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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.


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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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Connecting Africa – Global Tech Players Gaining Foothold in the Market

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While in the past, most global tech companies have focused their attention on emerging Asian markets, such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc., they have now understood the potential also offered by African markets. Africa currently stands at the brink of technical renaissance, with tech giants from the USA and China competing to establish here a strong foothold. That being said, Africa’s technological landscape is extremely complex owing to major connectivity and logistical issues, along with a limited Internet user base. Companies that wish to enter the African markets by replicating their entry and operating models from other regions cannot be assured of success. In addition to global tech firms building their ground in Africa, a host of African start-ups are increasingly finding funding from local as well as global VC and tech players.

Great potential challenged by insufficient connectivity

Boasting of a population exceeding 1.2 billion (spread across 50 countries) and being home to six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, Africa is increasingly seen as the final frontier by large global technology firms.

However, the African landscape presents its own set of challenges, which makes increasing tech penetration extremely complex in the market. To begin with, only about 35% of the continent’s population has access to the Internet, as compared with the global rate of 54%. Thus, Africa’s future in the technology space greatly depends on its ability to improve digital connectivity. This also stands in the way of large tech-based players that wish to gain foothold in the market.

Large players try to lay the necessary foundations

Due to this fundamental challenge, companies such as Google, Facebook, and IBM have initiated long-pronged strategies focusing on connectivity and building infrastructure across Africa. Facebook’s Free Basics program (which provides access to a few websites, including Facebook and Whatsapp, without the need to pay for mobile data) has been greatly focused on Africa, and is available in 27 African countries. With Facebook’s partnership with Airtel Africa, the company has started to strengthen its position in the continent.

Similarly, Google has launched Project Link, under which it rolled out a metro fiber network in Kampala, Uganda, with Ghana being in the pipeline. Through such efforts and investments, Google is aimed at bringing about faster and more reliable internet to the Africans.

Microsoft, which has been one of the first players to enter the African turf, is also undertaking projects to improve connectivity in Africa. The company has invested in white spaces technology, which uses unused radio spectrum to provide Wi-Fi connectivity at comparatively lower costs.

However, managing to get people online is only the first step in the long journey to develop a growing market. Companies need to understand the specific dynamics of the local markets and develop new business models that will fit well in the African market.

For instance, globally, the revenue model for several leading tech companies, such as Google and Facebook, largely depend on online advertising. However, the same model may not thrive in most African markets due to a limited digital footprint of the consumers as well as the fact that the business community in the continent continues to draw most transactions offline, using cash.

Connecting Africa – Global Technology Firms Gaining a Foothold in the Market

Players employ a range of strategies to penetrate the market

These tech giants must work closely with local businesses and achieve an in-depth understanding of the unique challenges and opportunities that the African continent presents. Therefore, these companies are increasingly focusing on looking for collaborations that will help in the development of successful and sustainable businesses in the continent.

Leading players, such as Google and Microsoft have been investing heavily in training local enterprises in digital skills to encourage businesses to go online, so that they will become potential customers for them in the future.

While this strategy has been used somewhat extensively by US-based and European companies, a few Chinese players have recently joined the bandwagon. For instance, Alibaba’s founder, Jack Ma announced a US$10 million African Young Entrepreneurs Fund on his first visit to Africa in July 2017. The scheme will help 200 budding entrepreneurs learn and develop their tech business with support from Alibaba.

The company has also been focusing on partnerships and collaborations to strengthen its position in the African market. Understanding the logistical challenges in the African continent, Alibaba has signed a wide-ranging agreement with French conglomerate, Bollore Group, which covers cloud services, digital transformation, clean energy, mobility, and logistics. The logistics part of the agreement will help Alibaba leverage on Bollore’s strong logistics network in Africa’s French-speaking nations.

Considering the importance of mobile wallets and m-payments in Africa, Alibaba has expanded its payment system, Alipay, to South Africa (through a partnership with Zapper, a South Africa-based mobile payment system) as well as Kenya (through a partnership with Equitel, a Kenya-based mobile virtual network operator). In many ways, it is applying its lessons learnt in the Chinese market with regards to payments and logistics, to better serve the African continent.

