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The Digitization Of Global Agriculture And Agtech Startups Poised To Profit

Bar chart and scatter chart showing livestock products consumption (Kcal/person/day) and beef and mutton consumption (Kcal/person/day) and percentage change in 2016 and 2050 (forecast). From 2006 to 2050, world livestock products consumption (Kcal/person/day) is forecast to increase 23% while world beef and mutton consumption (Kcal/person/day) is forecast to increase 30%.

The agtech startup scene is booming with venture capital funding climbing steadily over the past few years. According to data from PitchBook and US fund Finistere Ventures, the agtech industry raked in US$ 1.5 billion in investments in 2017, most of which were in early stage startups.

The flurry of interest in agtech startups is driven by a number of reasons. From climate change to increasing water scarcity, the global agriculture industry faces numerous long term challenges which, if unaddressed could affect global food availability in the future due food supply growth being far outpaced by food demand growth which is driven by a growing population and rising income levels.

Today’s approximately seven billion population is forecast to grow to 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050, according to data from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). Consequently, the demand for food is projected to be 60% greater than it is today.

Global rice consumption is poised to increase by around 1.1% annually from 2016 until 2025 when rice consumption is expected to reach 570 million tons according to market research firm IndexBox.

Per capita meat and dairy consumption is expected to see tremendous growth, particularly in China and India according to information from the World Resources Institute; global per capita, per day livestock products consumption is forecast to grow 23% while global per capita, per day consumption of beef and mutton is projected to grow 30% between 2006 and 2050.

Bar chart and scatter chart showing livestock products consumption (Kcal/person/day) and beef and mutton consumption (Kcal/person/day) and percentage change in 2016 and 2050 (forecast). From 2006 to 2050, world livestock products consumption (Kcal/person/day) is forecast to increase 23% while world beef and mutton consumption (Kcal/person/day) is forecast to increase 30%.

Yet, resource availability is growing increasingly scarce due to pollution and climate change among other reasons. Globally, agriculture uses 70% of freshwater worldwide according to data from the National Groundwater Association, making it the biggest consumer of the world’s freshwater. Water consumption for domestic use is second, accounting for about 10% of global freshwater consumption.

With agriculture having to feed a population of more than 9 billion by 2050, water demand from the agriculture sector is expected to increase substantially in the decades to come; without improved water-use efficiency measures, water consumption by the agriculture sector is expected to increase 20% globally by 2050. However with climate change affecting rainfall patterns, the world’s freshwater resources are being depleted faster than they are being replenished by rainfall.

About 50% of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture. However, soil erosion and pollution have resulted in the loss of nearly 33% of global arable land in the past 40 years, at a rate faster than the ability for natural processes to replenish diminished soil, according to a study by the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures. The study found that soil erosion had been occurring at a rate of up to 100 times faster than the rate of soil formation.

Environmental challenges coupled with rapid population growth and urbanization has resulted in a steady decline in arable land per capita; according to data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), arable land per capita declined from 0.35 hectares per person in 1965 to about 0.19 hectares per person in 2015, which is about a 40% decline over four decades.

Line graph showing global arable land (hectares per person) from 1961 to 2015. From 1961 until 2015, global arable land per capita has declined by about 40%.

Therefore, in order to feed the world’s population that is growing in number and purchasing power, the agriculture industry is compelled to solve these challenges by achieving greater productivity gains such as by reducing input cost, increasing yield, and increasing environmental sustainability and thereby increase food supply with limited resources.

Technology is emerging as a key solution and this growing digitization of the global agriculture industry is an opportunity numerous agtech startups are working to profit from. According to a report by Accenture, the market for digital agriculture services will expand 12.2% between 2014 and 2020 to reach US$ 4.55 billion.

WeFarmUp – France’s Airbnb of agriculture

Launched in 2015, French startup WeFarmUp could be described as the Airbnb of agriculture. The farm machinery rental platform allows French farmers with underused machinery to rent equipment to other farmers in need of such machinery which ultimately boosts farmer bottom lines since underutilized machinery could be converted into assets generating extra income and farmers can be relieved of the potential debt burden that comes with purchasing costly farm machinery.

Although France is the biggest recipient of EU farm aid under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), French farmers struggle with debt and weak farm incomes which are more volatile than wages and salaries in other sectors according to a report from the European Commission.

