announced that it will be using IBM’s blockchain technology to track animal and vegetable product lines. Furthermore, it expects to expand this technology to other fresh products by 2022.

Blockchain Paving Its Way into the Retail Industry

Blockchain effectively combats food-related fraud

Another issue that blockchain helps combat in the retail space is food-related fraud, i.e. the misrepresentation of product contents by substituting the ingredients with cheaper alternatives. It is estimated that the global food industry suffers losses of about US$40 billion annually due to food fraud. An example of such a fraud was the Tesco horsemeat scandal in 2013, where some of Tesco’s packaged beef meals were found to include 60% horsemeat (undeclared on the label).

To fight such frauds, one of the world’s largest e-commerce players, Alibaba, has partnered with four Australian and New-Zealand-based companies, among whom are Blackmores (an Australian health supplement company) and Fonterra (a multinational dairy co-operative) to create a food tracing system built on blockchain technology. The project entered into its pilot phase in 2018. Through this system, Tmall Global’s (Alibaba’s international online marketplace) customers in China will be able to trace the goods that they order online (from partnering companies) across each node of the supply chain before the goods are finally delivered. The partnership is not only expected to help customers track the supply chain of food ordered online but also to prevent food fraud thanks to greater visibility and traceability of such fraudulent actions potentially attempted by producers.

Blockchain helps bring down the counterfeit luxury goods market

As a digital ledger where multiple stakeholders share and authenticate the same information, blockchain also makes counterfeiting more difficult. Counterfeiting is a big issue in the luxury and premium goods market owing to high prices and limited availability. The scale of counterfeiting in the luxury retail segment is overwhelming and it is sometimes nearly impossible to distinguish legitimate goods from the counterfeit ones. Forbes estimated the counterfeit luxury goods market in 2018 to be worth approximately US$1.2 trillion.

However, the use of blockchain technology can help luxury brands fight against the menace of counterfeiting. By using blockchain, companies can track every link in their supply chain and customers can access information to ensure the origins of the product and its authenticity.

Greats, a US-based premium sneaker brand, has been using blockchain and embedding smart tags in its footwear since 2016. Customers can use their smartphones to scan the tags to verify the authenticity of the sneakers.

The use of blockchain technology can help luxury brands (and other retail companies) fight against the menace of counterfeiting. By using blockchain, companies can track every link in their supply chain and customers can access this information through smartphones to ensure the origins of the product and its authenticity.

In 2018, a Paris-based blockchain company, Arianee, announced that it will be building a registry to combat counterfeiting of luxury brands, where every product will be classified with a unique token that differentiates it from the rest of the products.

Another example of this is De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond producers, which along with five other diamond players (Diacore, Diarough, KGK Group, Rosy Blue NV, and Venus Jewel) has developed a blockchain platform, called Tracr in 2017. Through this platform, a diamond can be tracked from miner to end customer, i.e. throughout its complete value chain, using ethereum blockchain technology. In 2018, De Beers announced that it has successfully tracked 100 high-value diamonds along the value chain during the pilot run of its blockchain platform. The platform is expected to bring transparency in the diamond trade through physical identification of diamonds. A diamond could be tracked through its unique number from mining to cutting to polishing and to retail, which will ensure its purity.

Owing to its ability to empower companies to track, trace, and authenticate their products from the point of origin to the retail shelf, blockchain is likely to become the standard in supply chain tracking for the retail sector. However, this application is currently in its nascent stage of development and is being experimented on by only few large and niche players before it reaches industry-wide adoption.

Blockchain in customer loyalty programs

Customer loyalty points is another area where blockchain could be considered very useful. Loyalty programs generally work by awarding points to customer account for each purchase, which later can be redeemed for discounts on future purchases. While it follows the principle that retaining existing customers is less expensive than attracting new customers, loyalty programs are not always successful.

Most loyalty programs are centralized, where the customer could only redeem its value with the same retailer (or in some cases a small group of retailers), thereby limiting their use and appeal. Moreover, in many cases, loyalty programs also have stipulations that further restrict the use of the points and reduce the program’s perceived value, which in turn results in lower loyalty of the customer. According to Colloquy Loyalty Census 2017, there were approximately 3,000 loyalty programs in North America, where 6.7 trillion points were issued every year and about 21 trillion points were dormant or not used. This suggests that more often than not, customers find loyalty programs more exhausting than benefitting, defeating the entire purpose of having loyalty programs.