While Chinese players (such as Alibaba and Baidu) have been comparatively late in entering the African turf, they are expected to pose a tough competition to their Western counterparts as they have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, with a somewhat better understanding of the challenges and complexities of a digitally backward market.

For instance, messaging app WeChat brought in by Tencent, China-based telecom player, has provided stiff competition to Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook and is a leading player in this space. WeChat has used its experience in the Chinese market (where mobile banking is also popular just as it is across Africa) and has collaborated with Standard Chartered Bank to launch WeChat wallet. In addition, WeChat has collaborated with South Africa’s largest media company, Naspers, which has provided several value added services to its consumers (such as voting services to viewers of reality shows, which are very popular in Africa). Thus, by aligning the app to the needs and preferences of the African consumers, it has made the app into something more than just a messaging service.

While collaboration has been the go-to strategy for a majority of tech companies, a few players have preferred to enter the market by themselves. Uber, a leading peer-to-peer ridesharing company entered Africa without collaborations and is currently present in 16 countries.

While entering without forging partnerships with local entities helps a company maintain full control over its operations in the market, in some cases it may result in slower adoption of its services by the local population (as they may not be completely aligned with their preferences and needs). This can be seen in the case of Netflix, a leading player in the video streaming service, which extended its services to all 54 countries in Africa in January 2016 (the company has, however, largely focused on South Africa). Despite being a global leader, Netflix has witnessed conservative growth in the continent and expects only 500,000 subscribers across the continent by 2020.

On the other hand, Africa’s local players ShowMax and iROKO TV have gained more traction, due to better pricing, being more mobile friendly (downloading option) and having more relatable and local content, which made their offer more attractive to local populations.

Netflix, slowly understanding the complexities of the market, has now started developing local content for the South African market and working on offering Netflix in local currency. The company has also decided to collaborate with a few local and Middle-Eastern players to find a stronger foothold in the market. In November 2018, the company signed a partnership with Telkom, a South African telecommunication company, wherein Netflix will be available on Telkom’s LIT TV Box. Similarly, it partnered with Dubai-based pay-TV player, OSN, wherein OSN subscribers in North Africa and Middle East will gain access to Netflix’s content available across the region. However, while Netflix may manage to develop a broader subscriber base in South Africa and a few other more developed countries, there is a long road ahead for the company to capture the African continent as a whole, especially since its focus has been on TV-based partnerships rather than mobile (which is a more popular medium for the Internet in Africa).

On the other hand, Chinese pay-TV player, StarTimes has had a decade-long run in Africa and has more than 20 million subscribers across 30 African countries. While operating by itself, the company has strongly focused on local content and sports. It also deploys a significant marketing budget in the African market. For instance, it signed a 10-year broadcast and sponsorship deal with Uganda’s Football Association for US$7 million. To further its reach, the company also announced a project to provide 10,000 African villages with access to television.

US-based e-commerce leader, Amazon, is following a different strategy to penetrate the African markets. Following an inorganic approach, in 2017, Amazon acquired a Dubai-based e-retailer, Souq.com, which has presence in North Africa. However, the e-commerce giant is moving very slowly on the African front and is expected to invest heavily in building subsidiaries for providing logistics and warehousing as it has done in other markets, such as India. This approach to enter and operate in the African market is not widely popular, as it will require huge investment and a long gestation period.

Local tech start-ups are on the rise

While leading tech giants across the globe are spearheading the technology boom in Africa, developments are also fueled by local start-ups. As per the Disrupt Africa Tech Startups Funding Report 2017, 159 African tech start-ups received investments of about US$195 million in 2017, marking a more than 50% increase when compared to the investments received in 2016.

While South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya remained the top three investment destinations, there is an increasing investor interest in less developed markets, such as Ghana, Egypt, and Uganda. Start-ups in the fintech space received maximum interest and investments. Moreover, international VC such as Amadeus and EchoVC as well as local African funds appear keen to invest in African start-ups. The African governments are also supporting start-up players in the tech space – a prime example being the Egyptian government launching its own fund dedicated to this objective.

African fintech start-ups, Branch and Cellulant, have been two of the most successful players in the field, raising US$70 million and US$47.5 million, respectively, in 2018. While Branch is an online micro-lending start-up, Cellulant is a digital payments solution provider. Both companies have significant presence across Africa.