With the UK, a net contributor to the EU budget, reportedly not contributing to the CAP after 2020, the subsequent budgetary gap could result in a downward review of the Common Agricultural Policy which represents one of the biggest expenditures under the EU budget.

It has been estimated in 2016 that without the current level of subsidies under the CAP, more than 50% of all French farms would not break even, which suggests that any reduction in subsidies under the CAP could result in bigger losses for France’s farmers. This presents an opportunity for a platform such as  WeFarmUp which indicates bright prospects for the startup. WeFarmUp is currently focused on France but plans to expand to Belgium.

 Gold Farm and EM3 AgriServices – disrupting India’s agri sector with Farming as a Service (FaaS) platforms

Agriculture is one of the most important sectors of India’s economy. The country has the world’s second largest amount of agricultural land after the United States, is the world’s second largest producer of horticultural crops and fruits after China, and is the world’s largest producer and consumer of dairy.

However, the industry is challenged by low productivity and low profitability. While at least 50% of the country’s workforce depends on agriculture, the sector contributes just about 15% of India’s gross domestic product.

India lags behind countries such as China in terms of crop yields. For instance, India produces 2.4 tons per hectare (t/ha) of rice (nearly half of China’s yield of 4.7 t/ha) and 3.15 t/ha of wheat (compared with China’s 4.9 t/ha).

According to data from the World Bank, as of 2016, agricultural value added per worker in India amounted to US$ 1,202, far behind the world average of US$ 16,730, ranking India 119th in terms of agricultural productivity out of 155 countries.

Farm mechanization could help boost crop productivity however, much of India’s farmers have small-scale farming operations and are often heavily in debt, which constrains their ability to invest in expensive farm machinery; almost half of India’s agricultural households are in debt and the average farm land size in India is estimated at 1.15 hectares according to India’s Agriculture Census conducted in 2015. 65% of Indian farmers are marginal farmers holding less than one hectare of land, while less than 1% have large land holdings of 10 hectares or more.

The challenge is an opportunity for Indian agtech startups such as EM3 Agri Services and Gold Farm which manage platforms that aim to improve India’s poor farm mechanization levels by allowing farmers to rent, rather than purchase, expensive but much needed farm machinery. Using their respective mobile apps, farmers choose and book the machinery required and pay based on the amount of time the machines are used (hence the term Farm as a Service) which cost-efficiently boosts farm productivity.

Of India’s approximately 120 million farmers, just about one-quarter or roughly 30 million are equipped with smartphones. However, smartphone and mobile internet penetration are on an uptrend among rural Indians, including rural segments such as farmers, aided by increasing affordability of smartphones and mobile data, as well as government initiatives to help digitize Indian farming as part its Digital India program, such as the Government of India’s AgriMarket app.

This factor coupled with an increasing trend among younger Indians to move away from agriculture, rising input costs and rising labor costs, could result in greater demand for FaaS solutions such as the outsourced farm mechanization services offered by Gold Farm and EM3 Agri Services. According to data from Bain & Company, total investor funding into FaaS startups in India is currently about US$ 105 million to US$ 115 million, and more than 40% of funding rounds are at “series stage”.

Gold Farm partners with local entrepreneurs and farmers who have the financial wherewithal to invest in farm machinery and helps them with demand generation by renting out the machines to India’s rural, small-scale farmers through the Gold Farm platform, creating a win-win situation for all parties. The payback time for the entrepreneur is reportedly around two years.

Stellapps – improving productivity along India’s dairy supply chain through IoT and Big Data

 India is the world’s largest producer and consumer of dairy and the country has been the largest milk producing country in the world since 1997.

However, despite per capita milk consumption in India steadily rising over the past few years, there is still ample potential for growth; Indian per capita milk consumption is just about half that of countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Bar chart showing annual per capita milk consumption (kilograms per capita) during 2012 and 2017 in Ukraine, New Zealand, Australia, United States Russia and India.

As India’s middle class expands and incomes grow, protein needs are expected to grow as well which should drive demand for milk and milk products. India’s urban dwellers being wealthier on average tend to consume more milk per person than the average rural Indian.

But with just about 31% of the one billion plus Indian population living in urban areas, there is tremendous potential for growth in per capita milk consumption as India’s remaining half a billion or so population urbanize over the longer term.