Blockchain technology allows customers the flexibility to use their loyalty points when and how they please. Blockchain-based loyalty programs award customers with tokens or cryptocurrencies instead of points, which could be redeemed by customers during future retail purchases and could even be redeemed for fiat currency (as the value of tokens grow overtime and do not expire).

This can be seen in the case of Rakutan’s loyalty program. In 2018, Rakutan, one of Japan’s largest retailers, announced an alt-coin, called Rakutan Coin, with which customers could redeem reward points for gifts at all Rakutan Group companies and also for other cryptocurrencies. The company has moved US$9 billion worth of existing Super Points (customer loyalty program points) into the blockchain to provide a boost to the Rakutan Coin.

Blockchain-based loyalty programs award customers with tokens or cryptocurrencies instead of points, which could be redeemed by customers during future retail purchases and could even be redeemed for fiat currency.

In another example, in 2017, University of New South Wales in Australia partnered with LoyaltyX, an experimental loyalty agency for a blockchain loyalty research project, wherein students and staff earned US$5 of ether (cryptocurrency ethereum) for every ten transactions made at any of the eleven campus retailers including Boost Juice (Australian fruit juice and smoothie retail outlet) and IGA (Australian chain of supermarkets). It was found that 86% of the participants were more attracted to earn cryptocurrencies where they had the option to redeem them for fiat currency.

Thus, blockchain-powered programs seem to encourage customers to engage in the loyalty programs as they not only curb the problem of set expiration of traditional loyalty points but also give the power to the customer to use the tokens as and when they require with any retailer. This is likely to help retailers renew customer interest in their loyalty programs, which in turn is likely to improve brand loyalty.

In addition to adoption in the retail space, players from other related industries are also experimenting with blockchain-based loyalty programs. In 2018, American Express (an American financial services company) partnered with Boxed (an American online wholesale retailer) to make its membership rewards program more versatile by integrating blockchain. With blockchain, merchants will be able to create custom membership rewards program for American Express card holders. The power to structure the offers will be with the merchants, whereas American Express will have the right to regulate the products or brands being promoted.

Also in the same year, Singapore Airlines partnered with KPMG and Microsoft and created a blockchain-based digital wallet KrisPay, where customers can turn travel miles into units of payment that can be used with partner merchants such as eateries, beauty parlors, gas stations, and some retailers, including LEGO store outlets within Singapore. This shows that some large brands are experimenting with this technology for their loyalty programs.

While integration of blockchain seems to be the ideal solution to invigorate the fading customer loyalty programs, it is still in its embryonic stage. Such applications need mass adaption to be successful and this will require significant time and investments.

Moreover, the adoption and success of blockchain-based loyalty programs to an extent also depend on the overall sentiment towards cryptocurrencies – their value and ease of transactions.

Lastly, scalability is also an extremely critical point for the smooth running of such loyalty programs. With numerous retail transactions happening every second, it is yet to be seen if blockchain can cater to these huge numbers without a slag time.

Blockchain in digital advertising

Another space where blockchain technology is likely to have significant potential is digital advertising, which is used by numerous retailers as a medium to reach their prospective customers. However, the process of buying online advertising is susceptible to fraud, especially with the increasing use of automated real-time bidding through ad-exchanges (programmatic advertising).

Under real-time programmatic advertising, publishers (themselves or through ad vendors) showcase their inventory along with details about the kind of visitors that their site targets. The advertisers then bid for these ad impressions and the highest bidder gets to display their ad on the site.

The entire process and ad marketplace lacks a sufficient level of transparency. Sometimes vendors misrepresent remnant inventory for a publisher as premium inventory, thereby charging higher fees from advertisers. In other cases, fraudulent sellers enter the exchange, claiming to represent publishers and having access to their inventory, in turn selling fake inventory to advertisers.

Blockchain has the potential to make the online ad marketplace more robust and legitimate by providing transparency, which is currently missing. Since blockchain is a peer-to-peer online ledger where all transactions between the participating parties are recorded (and cannot be deleted or changed), the advertisers can see for themselves where the inventory that they are bidding for has originated and who has access/authority to sell it.