EOS Perspective

Although US-based players were largely the first to enter and develop Africa’s technology market, Chinese players have also increasingly taken a deeper interest in the continent and have the advantage of coming from an emerging market themselves, therefore putting themselves in a better position to understand the challenges faced by tech players in the continent.

Most leading tech players are looking to build their presence in the African markets. Their success depends on how well they can mold their business models to tackle the local market complexities in addition to aligning their product/service offerings with the diverse needs of the local population. While partnering with a local player may enable companies to gain a better understanding of the market potential and limitations, it is equally imperative to identify and partner with the right player, who is in line with the company’s vision and has the required expertise in the field – a task challenging at times in the African markets.

While global tech companies are stirring up the African markets with the technologies and solutions they bring along, a lot is also happening in the local African tech-based start-ups scene, which is receiving an increasing amount of investment from VCs across the world. In the future, these start-ups may become potential acquisition targets for large global players or pose stiff competition to them, either across the continent or in smaller, regional markets.

It is clear that the technological wave has hit Africa, changing the continent’s face. Most African countries, being emerging economies in their formative period, offer a great potential of embracing the new technologies without the struggle of resisting to adopt the new solutions or the problem of fit with legacy systems. It is too early to announce Africa the upcoming leader in emerging technologies, considering the groundwork and investments the continent requires for that to happen, however, Africa has emerged as the next frontier for tech companies, which are causing a digital revolution in the continent as we speak.

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Slowly but Surely – Insurance Realizes AI’s Value

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Several sectors, such as banking, F&B, automotive, and healthcare have seen major transformations at the hands of artificial intelligence (AI) ‒ we discussed benefits of AI in fast food industry in our previous article – Artificial Intelligence Finds its Way into Your Favorite Fast Food Chain in November 2017. AI has become an integral part of a large number of industries, providing new solutions and facilitating greater back-end efficiency as well as customer engagement and management. Insurance sector, on the other hand, has been largely slow to react to this disruptive trend. In 2017, only about 1.3% of insurance companies invested in AI (as compared with 32% insurance companies that invested in software and information technologies). However, this is expected to change as insurance companies have begun to realize the untapped potential that AI unearths in all aspects of their business, i.e. policy pricing, customer purchase experience, application processing and underwriting, and claim settlement.

Insurance industry has been one of the sectors that have operated in their traditional form for several decades, without undergoing much of substantial transformation. This is also one of the reasons why the insurance sector has been relatively late in jumping on the AI bandwagon.

Artificial intelligence, which has significantly transformed the way several industries such as automotive, healthcare, and manufacturing operate, also presents a host of benefits to the insurance sector. Moreover, it is expected to drive savings not only for insurance companies but also brokers and policy holders.

Streamlining internal processes

AI has the ability to streamline several internal processes within insurance companies. There is a host of duplicating business operations in the insurance sector. Automation and digitization can result in about 40% cost cutting, and this can be achieved by automating about 30% of the operations.

This can be seen in the case of Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance. In 2017, this Tokyo-based insurance company replaced 34 employees with IBM’s Watson Explorer AI system that can calculate payouts to policyholders in faster and more precise manner. The company expects to boost productivity by 30% and is expected to save close to US$1.26 million (JPY 140 million) in the first year of operations. To put this in a perspective, the AI system cost the company, US$1.8 million (JPY 200 million), and its maintenance is expected to cost US$130,000 (JPY 15 million) per year. Therefore, Fukoku seems optimistic about achieving its return on investment within less than two years of installing the AI system.

In addition to providing automation of processes, AI can bring out disruptive transformation throughout the insurance value chain. Some of the most substantial benefits of using AI in the insurance sector are expected to be seen in policy pricing, offering of personalized insurance plans, as well as claim management.

Policy pricing

Traditionally, insurance companies used to price their policies by creating risk pools based on statistical sampling, thereby all insurance policies were based on proxy data.

AI is transforming this by moving policy pricing analysis from proxy data to real-time source data. Internet of Things (IoT) device sensors, such as telematics and wearable sensor data, enable insurance firms to price coverage based on real events and real-time data of the individuals that they are insuring.

