“We’ve been watching Gojek, Grab and G-Cash evolving into superapps,” Brad Jones said, naming leading internet players in Southeast Asia that have spun digital services into multi-purpose lifestyle and financial platforms.
He is working to make Wave Money, the company he runs as CEO, into Myanmar’s superapp, with the goal of turning its current 1.3 million monthly users to 11 million by 2024.
The $73.5 million investment for a minority stake in the company by Ant Group, announced in May and still pending regulatory approval, is meant to support that goal. (Yoma Strategic Holdings, which already owns 34% of Wave Money, announced in June it will take majority control.)
The first move in that direction will be unveiled in September, when the company relaunches its core money-transfer service, Wave Account, as WavePay.
Jones says this is partly a branding exercise. Wave Money began in 2016 as a money-transfer service and an app. It now has about 60,000 agents promoting its services to people and small businesses throughout the country. But ubiquity has its own kind of cost.
“We’re an Everyman type of brand,” Jones said. “Customers see us as a brand for people who don’t use banks: the garment factory worker sending money back to the family.”
The company’s assembled a punk rock band to tour Myanmar and sing the praises of WavePay to younger, digitally savvy people.
“We want consumers to do anything digitally inside of the app,” Jones said, such as topping up airtime, repaying loans, paying utilities, buying tickets, or playing games. Wave Money is building partnerships with local companies to serve up these services.
Along with the mohawks and studded belts, the relaunch is also about tech, with Ant playing a behind-the-scenes role.
“They have a billion monthly users so the I.P. they bring is extraordinary,” Jones said. “They’re looking at our stack and advising us on where we need to upgrade. We want a complete tech-stack refresh.”
Ant has stakes in a range of fintech and e-commerce companies around South and Southeast Asia, all building a meta Ant stack. Jones says one use case he’s considering is international remittances in partnership with other Ant-backed tech companies.
We’re looking at how to reinvest in the businessBrad Jones, Wave Money
“Ant has investment and operations in Thailand and Malaysia, which are big remittance corridors for Myanmar workers,” he said. Wave Money has not yet formally raised the idea with other companies in the Ant network, but since Ant came in, the company has been trading notes with its counterparts, many of which have a more mature business.
Ant’s parent Alibaba also acquired Myanmar’s biggest e-commerce business, Shop.com.mm, which now operates under Alibaba’s name.
The government has also given an indirect boost to Wave Money’s ambitions. The advent of COVID-19 prompted it to promote digitization as part of its economic relief measures. People can use e-wallets to pay taxes and receive government benefits; Wave Money is already being used to disburse pension payments.
Jones says Wave Money will not become a bank. It will work with partners to offer credit and other financial services. Wave Money’s job is to acquire enough consumer data to make it useful for credit decisions.
It has already begun a program for its own agents, the people who run kiosks or small shops that facilitate cash-in and cash-out transactions facilitated over the Wave Money mobile app.
Strategic partner Yoma Bank is offering microloans to these agents, based on their commission history with Wave Money, a metric that it can use in the absence of credit bureau or bank information. The agents enjoy access to affordable working capital – and lose their Wave Money agent status if they default.
Wave Money was early to money transfer in Myanmar but the past few years have seen a dozen competitors emerge, with every bank and telecom company entering the arena.
Asked specifically about KBZ, the country’s leading bank – with a digital partnership with Huawei – Jones said, “They are strong on the digital side. All banks and telecom companies see wallets as the future.”
Wave Money comes to the fight with a stable balance sheet, having broken even in 2018. “We’re now creating cash reserves and looking at how to reinvest in the business,” Jones said. “COVID-19 has hurt the economy, but it’s driven an acceleration in the use of electronic payments.”