While India could meet this additional demand by growing its huge livestock population which is already the largest in the world (58% of buffaloes and 15% of cattle), the country may be better served by increasing efficiency and productivity in its dairy industry; according to India’s Agriculture Ministry, the average milk yield for cross-bred cattle stands at around 7.1 kg per day which is significantly lower than developed countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Israel which boast daily milk yields of 25.6, 32.8 and 38.6.

Indian agtech startup Stellapps Technologies, which is backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is aiming to address this issue. The company’s solution uses technologies such as IoT, Big Data, Cloud and data analytics to help dairy farmers, cooperatives and private dairies optimize their dairy operations and covers all aspects of the dairy supply chain across milk production, procurement, cold chain, animal insurance and farmer payments. The full dairy technology solution, brand named SmartMoo™ uses different types of sensors which gather data through wearable devices. For instance, on the farm, data on the animal’s health and yield is gathered,  while data on milk quality (such as fat content) is gathered at dairy collection sites which assists with pricing. The data is automatically sent to relevant parties across the supply chain such as the dairy farmer and dairy companies with the ultimate aim of helping participants improve efficiency, quality and productivity by improving milk yields, improving animal health, reducing pilferage, spoilage etc.

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Southeast Asia: Emerging Wave Of Opportunities In Booming Digital Economy

Bar chart showing people aged 0-24 (number., and percentage of the country's population) in Southeast Asian countries namely Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Timor Leste, and Brunei.

Venture capital funding into Southeast Asian startups tripled in 2017 from US$ 2.52 billion in 2016 to US$ 7.86 billion in 2017 according to data from Tech in Asia.

The flurry of activity in Southeast Asia’s startup scene is not surprising; the 11-country region has a population of about 650 million, about 42% of which are aged 24 and below according to data from the CIA World Factbook, and about 51% of the total population (equal to about 260 million) are active internet users with about 90% of them accessing the internet using their smartphones according to a report by Google and Temasek.

Bar chart showing people aged 0-24 (number., and percentage of the country's population) in Southeast Asian countries namely Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Singapore, Timor Leste, and Brunei.

HSBC revealed that Southeast Asia is the world’s fastest growing internet region with nearly four million users coming online for the next five years, representing a user base of 480 million by 2020.

Southeast Asians are also growing increasingly wealthy; in 2012, Southeast Asia’s middle class population (people with disposable income of $16-$100 a day) was estimated at 190 million people. According to Nielsen, by 2020, the figure is expected to more than double to 400 million.

With a youthful, increasingly digitally savvy population along with rising disposable incomes, Southeast Asia has the ingredients to fuel a major expansion of its digital economy over the next few years thereby triggering a wave of investment opportunities, making the region an attractive location for investors and entrepreneurs exploring opportunities in the digital space.

The digital revolution has already given birth to a number of homegrown unicorns such as Alibaba-backed Lazada (Southeast Asia’s e-commerce leader), Google-and-Tencent-backed-Go-Jek, Grab, Razer, Tokopedia, Traveloka and Sea to name a few however the region’s blossoming startup ecosystem is in good position to produce numerous more in the coming years. A report by Google and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund Temasek found that that Southeast Asia’s digital economy is growing at a CAGR of 27% and is expected to expand four-fold from about US$ 50 billion in 2017 to US$ 200 billion by 2025.

By destination, Singapore and Indonesia raked in the lion’s share of 2017 funding dollars, while by sector, fintech, e-commerce and gaming took in the most investments according to Tech in Asia. However, there are untapped opportunities in other countries within the bloc and in other sectors.

 

Education

Education is big business in Southeast Asia and private education is on the rise partly thanks to an expanding middle class. Private education spend in Southeast Asia is estimated to have reached nearly US$ 60 billion in 2015 according to a report by global advisory firm EY. Education technology or “edtech” has tremendous potential in the region; London-based consultancy firm IBIS Capital estimates the global edtech market will expand three-fold between 2013 and 2020 to reach $252 billion in 2020. During that time, it is expected that the Asia-Pacific region will see its edtech market go from 46% of the global market to 54%.

Much of the growth is likely to stem from India and China which have the world’s largest and second-largest youth population i.e. those aged 10-24 (India has 356 million and China has 269 million people aged between 10-24).