Some examples of implementations are already found in the market. In June 2017, MetaX, a blockchain technology company, along with DMA (The Data and Marketing Association) launched adChain, an open protocol built on the public ethereum. adChain is an open access ledger that tracks and reports the origin, sale, resale, and publishing of an online ad.


Explore our other Perspectives on blockchain


In December 2017, MetaX also launched a blockchain-based solution ‘Ads.txt Plus’ to improve transparency in the digital advertising space. Ads.txt Plus is based on a technology by IAB Tech Lab, called Ads.txt, which helps prevent fraud in the industry by allowing publishers to broadcast a list of authorized sellers of their ad inventory. By bringing this technology to ethereum blockchain, MetaX aims to further improve efficiency and transparency for its users.

If blockchain is adopted successfully in the digital advertising space, the advertisers can see exactly where their ad dollars are being spent, which players made commission, and how much of the total amount paid by them for the ad reached the site publisher.

Further, with the help of blockchain, buyers and sellers (advertisers and publishers) can enter into smart contracts for the sale and purchase of digital ads without the need for intermediaries, eliminating them from the ad bidding process.

Alternatively, buyers and sellers can choose to add other verifying parties/service providers to the smart contracts, such as measurement provider, ratings provider, payment provider, and arbitrator. In 2017, Kochava Labs (the R&D subsidiary of Kochava Inc.) launched XCHNG, an open and unified blockchain-based framework for the digital advertising ecosystem. Through the use of smart contacts, XCHNG aims at reducing the number of middlemen in the digital advertising ecosystem by facilitating transactions between the buyer and the seller and measurement providers.

While blockchain-based solutions fit perfectly in the digital advertising space on paper, the practicality and adaptability are yet to be seen.

One of the key issues challenging the adoption of blockchain in the digital ad space is scalability. The process of chaining and verifying on a blockchain takes much longer, especially, when compared with the current speed of real-time bidding transactions. It is yet to be seen if blockchain technology can evolve to offer faster processing speed, which is critical for industry-wide adoption.

While blockchain-based solutions fit perfectly in the digital advertising space on paper, the practicality and adaptability are yet to be seen. One of the key issues challenging the adoption of blockchain in the digital ad space is scalability.

While few blockchain solutions, such as XCHNG (which claims it can handle 180,000 transactions per second per smart contract composed of multiple insertion orders), refute this challenge, the other challenge in this area is that of intent. Since blockchain is expected to make transactions more transparent and also reduce the number of intermediaries, industry players may not fully embrace the technology and despite its inherent benefits, blockchain may take time to gain ground in the digital advertising industry.

EOS Perspective

In an era where businesses are becoming more customer centric, blockchain helps bring the customer and retailer together on the same platform and promises a future with more transparency. It is clear that blockchain technology has the ability to transform the retail sector just as it is likely to transform several other industries (such as healthcare, car rental and leasing, or aviation).

However, despite holding immense potential and promise, most applications in this space are still to move beyond just being proof-of-concepts. Several issues, such as high investment requirements, scalability, and to an extent, willingness to change, remain to be addressed before there is an industry-wide acceptance for these solutions.

That being said, executives are definitely keeping an eye open for the latest developments in this space and several of them are open to testing and investing in blockchain-based solutions, hoping for them to be the key differentiator/value-proposition that attract the customers towards them. While most investments currently are being seen in the supply chain space (since its benefits seem most achievable and tangible), solutions in the space of loyalty programs and digital advertising may take a little more time to gain traction.

It is safe to say that retailers cannot afford to ignore the benefits of blockchain technology anymore. Many retailers lack specific understanding of this concept and its potential across different areas of their operations. This could cost them dearly in terms of customers. Technological innovations are happening at light-speed in today’s day and age and while blockchain technology currently may lack commercial acceptability and scalability, it is expected to seep into the operations of the real sector in a significant way in the coming future.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Surgical Robots – Marrying Cost-efficiency and Innovation

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Robotic-assisted surgeries, being minimally invasive, have been an excellent alternative for conventional open surgeries for quite some time now. Surgical robots use small incisions with broader 3D visualization of the operating area and precision-guided wrist movements. Players in the industry aim to develop solutions that combine medical device technology with robotic systems to provide patients with rapid post-surgery healing and reduced trauma. As surgeons perform an increasing number of procedures worldwide using these robots, the surgical robots market is growing along with the popularity of minimal-invasive surgeries.