An example of this is usage-based or pay-per-mile auto insurance, wherein a telematics sensor box (a black box for a car), is installed into a car to track information such as speed, driving distances, breaking habits, and other qualitative and quantitative driving data. Using this data, insurance companies can offer a customized policy to the car owner, charging lower premium from safe drivers or offering less-used cars the pay-per-mile option. It also helps insurance companies charge suitable premium from reckless drivers and long-distance drivers.

In February 2017, UK-based mobile network brand, O2, expanded into the auto insurance space with a telematics product called the O2 Drive. The device tracks different aspects of a user’s driving habits and offers discounts and personalized insurance policies based on it. The company is positioning its products to attract teen and young drivers as they are most likely to be open to sharing their driving data.

In addition to auto insurance, IoT devices such as wearable devices and smart home solutions also help in setting policy pricing in health and home insurance. US-based Beam Insurance Services uses a smart toothbrush to offer dental insurance. The company uses data accrued from the smart toothbrush, such as number of times a person brushes their teeth, duration of brushing, etc., to offer a personalized insurance policy. It claims to offer up to 25% lower rates in comparison with its competitors.

In another example, UK-based Neos Ventures offers IoT-powered home insurance based on a smart home monitoring and emergency assistance device. The device and its accompanying app helps users reduce instances of fire and water-based damages as well as break-ins and thefts. The premise of the company is that if they can successfully reduce the chances of any mishaps, they can offer cheaper premiums to the insured.

While IoT devices can greatly personalize insurance pricing, the largest caveat to the success of this pricing mechanism remains that customers must be willing to share their personal data with insurance providers to attain savings in the form of lower premium. As per Deloitte – EMEA Insurance Data Analytics Study 2017, about 40% of customers surveyed seemed open to track their behavior and share the data with insurers for more accurate premiums for health insurance, while 38% and 48% customers were open to tracking and sharing data in case of home and auto insurance, respectively.

Slowly but Surely – Insurance Realizes AI's Value

Customer purchase experience and underwriting of applications

The relationship between an insurance agent and the customer is an extremely important one for insurance companies. Many times the customer is dissatisfied with its interaction/experience with the insurance agent as they feel that the agent does not have their best interest at heart or the agent is not available for them as and when required.

This issue is effectively addressed with the use of AI-powered chatbots or virtual assistants. Advanced chatbots use image recognition and social data to personalize sales conversations and provide a better customer experience. Thus, agents and insurance representatives are being replaced by chatbots, which deliver faster and more efficient customer experience.

ZhongAn, a China-based pure online insurance company uses chatbots for 97% of its customer queries without any human involvement. It also uses AI to offer innovative insurance products, such as cracked mobile screen insurance. It uses image recognition technology to detect whether the image shows the mobile screen is cracked or intact. It can also decipher if the picture has been photoshopped or altered to ensure the claim is genuine. Since its inception in 2013, the company has sold about 8 billion policies to 500 million customers (these include cracked mobile insurance as well as the company’s other popular products).

To blend the human experience with chatbots, companies have started branding their chatbots with human names. New York-based P2P insurance company, Lemonade, uses exclusively chatbots named Maya and Jim to interact with customers and create personalized insurance options in less than a minute within the Lemonade app. The chatbots Maya and Jim are alter-egos of the company’s real-life employees with the same names.

Similarly, in December 2016, ICICI Lombard General Insurance launched a chatbot called MyRA. Within six months of operations the virtual assistance platform sold 750 policies without any human intervention, while it was used by 60,000 consumers for queries.

In addition to elevating customer’s purchase experience, AI also helps in reducing insurance underwriting/processing time and ensuring higher quality. The underwriting process traditionally has a range of manual tasks that make the process slow and also prone to human errors. However, AI helps achieve quicker and more reliable data analysis. AI tools such as Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing (NLP) help underwriters scan a customer’s social profile to gather important data, trends, and behavioral patterns that can result in more accurate assessment of the application.

New-York based Haven Life (a subsidiary of MassMutual), leverages AI technology to underwrite its life insurance policies. It requires its customers to submit a 30-question application (which is more conversational in nature as compared with the detailed traditional life insurance forms) and upload few documents such as medical records, motor vehicle driving records, etc. The AI technology analyzes the provided information along with historical life insurance data and asks additional questions if required. In several cases, it also offers coverage without the mandated medical test. Through AI, the company has reduced its underwriting time from the typical 1-2 weeks to as low as 20 minutes.