However, Southeast Asia is also poised to ride the opportunity driven partly by Indonesia which is home to 67 million 10-24 year olds, the world’s third largest youth population. And unlike the hyper-competitive markets of ride-hailing, e-commerce, travel, food delivery and mobile payments, Southeast Asia’s “edtech” market is a relatively uncontested territory; while China and India both have an edtech startup to their list of homegrown unicorns (China has Yuanfudao and India has Byju’s), Southeast Asia has yet to find its own. There are however a few startups worth watching. One of them is Indonesian edtech startup Ruangguru (literally means “teacher’s room” in Indonesian) which is reportedly the largest marketplace for private tutoring in Indonesia, a country which despite having the world’s third largest youth population, ranks relatively poorly education-wise; a study commissioned by the Network for Education Watch Indonesia (JPPI) reveals that the index of education services in Indonesia in 2016 is at the same level as Honduras and Nigeria but lower than the Philippines and Ethiopia.

 

Health

Southeast Asian’s healthcare market is a growth opportunity supported by solid fundamentals; a growing population along with the rise of an increasingly affluent middle class is leading to an increase in Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. According to the World Health Organization, 55% of deaths in the region are due to NCDs. This is creating an increased demand for healthcare however in terms of supply, the availability of medical facilities, equipment and manpower is relatively inadequate with the exception of Singapore; a ranking of 191 countries by the World Health Organizations of the world’s health systems ranks Singapore in 6th position while other Southeast Asian countries appear down the list; Brunei is 40th, Thailand is 47th, Malaysia 49th, Philippines is 60th, Indonesia is 92nd, Vietnam is 160th, Laos is 165th, Cambodia is 174th, and Myanmar is 190th.

Singaporean startup DocDoc is a healthcare platform that enables patients to find and schedule appointments with healthcare professionals overseas. The platform holds promise as a solution to connect affluent patients in Southeast Asia (Indonesia is a priority for the startup) seeking quality treatment in neighboring countries.

Go-Jek-backed Indonesian e-health startup Halodoc has taken a more holistic view in tackling Indonesia’s healthcare system; founded by the son of the founder of Mensa Group, one of Indonesia’s largest healthcare companies, HaloDoc has built a network of nearly 20,000 licensed doctors and about 1,000 certified pharmacies, and forged partnerships with service providers such as Go-Med (a medicine delivery service owned by Indonesian ride-hailing startup Go-Jek) and ApotikAntar (a medicine delivery service) to offer  an integrated healthcare solution for patients.

 

Home Services

Asia Pacific is the fastest growing region in the world for sales of home improvement products according to Euromonitor International.

While China is the biggest market in the region, Southeast Asia is positioned to account for a significant share of the market driven by strong housing demand (a survey by PropertyGuru found that home ownership is a major aspiration for Southeast Asian consumers), and rising disposable incomes.

The opportunity is a boon not just for sales of home improvement products but also for home improvement services as time-strapped, middle class home owners turn to service providers for their home improvement needs.

However, as much of these service providers are small businesses and individuals, they often have little to no brand recognition and are often hard to locate which means customers are forced to find such professionals through referrals from friends and co-workers.

Malaysian startups Kaodim, ServisHero and Recommend.my are aiming to capitalize on the opportunity.

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China’s Geely: A Formidable Global Automaker In The Making?

Bar chart showing the world's top 10 fastest growing car brands in 2017 (by YoY sales volume growth %).

Chinese automaker Geely (HKG: 0175) (OTCMKTS: GELYF) is on a hot streak. The company reported record sales in 2017 selling 1.24 million units, a 63% year-on-year increase, emerging as the world’s second-fastest growing automaker by sales volume in 2017.

Bar chart showing the world's top 10 fastest growing car brands in 2017 (by YoY sales volume growth %).

Much of Geely’s sales were concentrated in its home country China, the world’s largest passenger car market, which accounted for over 99% of the brand’s sales volume in 2017 according to data from its annual report. Geely’s strong sales performance in China helped boost its market share to 5.06% of China’s passenger car market in 2017, an increase of 1/75% from the previous year.

Outside China, Geely’s subsidiary Volvo Cars which Zhejiang Geely Holding Group acquired in 2010 is also on a run, reporting its fourth straight year of record sales; revenues grew 17% in 2017 to 210.9 billion Swedish crowns while operating profit rose jumped 28% to 14.1 billion ($1.76 billion) from 11.0 billion in 2016. Volvo sold 571,577 Volvo cars globally last year, up 7% thanks to strong sales in China its biggest market, which accounted for 20% of Volvo’s sales in 2017.