Robotic-assisted surgeries have been rapidly adopted by hospitals in the USA, especially since 2000, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the da Vinci Surgery System by Intuitive Surgical for general laparoscopic surgeries.

The system excelled its predecessors, such as PUMA 560 robotic surgical arm, which was used for non-laparoscopic surgeries in the late 1980s, by its 3D magnified high-resolution imaging and one centimeter diameter surgical arms to move freely inside the operating area.

These and other variants of surgical robots started to enter the market, enabling surgeons to operate complex minimally-invasive surgeries with improved precision, superior operative ergonomics, enhanced adroitness, and visualization compared to traditional laparoscopy.

Surgical Robots – Marrying Cost-efficiency and Innovation - EOS Intelligence

Robotics adoption focused on selected specialties

Even though robotic surgeries have been performed for quite some time, are still in the early stages of adoption in surgeries.

The adoption rate of robotic systems is uneven across various specialties with most robotic surgeries being performed in urology, gynecology, and general specialties. These fields also enjoy the fastest rate of adoption, example of which has been found in a 2017 study, in which researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine (California) analyzed data compiled by 416 hospitals on kidney removal procedures from 2013 to 2015. According to the study, robotic-assisted surgeries accounted for just 1.5% of all kidney removal surgeries in 2013, ration that increased to 27% by 2015.

Competition strengthens, challenges the market leader

In 2017, according to international market research and consulting firm, iData Research, surgical robotic systems market was valued over US$2.4 billion with over 693,000 robotic-assisted procedures performed in the USA alone. US-based Intuitive Surgical has long dominated the robotic surgery market with more than 4,800 da Vinci units installed around the globe, and approximately 877,000 surgical procedures performed with the da Vinci Surgical System in 2017. Intuitives’ da Vinci System is the only surgical robotic system which has been approved by FDA for various surgeries in gynecology, urology, cardiothoracic, thoracoscopic, and general surgeries.

In comparison, Intuitive’s competitor TransEntrix’s Sehnhance Robotic Surgical system received a nod from FDA in 2017 specifically for inguinal hernia and gall bladder removal laparoscopic surgeries, while also in the same year a robotic system for spinal surgeries, Mazor X by Mazor Robotics received FDA clearance.

Though Intuitive Surgical is the market leader, other players are not far from getting their products FDA-approved, a fact that has the potential to affect Intuitives’ leadership position.

Cost remains the main challenge for adoption

One major challenge for the robotic systems manufacturers is to convince hospitals to purchase their systems costing millions. For instance, a single da Vinci Surgical System costs around US$0.5 million to US$2.5 million, with additional disposable instruments whose costs range from US$700 to US$3,500 per procedure. Apart from the initial cost, there are other associated costs such as installation, service, and training fees that a hospital has to bear.

Players in this market started to realize that in order to strengthen their position and competitiveness, cost-effectiveness of their systems is the key requirement. Recently, several companies have increased their focus on developing cost-effective surgical robots, attempting not to compromise system’s performance.

Players in this market started to realize that in order to strengthen their position and competitiveness, cost-effectiveness of their systems is the key requirement

Examples of products competing on cost-effectiveness include Titan Medical’s SPORT surgical robotic system that is designed to perform various surgeries such as gynecology, urology, and general surgeries. At the outset, the system costs approximately US$0.95 million (da Vinci: ~US$1.8 million). Further the company claims the robotic system is cost-effective by driving down annual service and per procedure cost by increasing the number of times its disposable and reusable components can be used for various surgeries.

The market leader, Intuitive, also understands the costs pressures and has already established its presence with its low-cost robotic surgical system, da Vinci X, that costs approximately US$1.42 million, which is around US$780,000 cheaper as compared with Intuitive’s most advanced surgical robotic system da Vinci Xi which comes at a price of around US$2.2 million.

Other players are also entering the space, with Alphabet (Google) partnering with Ethicon (a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson) to manufacture lower-cost surgical robot, planning to introduce it into the market by 2020.