Claim management

AI can play a significant role in two of the most critical aspects of claim management, i.e. the time to settle a claim and fraud detection.

The time to settle a claim is one of the performance metrics that customers care most about. Using AI, companies can expedite the claim process. Chatbots are used to address the First Notice of Loss (FNOL), wherein customers submit their claims by sending pictures of the damaged goods along with answering few questions. The chatbot then processes the claim and assesses the extent of loss and its authenticity, to determine the correct amount for claim settlement.

Lemonade set a world record in December 2016 by settling a claim using its AI bot, Jim, in only three seconds. The AI bot reviewed the claim, cross-referenced it against the policy, ran several anti-fraud algorithms, approved the claim, sent wiring instructions to the bank, and informed the customer in the three-second window.

Another interesting area of application is in agriculture, where machine learning can also help quickly analyze claims (pertaining to loss spread over a wide area) using satellite imaging, which would otherwise take humans significantly greater time and costs to ascertain.

As mentioned earlier, AI can bring massive savings to insurance firms by reducing fraudulent claims. As per US-based Coalition Against Insurance Fraud (CAIF) estimates, insurance carriers lose about US$80 billion annually in fraudulent claims. AI technologies provide insurance firms with real-time data to identify duplicate and inflated claims as well as fake diagnoses.

In addition, many companies use AI to run algorithms on historical data to identify sequences and patterns of fraudulent claims to identify traits and trends that may be missed by the human eye during the initial stages of claim processing.

According to CAIF, in November 2016, about 75% of insurance firms used automated fraud detection systems to detect false claims. Paris-based Shift Technologies is one of the leading players in this domain, claiming to have a 250% better fraud identification rate as compared with the market average. The company had analyzed more than 100 million claims from its inception in 2013 up till October 2017.

EOS Perspective

There is no denying that AI has the capability to transform the insurance industry (as it has transformed many other industries). Although, initially slow at reacting to the AI trend, insurance companies have realized its potential.

As per an April 2017 Accenture survey, about 79% of the insurance executives believed that AI will revolutionize the way insurers gain information from and interact with their customers. This is also visible in the recent level of investments made in AI by the insurance sector. TCS’s Global Trend Study on AI 2017 stated that the insurance sector outspent all the other 12 sectors surveyed (including travel, consumer packaged goods, hospitality, media, etc.) by investing an average of US$124 million annually in AI systems. The cross industry average of the 13 sectors stood at US$70 million.

Thus, it is very important for insurance players to get on board the AI trend now. Since they are already late (in comparison to some other industries) in reacting to the trend, it is critical that they adapt to it to remain relevant and competitive.

However, the key barrier to AI implementation are the complex and outdated legacy systems that hold back innovation and digitization. The companies that do not manage to implement tech innovations in their legacy systems due to high cost might just be acting penny wise, pound foolish.

by EOS Intelligence EOS Intelligence No Comments

India and China Make Space for Domestic Medical Devices

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Medical device industries in India and China have long been dominated by international players, especially when it comes to high-end devices. High investment requirement, long gestation period on ROI, limited support from the government, and relatively low demand and awareness about medical procedures have resulted in limited domestic investments. However, the industry has been evolving as more and more local players are realizing the scope of this high-potential market that is still in its nascent growth stage in India and China. Moreover, increased government support is further expected to boost indigenous production in the industry.

Similar market structures, a whopping difference in size

While the medical device sector in China is far ahead of that of India (with respect to sales, number of players, and investment), they both have a similar market structure, i.e. being dominated by large multinational players, who have built strong relationships with large hospitals, healthcare organizations, and influencers.

Very few local players have had any significant presence in this industry, and those that did hold some share in the market, limited their focus to the low-investment, low-price product range. However, with healthcare spending in the two countries rising significantly, more and more domestic players are entering and expanding into this space.

India’s healthcare industry is poised to reach US$280 billion by 2020 registering a CAGR of 15% during 2016-2020, while China’s healthcare spending is projected to reach US$1 trillion by 2020, growing at a CAGR of about 12% during the decade.