After years of lackluster performance under the Ford Motor Co umbrella, the upscale Sweden-based Volvo Cars is now a success story, enjoying a remarkable turnaround under Geely’s ownership.

Global expansion

For Geely, already a major automaker in China, Volvo’s success could be a sign of bigger things to come as Geely sets its sights on going global. The company has been aggressively amassing a formidable portfolio of international car brands thereby expanding its geographical reach and broadening it technical expertise; the company gained an avenue into Europe through its acquisition of Volvo Cars while its 49.9% stake in Malaysia’s Proton Holdings Bhd gives it an inroad into Southeast Asia.

Geely’s 51% stake in British sports car maker Lotus Cars will give the company a presence in the sports car segment while its acquisition of American flying-car startup Terrafugia gives it access to the nascent flying car industry. The investments may also play a part in uplifting the brand’s image going forward; having started life as a cheap, low-cost, no-frills car brand, Geely has already come a long way since its inception boasting four design studios around the world (specifically in Los Angeles, Barcelona, Gothenburg and Shanghai) employing over 500 designers (headed by Geely’s chief designer Peter Horbury who formerly worked at Volvo and Ford), and four R&D centers (in Hangzhou Bay, Ningbo, Coventry and Gothenburg) employing nearly 7,000 full-time engineers.

With average e-x-factory selling prices of its vehicles steadily climbing from RMB 47,872 per unit in 2012 to RMB 73,550 per unit in 2017 according to its latest annual report, the company is now making inroads into the midscale auto segment with its new car brand Lynk & Co which is being developed with technology from Gothenburg-based Volvo.

“Born global and connected”, the millennial-aimed Lynk & Co car brand which made headlines as the “most connected car ever” (a ‘smartphone on wheels’) is unique in several aspects; the company’s cars can be purchased outright, or they could be leased, or they could be subscribed to via the company’s subscription model, or they could just be borrowed via the car’s unique ‘sharing’ feature. The company’s focus on mobility rather than car ownership means it fills a niche that taxi companies, ride-sharing solutions such as Uber, and traditional auto companies such as Honda do not fulfill. Lynk & Co is also differentiating itself by building a direct-to-consumer sales model, allowing customers to purchase a car online thereby bypassing traditional dealer networks.

Geely’s new marque holds promise; in November last year, Lynk & Co held a three-day sales campaign in China for the brand’s ‘01’ SUV model. In just over two minutes, the stock of 6,000 vehicles was sold out.

However, while the Geely brand is expected to continue its goal of being a leading automotive brand in China, Lynk & Co which is European designed and engineered, aspires to be a global auto brand, competing against global car giants such as Volkswagen and Ford. Lynk & Co plans to launch sales of its cars in Europe in 2019 and in the United States in 2020. The brand is aiming to sell 500,000 cars globally by 2021.

Over in Southeast Asia, Geely has been busy trying to turn-around struggling Malaysian car company Proton, which it acquired last year. Established in 1983, Proton reached its zenith in 1996 when the company accounted for 64% of Malaysia’s car sales, and exported its cars to over 50 countries including Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Brunei. That was also the year Proton acquired sports car brand Lotus Cars.

Fast forward to today, Proton’s market share has dwindled to less than 15% with sales dropping to 70,991 last year from 72,291 units in 2016. Meanwhile local rival Perodua, and Japanese car company Honda are flying high in the country with market leader Perodua’s sales exceeding 200,000 units and Honda notching record-breaking sales of 109,511 last year.

Bar chart showing Malaysia passenger car sales (number of units) by car brand, 2016 and 2017.

Determined to regain lost ground, Proton is now on an aggressive transformation path with CEO Dr Li Chunrong introducing multiple changes for Proton dealerships and service centers in the country aimed at strengthening the brand and improving customer experience, as well as tapping into Geely’s technical know-how and expertise to help Proton expand its current model lineup to include SUVs (Proton is reportedly developing its first SUV model from Geely’s best selling SUV model the “Boyue”), and move up from producing fossil fuel vehicles to plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles. Malaysia is Southeast Asia’s third largest automotive market after Thailand and Indonesia, and if Geely could repeat its Volvo turnaround success story with the currently loss-making Proton, Geely could be sitting on a potentially profitable investment as well as a platform to develop a beachhead in Southeast Asia.