Hospitals’ limited budgets trigger simpler products development

Considering that cost burden is the key challenge to robotics adoption even in large healthcare institutions, small hospitals are generally completely outside of the potential customer base, due to far lower budgets they have to work with.

At the same time, small hospitals feel the pressure to retain surgical patients, and in that they often want to turn to robot-assisted laparoscopic surgeries. As a result of this need paired with limited budgets, certain low-cost substitutes start to arrive to the market, at times indirectly challenging systems offered by the leading players in this area.

Examples of this include Olympus’ ENDOEYE FLEX 3D camera system and FlexDex, tools used for minimally invasive surgeries that allow for wristed-laparoscopy, giving robot-like dexterity without computers and no annual maintenance services.

According to a case presented at SAGES’ World Congress of Endoscopic Surgery in 2018 by Dr. Kent Bowden from Munson Cadillac Hospital, USA, contribution margin (portion of hospital revenue remaining after the variable cost to pay off hospital salaries, service contract, and other fixed costs) for a ventral hernia using da Vinci was US$ 8 per procedure while when using FlexDex it was US$2,605. For an inguinal hernia the contribution margin using da Vinci ranged from US$596 to US$698 whereas by using FlexDex, hospital contribution margin increased to US$1,601-US$1,115 per procedure.

Another example of such a substitute system is the FreeHand robotic arm produced by UK’s OR Productivity. FreeHand is a system that allows the surgeon to hold and control the laparoscope using his own head movements and a foot pedal. The system was developed to provide a range of benefits (stable image, reduced staff count, high precision) at an affordable installation and running cost. The producer promises a fixed per-procedure cost, whose rough estimation points to around US$197 per procedure (unachievable for procedures conducted with advanced systems).

It is clear that these simpler systems are not able to fully replace the higher-end products. However, these substitutes claim to be dexterous, cost-effective robotic solutions sufficient for certain procedures, thus can be perceived as an alternative (and competition) to expensive robots in some cases.

These substitutes claim to be dexterous, cost-effective robotic solutions sufficient for certain procedures, thus can be perceived as an alternative (and competition) to expensive robots in some cases

Robotic surgeries offer many advantages both for surgeons and patients, however, the equipment comes with certain challenges and limitations, which, apart from cost, include increased operating time in some cases, lack of tactile feeling for the surgeon, large space requirement, and long set-up time required for the robotic system. Having said that, cost-effectiveness is (and will continue to be) the main challenge players face while developing and marketing their systems.

EOS Perspective

Advancements in surgical robots are emerging by adding intelligence into the robotic systems with refined haptic feedback and versatility in robots’ arms. Companies are diving deep in this industry by improving their products and coming up with next-generation surgical robotic systems that could perform different types of minimally invasive surgeries.

Nevertheless, huge investment is needed for development of advanced and multi-skilled robots. Gaining investment for such projects is difficult, hence for the time being, it can be expected that the existing players are likely to consider forming partnerships to improve their products and increase their market share.

Gaining investment for such projects is difficult, hence for the time being, it can be expected that the existing players are likely to consider forming partnerships to improve their products and increase their market share

On the other hand, the market might see arrival of new systems based on existing technologies and solutions. They can be sourced from several of Intuitive’s patents that expired in 2016. These included some basic robotic concepts implemented in the robotic system, such as robotic arms control and imaging functionality. Several other patents developed by the company are expected to expire by 2022 (under the US patent law, a solution is protected for a relatively short period of time, generally 20 years).

Such availability of patent-free solutions will encourage other players in the industry to enter the market with similar products, probably at lower price points. This is likely to intensify the competition, which is already tightening, as Senhance robotic systems by TransEntrix got FDA received approval in 2018 for hernia repair and gallbladder removal, while SPORT by Titan Medical is expecting its approval in 2019, giving competition to da Vinci. Furthermore, a new partnership by Google and Johnson & Johnson is on the horizon, likely to bring some form of cost-effective alternative to the existing, more expensive systems, further adding pressure on the solutions offered by existing players.