The rise in healthcare spending in both countries is underpinned by rising disposable income, availability and growing awareness about medical care, expansion of health insurance coverage, rising burden of lifestyle diseases and increased stress levels, as well as ageing population (especially in China).

In addition to this, the governments in both countries are providing instrumental support to companies interested and engaged in medical device manufacturing on domestic soil.

Government takes initiative to promote Indian domestic manufacturing

India’s medtech market, which was valued at close to US$4 billion (INR 260.5 billion) in 2015 is expected to reach about US$8 billion (INR 550.4 billion) by 2020, registering a CAGR of 16.1% during 2015-2020, which is significantly higher than the global industry growth of about 4-6%.

Although about 65-70% of the market value is characterized by imports, the current government’s initiatives in the sector (including the Make in India initiative) are expected to reduce the country’s dependency on imports in the medium-to-long term. Some of the initiatives undertaken by the government include allowing 100% FDI in the sector, setting up medical technology and devices parks across selected states to bring down indigenous manufacturing costs by as much as 30%, developing two testing and quality certification labs aimed at monitoring and improving quality of manufactured devices, and issuing Medical Device Rules 2017, which promote domestic manufacturing.

Before the Medical Device Rules 2017, medical devices were regulated as drugs and this resulted in several regulatory bottlenecks with regards to medtech manufacturing. The new set of rules ease the process of obtaining licenses and undertaking clinical trials, encourage self-compliance, and promote a single-window digital platform for the processing and easy tracking of applications and licenses for import, manufacture, sale/distribution, and clinical investigation of medical devices. In addition, the new medical device rules classify medical devices into four categories based on the risks these devices may pose, in line with global standards for classifying and registering medical devices.

In addition to this, the government also corrected the inverted tax structure faced by the industry in the past (i.e. import of finished goods attracted lower duty compared with import of raw materials for domestic manufacturing). Under the 2016-2017 budget, the government relaxed import duty on components and raw materials required to manufacture medical devices to 2.5% and provided full exemption from additional customs duty (SAD). Further, it increased duty on import of finished medical devices from 5% to 7.5% (in addition to imposing an additional duty of 4% on medical devices by withdrawing exemptions.)

While the move of reducing duty on raw materials has been appreciated by the industry, the rise in duty of imported medical devices has met with mixed reviews. India is highly import-dependent with regards to medical devices and a rise in duty on most categories will make medical care more expensive for the consumer.

Further, in June 2017, the union cabinet announced a US$250 million initiative as a part of the National Biopharma Mission to fund bio-tech start-ups in the field of medical devices, bio-therapeutics, etc. The government is also looking to encourage innovation in this space by setting up R&D incubation centers in association with leading research institutions in this field.

Apart from easing the supply side, the government’s initiatives, such as Free Diagnostics Service Initiative also play a vital role in boosting the demand for medical devices (especially in-vitro devices) in the country. Through this initiative, the government, under the National Health Mission aims at providing a minimum set of diagnostics to the underprivileged population in the country.

In addition to this, the program has worked on devising an integrated approach to combat prevalent non-communicable diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, and cancer by undertaking year-round screening and testing. This will result in large government orders for IVDs and other medical devices.

Another initiative undertaken by the government to both support the domestic industry and ensure a more widespread reach of medical devices has been price capping of coronary stents and orthopedic implants. Observing the huge distributor margins on these medical devices, the government undertook a bold step to cap the prices at which stents and knee implants can be sold in India.

Prior to the price control, the average retail price for a bare metal stent was about US$700, while that for a drug-eluting stent was about US$1,800-2,000. In February 2017, the government fixed a ceiling price of ~US$106 (INR 7,260) for bare metal stents and ~US$431 (INR 29,600) for drug-eluting stents.

In a similar move, the government capped prices for knee implants in August 2017. Knee implants, which ranged from ~US$2,308-US$13,121 (INR 158,300 – 900,000) were limited to ~US$791-1,661 (INR 54,270-113,950). In mid-2017, the government published a list of 19 medical devices (including catheters, heart valves, other orthopedic implants, etc.) that will be monitored for pricing, thus similar price capping may be expected for other devices as well.

Large players may withdraw their latest generation products from India, while Indian players will focus only on cost-effective products instead of innovations.