Under its former owner Proton, iconic British sports car brand Lotus Cars struggled due to lack of funds and currently offers a handful of models dating back several years. However under its new deep-pocketed owner, Geely, it could be light at the end of the tunnel for Lotus Cars as Geely could do for Lotus Cars what it did for Volvo; offer much-needed financial support along with a relatively hands-off management to allow Lotus Cars to unlock its full potential.

The partnership could also result in a cross-pollination of technology, know-how and possibly other resources as well such as suppliers and distribution networks among Geely’s portfolio of automotive marques similar to the way the Geely-Volvo tie-up gave birth to Lynk & Co which uses technology jointly developed by the two companies. Volvo and Lotus Cars are reportedly exploring options on sharing their technologies (Lotus Cars is renowned for lightweight engineering while Volvo is known for safety features and hybrid drivetrains).  The resulting partnerships could generate significant cost savings such as through shared development costs and procurement costs.

Eye on costs 

While Geely’s global aspirations could boost top-line growth, such international expansion plans are expensive and hence if unchecked could negatively impact bottom-line performance resulting in poor investment returns. However, Geely seems to have its eye on costs as well. Geely’s new marque Lynk & Co is reportedly aiming for success by being “brutally simple” by limiting model variations that rotate seasonally and offering limited options which the management believes is not only cost effective since production costs are lower but also offers a better, less-complex customer experience since Lynk & Co cars will be sold at a flat rate throughout Europe so buyers won’t have the trouble of haggling for a discount.

Although the car companies under Geely’s umbrella operate independently and maintain their own unique identity, they are forging close ties to cut costs. Volvo is deepening links with Geely and Lynk & Co to cut electric car development costs for instance by sharing knowledge and thereby cutting costs on developing expensive new technologies.

Volvo is also exploring ways to share technology with Lotus Cars for mutual benefit while Proton is depending on know-how from Geely to develop its first SUV.

Lynk & Co meanwhile has tapped into Volvo and Geely’s jointly developed CMA platform (Compact Modular Architecture platform), a cost-effective move, particularly since the new CMA platform was developed to be highly scalable, allowing multiple models to be developed using the same platform.

Geely’s global ambitions are clear and how far the company gets remains to be seen, however the company is worth watching.

 

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Reliance Industries: India’s Answer To Amazon, Alibaba?

Amazon, Alibaba and Reliance Industries have wide business ecosystems - LD Investments

Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) are two of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies, each boasting a market value of about half a trillion dollars (specifically speaking, Amazon is more than half a trillion dollars while Alibaba is slightly less).

Both companies boast top-line figures that surpass the Gross Domestic Product of entire countries – Amazon raked in US$ 178 billion in revenues in 2017 while Alibaba earned CNY 250.3 billion or about US$ 40 billion for the year ended March 2018, higher than the 2017 GDP figures of countries such as Estonia (US$ 26 billion), Iceland (US$ 24 billion), Cyprus (US$ 21.6 billion), Afghanistan (US$ 20.8 billion), Jamaica (US$ 14 billion), Brunei (US$ 12.1 billion), Fiji (US$ 5 billion), and Maldives (US$ 4.5 billion) according to data from the World Bank.

Both companies also serve sizeable user bases the number of which is larger than the population of entire countries; Alibaba’s over 600 million monthly active users would make it the third most populous country in the world after China and India, while Amazon’s over 300 million monthly active users would make it the fourth most populous country in the world after China, India and the United States.

Both companies owe much of their initial success to the rapid growth of e-commerce in their respective home countries which make up the world’s two biggest e-commerce markets; Alibaba in China (the world’s biggest e-commerce market) and Amazon in the United States (the world’s second biggest e-commerce market).

Both companies continue to dominate their respective home markets, with Amazon holding a market share of nearly 40% in 2017 while Alibaba commanded a market share of about 55%.

With India emerging as e-commerce’s next major opportunity (Morgan Stanley estimates India’s e-commerce market will grow from US$ 15 billion in 2016 to US$ 200 billion in 2026, representing at a CAGR of nearly 30% between 2017 and 2026), could the South Asian nation join China and the United States in producing its own e-commerce juggernaut?

India’s crowded e-commerce landscape boasts its own share of homegrown online retailers notable examples include Flipkart, Snapdeal, Alibaba-backed Paytm Mall (the e-commerce arm of India’s top digital payment firm Paytm) and ShopClues. With Reliance Industries (RIL) (NSE:RELIANCE) (BOM:500325) and Future Group planning on entering India’s e-commerce sector, competition is set to intensify in an already hyper-competitive market where the majority of players are yet to show profits.