Such availability of patent-free solutions will encourage other players in the industry to enter the market with similar products, probably at lower price points

The outlook for the robotic systems looks promising with mergers and partnerships among players that could drive innovation in this industry. Collaborating with hospitals to invest in training and application of robotic systems in growing number of procedures should also remain in the competitors’ focus area, as high number of robot-assisted procedures performed regularly provides opportunities for increasing the cost-efficiency and generating revenues that could be directed towards further R&D.

Players in the market need to focus on such high-volume procedures that will be likely to ultimately increase their sales, and allow them to focus on improving their products to deal with current challenges such as cost-effectiveness, limited portability and complex controls of the robotic systems, improving of which can help producers gain a competitive edge.

However, the players in this industry also need to identify new growth avenues – targeting areas where traditional laparoscopic surgeries are still predominantly performed but where robotic assistance could find its place, such as in colorectal and cholecystectomy procedures. There is still a considerable space in the market with opportunities. They can be tapped by putting emphasis on continuous investment in R&D aiming to innovate and develop new solutions that would find application in under-served therapeutic areas or offer new functionalities in order to cover as many therapeutic subsegments of the market as possible.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

Sharing Economy in the GCC: A Success Story Waiting to Happen

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The current landscape in the Gulf countries is believed to show solid scope for sharing economy platforms’ growth. On the other hand, the region still lacks consumer engagement as well as updated and adequate regulations, which may cause these platforms to stumble and fall on their way to growth.

The concept of sharing economy has been spreading with great velocity worldwide with the advent of new technologies and connectedness. It emerged as a recognized concept around 2008-2010 with the arrival of successful players such as Uber and Airbnb offering P2P platforms that allowed financially strapped consumers to earn extra income. Global sharing economy was valued at US$15 billion in 2014 and is expected to reach US$335 billion by 2025.

GCC’s good foundations and latent potential

In 2016 alone, PwC estimated that consumers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spent US$10.7 billion within five sectors of the sharing economy platforms – household services, accommodation, business services, transportation, and financial services.

The spending in sharing economy was of course lower than spending on similar services acquired through traditional avenues – for instance, in 2016, hotel revenues were expected to hit US$24.9 billion in the GCC, a considerably higher sum than accommodation revenues in the sharing economy that totaled to US$1.29 billion in that same year. This indicates latent potential, and with part of the traditional service revenue possibly taken over by sharing economy, the scope for growth is very promising, underpinned by favorable characteristics of the GCC countries.

Young and technologically-participative population

Sharing economy platforms do not hire employees directly but work with self-employed service providers instead. The essence of these platforms is to enable people – mainly young, dynamic, and technologically-participative – to use them as a way to exchange goods or services for money.

The appeal of the GCC for sharing economy platforms is exactly that – the diversity and demographic profile of the region’s population allows sharing economy platforms to reach a large pool of young, tech-savvy consumers and service providers. In 2018, 60% of the GCC population was under the age of 30 – considered key demographic to interact and use sharing economy services on both the demand and supply side.

Large immigrant pool willing to engage

Another market growth driver that is somewhat unique to the region is the large percentage of non-nationals living and working in the GCC. Between 2016 and 2017, 51% of the Gulf region total population were non-citizens, who, according to a 2016 PwC survey, were active users of the sharing economy services, largely due to relatively low incomes and limited (if any) access to other ways of improving their financial standing. The region’s large volume of immigrants has always been a steady trait that is very unlikely to change in the future. Due to this, high numbers of expatriates participating in the sharing economy platforms on a daily basis is likely to ensure a long-term steady growth of these platforms in the region.

(Slowly) growing women’s economic inclusion

Another appealing aspect of the GCC market is that all six countries have been changing (alas, slowly) their attitude towards women’s economic inclusion, fueled by shifting cultural norms that traditionally imposed limitations on women’s ability to work and earn.

This change is likely to allow them to participate more actively in the workforce, and a ride-hailing app company could be a good option to provide transportation to and from work to female workers, since in some GCC countries they are not allowed to drive by themselves, while in others they customarily do not often do it. With women representing around 40% of the GCC population, higher financial independence places them in the group of potential consumers of sharing economy goods and services for their transportation as well as household services needs.

Eagerly-consumed fast connectivity

Regardless of the gender participation mix at both supply and demand side, the sharing economy players are certainly set to benefit from fast adoption of technology by local consumers in the GCC. In 2017, 64% of the population owned a smartphone and, by 2018, 77% of the GCC population were mobile network subscribers. Such rates seem to give strong foundation for sharing economy platforms to grow.