While the intent for the price capping is noble and will provide a boost to the domestic manufacturers who are better equipped at producing low-priced products, several leading international companies, such as Abbott Vascular and Medtronic, have criticized the decision and submitted applications to increase the ceiling price for the premium quality products or allow them to withdraw the products from the Indian market (as per the government’s rules, no manufacturer can withdraw their products from the market for a period of 12 months from the date of the price ceiling without prior approval from the government). This may be detrimental to the overall industry as large players may withdraw their latest generation products from India in the long run, while Indian players will focus only on cost-effective products instead of innovations.

Indian domestic players might go beyond high-volume low-end products

The Indian medical device market is largely import driven with a very fragmented domestic players landscape. While there are around 800 local medical device manufacturers across the country, only 10% have a turnover of more than ~US$7.3 million (INR 500 million).

The small-scale domestic players focus primarily on the consumables and disposables segment of the medical device industry, which include high-volume low-end products such as syringes, needles, and catheters.

The patient aids segment, including mostly hearing aids and pacemakers, is largely import dependent.

While the equipment and instruments segment and the implants segment are largely dominated by foreign players, they have recently seen an influx of local players that have customized their offerings to the Indian market. Karnataka-based Remidio Innovative Solutions has come up with a retinal imaging system, wherein the fundus of the eye connects to a mobile phone camera to take pictures of the retina to detect diabetic neuropathy. The device can also be used in remote areas and the images and results can be shared in real time on the treating doctor’s phone. Similarly, Karnataka-based Tricog Health Services has developed a cloud-based ECG machine for faster diagnosis. Several other players include Sattva, Cardiotrack, Forus Health, etc.

Understanding the needs and price-sensitivity of the Indian market, several leading global players have also created customized offerings for Indian consumers. For instance, GE Healthcare has come up with a compact CT scanner, which consumes less power, while Skanray Technologies has developed affordable X-ray imaging systems to meet the Indian needs.

We can expect a transition in the domestic sector, which will not only focus on high-volume low-end products but also look at entering the high-end innovative segment offering more affordable and locally customized solutions.

 Since the Indian government has fixed the inverted duty structure and provided other instrumental support to the domestic sector, we can expect a huge transition in the industry, which will not only focus on high-volume low-end products but also look at entering the high-end innovative segment offering more affordable and locally customized solutions. This may eventually result in a phase of consolidation, with foreign market leaders absorbing several innovative Indian start-ups and established players.

Medical Devices – India and China Make Space for Domestic Players

Chinese government also focuses on aiding local producers

China’s medical device market is the third largest globally, after the USA and Japan, and is expected to surpass Japan to become the second largest by 2020. In 2017, the industry was valued at US$58.6 billion, maintaining a double-digit growth over the previous three years.

Similar to the Indian market, the Chinese medical device sector continues to be dominated by foreign players through imports or their locally manufactured products. However, the market is also characterized by the presence of several local players (though smaller in size), especially in the drug-eluting stents, IVDs, and orthopedics segments.

While the foreign players hold the major chunk of innovative medical devices, the government has been taking several and significant steps to promote local companies. The government requires international players to have local legal entities in China for registration and licensing, thus China cannot serve only as an export market.

Another such major step is the regulatory proceedings under Order 650, which mandate clinical trials in China for all class II and III medical devices, with few exceptions. This prolongs the period for obtaining a license to 3-5 years and adds close to US$1-1.5 million (CNY 7-10 million) in costs. However, it has introduced a shorter channel, called the Green Channel, which provides a fast track review option. While the government introduced this to foster domestic innovation, foreign players can use it too. To be eligible for the Green Channel, the device must have a Chinese patent and it must be an innovative product with design progress and records. Products qualifying for the Green Channel are given priority in the registration review and are exempt from the US$90,000 registration fee.

In 2016, the government introduced a second priority review system for certain breakthrough products. Under this fast track channel, the need for a lengthy pre-qualification application process was further eliminated.

The government’s guidelines in its new healthcare reform called The Healthcare Reform 2020 also aim at reducing the share of imported medical devices and promoting locally produced counterparts. Several state-based medical tenders differentiate between local and imported products, giving preference to the former. Moreover, in some tenders a further distinction is made between domestic and foreign-owned local manufacturers. Thereby foreign companies that buy-out local companies to get an easier access into China are also considered as foreign players.