For instance, India’s second-biggest online retailer and e-commerce veteran Amazon’s loss from its international business jumped nearly 30% to US$ 3 billion in 2017 from US$ 1.28 billion in 2016, with much of it due to massive investments in India. Meanwhile India’s leading homegrown e-commerce player, Flipkart saw its losses balloon by 68% during the fiscal year ended March 2018.

With e-commerce making up just 3%-4% of India’s US$ 670 billion retail sector, it is still early days for India’s e-commerce market which is undergoing rapid change. Founded in 2010, local competitor Snapdeal, at one time was India’s number two e-commerce platform after Flipkart, while Amazon India stood at number three. By mid-2016, Snapdeal found itself dislodged from its second-placed position by deep pocketed Amazon India, which began life a couple of years after Snapdeal. With current market leader Flipkart holding retaining its crown (with a market share of 39.5%, ahead of Amazon’s 31% share) the market has so far evolved to be a two-horse race with Flipkart (which was bought up by Walmart this year) and Amazon fighting tooth and nail for gold while ShopClues, Snapdeal and Alibaba-backed PayTM Mall battle for bronze.

Although late to the party, oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance Industries possesses several competitive advantages from an extensive brick-and-mortar network to a wide eco-system of businesses which could help it emerge as a formidable player in India’s e-commerce war.

Deep Pockets

Amid stiffening competition, e-commerce platforms are investing substantial sums and burning money heavily as they vie for a slice of India’s promising e-commerce market. Aiming for dominance, Amazon, the world’s largest e-taiiler, has a massive US$ 5 billion war chest while local rival and current market leader Flipkart managed to add nearly US$ 4 billion to its kitty thanks to a funding round from investors such as Softbank, Tencent, Microsoft and eBay last year. The company reduced its burn to just US$ 17-18 million a month while arch rival Amazon continues to burn twice that amount estimated at over US$ 40 million. Against this backdrop, it is likely that smaller, cash-strapped rivals will gradually find themselves edged out by deep-pocketed players. Reliance Industries Ltd being a Fortune 500 company and India’s biggest private sector corporation could have the financial wherewithal to compete against the incumbents similar to the manner in which its telecom arm, Reliance Jio disrupted India’s telecom sector in less than two years of operation to emerge as India’s fourth largest telco after Bharti Airtel, Vodafone and Idea Cellular.

Extensive brick-and-mortar store network

Omnichannel retail experiences (offering customers a seamless online and offline shopping experience) are increasingly becoming commonplace in mature retail markets such as China and the United States. India is expected to follow suit and retailers such as Pepperfry, Adidas, Urban Ladder, FirstCry and Nykaa are among the few in India to have already incorporated click-and-mortar shopping experiences.

Unsurprisingly, Amazon and Flipkart have also been busy plotting their own omnichannel retail strategies; last year, Amazon made its first investment in an offline retailer in India when it picked up a 5% stake in Shoppers Stop, a Mumbai-based department store chain for INR 179.24 crore (about US$ 28 million).

Under the partnership, the duo will conduct “joint marketing” initiatives which will see Amazon open Amazon Experience Centres showcasing Amazon’s products across all 80 Shoppers Stop outlets located in 38 cities in India.

Not wanting to be outdone, Flipkart is reportedly in talks to acquire a 8%-10& stake in Future Lifestyle Fashions Ltd (NSE:FLFL), the listed fashion company owned by Future Group, one of India’s largest retail companies with a presence in grocery, electronics, home furnishings and furniture with over 17 million square feet of retail space in more than 240 cities.

Future Lifestyle is one of India’s largest branded apparel retailers in India with a total retail space of over 5 million sq ft across 400 stores in 90 cities.

Flipkart claims to have a 70% market share in India’s online fashion retail space. A deal with Future Lifestyle Fashions could open an avenue for Flipkart to establish an offline presence in India’s fashion retail sector thereby helping it solidify its market leading position as India’s leading online fashion retailer.

While the e-commerce giants have bolstering their offline presence, Reliance Retail already has an extensive brick and mortar store network throughout India which the company can leverage as part of an omnichannel retail strategy. Similar to Future Group which was founded in 1997, Reliance Retail which was founded nearly a decade later in 2006 is one of India’s largest retail enterprises with a presence in grocery, electronics, furniture and fashion. The company boasts a store network of over 3,700 stores across 750 cities with an area of over 14.5 million square feet of retail space according to the company’s December 2017 quarterly report.