Moreover, the GCC highly tech-savvy youth seeks new technologies and faster mobile connections. In response, the Gulf countries aim to become global leaders of 5G deployment (all markets planning to launch 5G by 2020), a major contributing driver to the sharing economies growth in the region. High-speed mobile connections plus a growing pool of eager-tech young adults willing to engage in P2P platforms are likely to become a major driver for their growth.

Sharing Economy in the GCC A Success Story Waiting to Happen

Nonetheless, despite these favorable foundations, there may be roadblocks representing a threat for the success of sharing economy platforms in the Gulf region.

Large immigrant pool refrained from joining the platforms

One of the key obstacles is the cultural-legal environment prevalent in the region. While the region has long been characterized by large share of immigrants in local populations, their way of working is controlled by Kafala, an outdated sponsorship system carried out by the GCC. This system allows immigrants to work in the region only for their sponsor, who is legally responsible for them during the time of his or her stay.

Kafala system does not allow for self-employment, nor does it allow for second employment beyond the job given by the sponsor. Since sharing economy companies interact mainly with freelance service providers, there is a large portion of expatriates working in the GCC who will find it difficult to be able to freely join the platforms as service providers.


Explore our other Perspectives on sharing economy


Lack of legislation and consumer protection

Lack of a dedicated government entity to oversee sharing economy services in the Gulf countries may cause consumers to be wary of using these platforms, ultimately hindering market growth.

According to a 2016 survey conducted by PwC, GCC users put considerable emphasis on trust and transparency when dealing with online providers, two factors that can influence their purchasing decisions.

In sharing economy, users need to be able to trust platforms’ screening process for providers before they deal with them. As a result, if the states do not establish bodies and laws governing sharing economy services, the platforms could witness weak demand from both consumers and services suppliers who are cautious about protecting themselves.

Limited awareness and lack of need

Lack of consumer awareness and simply lack of need for the sharing economy services is also an issue for the market growth since not all GCC nationals seem to be aware about the existence of the sharing economy platforms.

According to the same PwC survey, an average of 21-35% of respondents were not familiar with the sharing economy concept. This could be attributed to the fact that many households in GCC countries have traditionally enjoyed high income levels, a fact that resulted in no need for shared services and allowed them to afford services of expatriate workers hired directly and for long term (e.g. employing a household driver or cleaner, rather than using external providers as needed).

Consequently, local consumers may not see the need to use an online platform dampening the success of sharing economy platforms. This might change, as households’ incomes growth stagnates and sharing economy could help stretch that income.

EOS Perspective

The GCC countries could be a promising landscape for sharing economy platforms to dock successfully. The region offers growing population, continues to be characterized by a solid base of young, tech-savvy users, as well as females and non-citizens available to participate in the sharing economy market.

However, despite the current growth, these platforms could nosedive unless local authorities deal with regulatory deficiencies. A dedicated supervisory entity is required to allow local authorities to regulate sharing economy companies, which will also provide support to consumers through consumer protection and better screening processes of services providers. Local customers clearly manifest their need for such a protection, and the lack of it is likely to dampen the demand and thus market growth.

The update of labor policies such as the Kafala system is also required for sharing economy platforms to witness a continuous growth. This growth can only happen through allowing a good share of the readily-available pool of expatriates to work under a more flexible scheme these platforms require. This is something for GCC states to consider, as there region is increasingly facing the requirement for economic diversification and stimulation of its sluggish economies. Creating labor policies that allow people to work for sharing economy platforms legally (at least as a secondary employment, as it is increasingly allowed in Dubai) is likely to create employment opportunities across the region, spurring consumer spending and generating tax revenues.

While there also are other obstacles in the GCC sharing economy market, it is the lack of appropriate regulation and supervision of the industry, as well as the current form of the Kafala system that are the two key challenges to the market’s accelerated growth. Considering the nature of these challenges, it seems that the potential of this market is unlikely to be realized without active facilitation by the local governments. However, it is uncertain to what extent the governments will try to understand the potential economic benefits of fully embracing sharing economy, and change the deeply-rooted, long-standing, archaic labor laws.

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