Under its Made in China 2025 plan, the government has also focused on domestic development and manufacturing of high-end and innovative medical devices. These devices include imaging equipment, medical robots, fully degradable vascular stents, and other high-caliber medical devices. The government aims to boost local production of such innovative and high-value devices by supporting the R&D infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities of local players. The government also provides extension of tax benefits for a period of three years if the investment made is used towards the development of medical devices.

Moreover, under the initiative, the government has aimed at increasing the use of locally produced devices by hospitals to 50% by 2020 and 70% by 2025. To pursue this goal, in September 2017, the Sichuan province mandated the use of locally-made devices in hospitals across 15 categories including respirators, PET, and CT scanners.

Just like India, China is also focusing on combating high distribution costs of medical devices, which in turn will make their prices more affordable for the general population. However, instead of capping prices, the government has introduced a Two Invoice System. The system limits the number of invoices between a supplier and the hospital to only two – the first invoice would be from the manufacturer/trading company to a government-appointed supplier/distributor (GAS) and the second invoice will be from the supplier to the hospital. This will eliminate most links in the non-transparent and fragmented distribution network in the Chinese medical device sector, which encompassed several distributors, sub-distributors, agents, etc. (the sub-distributors were engaged due to their personal and long-standing relationships with a set of hospitals). This new system is expected to reduce the corruption level by reducing the number of intermediaries and in turn improving efficiency and reducing prices for the patients.

Chinese players dominate several narrow industry segments

China’s medical device industry is dominated primarily by international players, especially with regards to high-end and innovative devices. Having said that, there are a lot of upcoming local players, although, most of them are still limited to the high-volume low-technology segments.

However, local Chinese players have managed to dominate several narrow industry segments, such as drug eluting stents, which is dominated by three domestic companies, namely Biosensors International, Lepu Medical, and MicroPort. Similarly, local players have managed to capture a significant share of the digital x-ray market, which was dominated by foreign players a few years back.

The orthopedic sector is also characterized by the presence of several large and small local players while a few dominating local players (Trauson, Kanghui, and Montage) have also been acquired by leading international players (Stryker, Medtronic, and Zimmer, respectively). Mindray and Microport, two of the largest Chinese medtech players (who have also successfully internationalized), have strong hold on the country’s patient monitoring equipment and orthopedic segment, respectively.

Moreover, while foreign companies enter the Chinese market to cater to the grade-3 hospitals and the high-end segment, the local players focus primarily on the grade-2 hospitals’ value segment (i.e. products that may not have as many functionalities but serve the basic need). The products in the value segment are more localized in terms of both need and pricing. Several international companies, such as Siemens, Philips, and GE, have also modified their product offerings and have come up with a lower-end range of devices to capture this market (as per experts, the value segment has the potential of becoming much larger in comparison with the high-end segment over the coming years).

Leading Chinese medical device companies are investing heavily in their R&D to move up the value chain with more innovative and high-segment products. Therefore, in the coming years, one can expect intense competition in the Chinese medical device sector.

Similarly, leading Chinese medical device companies are investing heavily in their R&D to move up the value chain with more innovative and high-segment products. Therefore, in the coming years, one can expect intense competition in the Chinese medical device sector, which may also lead to some consolidation. With growing government support to local companies as well as their ease to localize, it is expected that the domestic players will provide a stiff competition to international players unless the latter take action soon.

 

EOS Perspective

While the governments in both countries are taking significant and constructive steps to increase the reach of the medtech industry as well as boost domestic manufacturing, it is too far-fetched to believe that this will uproot the leading global players from the market. However, that being said, in case global companies such as GE, Siemens, and Philips do not continue to customize and localize their offerings as per the changing needs of these markets, they will definitely lose market share to domestic players.

If global companies do not continue to customize and localize their offerings, they will definitely lose market share to domestic players.

Moreover, with the upcoming regulatory changes, support to local production, and overall surge in demand (especially from tier-2 and tier-3 cities in India and grade-2 hospitals in China), the sector is likely to undergo a phase of consolidation in both countries.

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