Reliance Jio

There has been a noticeable trend in developed markets where media companies such as Google, Amazon and Alibaba which deliver copious amounts of video and other content are increasingly morphing into telecom companies and telecom companies such as AT&T and Verizon are morphing into media companies.

In other words, the “pipe” owners i.e., the telecom companies are increasingly taking control of the content that flows through their “pipes” while the content owners i.e., the media companies, are increasingly evolving into pipe owners.

Google offers high-speed internet service through its subsidiary Google Fiber, Amazon has reportedly been considering the prospect of becoming an ISP in Europe, and Alibaba is reportedly looking at expanding into the telecom sector.

AT&T, America’s second-largest wireless carrier merged with Time Warner while Verizon, America’s largest wireless carrier, scooped up AOL in 2015 and Yahoo last year, and then clubbed the two companies together to launch its digital content subsidiary Oath Inc with the goal building a media business that could compete with the likes Google and Facebook.

Over in India, a similar trend has been unfolding and Reliance Industries has made its moves. Reliance Industries owns the “pipes” via its telecom arm Reliance Jio and the company also offers its own unique content via its plethora of content apps such as JioCinema, JioMusic etc.

In response to rising net neutrality concerns, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) last year proposed guidelines in favor of net neutrality; however, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) or “content “edge” providers (a network of computer servers set up inside an ISP which can deliver digital content faster to end users) do not fall under the proposed regulations and thus integrated operators such as Reliance Jio and Bharti Airtel are poised to benefit as they could leverage this CDN exemption and offer their content at lower prices to their subscribers.

Content Delivery Networks are often built and owned by third-party companies such as Akamai Technologies Inc and Cloudflare, however, some deep-pocketed content providers such as Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, Microsoft and Alibaba have built their own private CDNs. The net neutrality debate focuses on ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and not CDNs.

Wide ecosystem of businesses

Amazon, Alibaba and Reliance Industries have wide business ecosystems - LD Investments

With businesses spanning cloud computing to video streaming Amazon and Alibaba are much more than just e-commerce companies. Interestingly, Indian stalwart Reliance Industries also boasts a highly diversified ecosystem of businesses which combined could prove to be a powerful force.

In brick-and-mortar retailing, Amazon owns the Whole Foods grocery chain, Alibaba owns Hema Supermarkets (盒马) while Reliance has Reliance Retail.

All three companies have logistics arms – Amazon with Amazon Logistics, Alibaba with its Cainiao and Reliance Industries with Reliance Logistics.

In video streaming, Amazon has Amazon Video while Alibaba has video hosting platform Youku Tudou. Relince has JioCinema.

In music streaming, Aamzon has Amazon Music, Alibaba has Ali Music and Reliance Industries has JioMusic.

All three companies have ventured into production of digital video content; Amazon through Amazon Studios, Alibaba through Alibaba Pictures and Reliance Industries via its partnership with Roy Kapur Films (RKF) which will produce original digital video content as “Jio Originals”.

In the mobile wallet space, Amazon has Amazon Pay, Alibaba has Alipay and Reliance has Jio Money.

In messaging apps, Amazon has Amazon Chime, Alibaba has DingTalk and Reliance Industries has JioChat,

All three companies have their feet in the cloud business as well with Amazon offering cloud services through AWS, Alibaba through Alibaba Cloud and Reliance through JioCloud.

All three companies have a direct or indirect involvement in media as well, with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post, Alibaba founder Jack Ma owning the South China Morning Post and Reliance Industries holding Network 18.

Such a wide eco-system has several advantages; the businesses will reinforce each other as existing consumers and companies become more likely to use their platforms which not only generate diverse sources of revenue but vast quantities of consumer and business data as well, which ultimately could be used towards further business expansion.

RIL Chairman Mukesh Ambani famously said, “Data is the new oil and India does not need to import it”.

While Reliance Industries is a latecomer to India’s e-commerce arena and the company’s success depends on several factors such as execution, Reliance’s entry into e-commerce cannot be taken lightly; the Indian giant could be a formidable competitor, disrupting the current status quo similar to the manner in which it reshaped the Indian telecom sector within a few years of operation.