5 Southeast Asia’s Business Sectors Thriving in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Southeast Asian countries are struggling with the new reality due to the COVID-19 outbreak in H1 2020. Hence, the short-term impacts on economic growth, business activity and individual behaviour are undeniable. However, there are several business sectors in Southeast Asia that got the upper hand in this situation, mainly because people are staying home and in urgent need to purchase several products and services to continue functioning and killing time. In this article, you will find the business sectors thriving in COVID-19 in Southeast Asia and hopefully, you can turn the learnings from their success to your advantage.

1. eCommerce and Online Grocery

The immediate impact of social distancing and staying home policy have resulted in a significant increase in eCommerce users and orders, especially in the fresh produce and FMCG categories. As panic buying took over, some online grocery services even saw an increase in their weekly average order of more than 300%. 

A Nielsen investigation mentioned that despite challenging circumstances and disruptions caused by COVID-19, Southeast Asia has high consumer confidence, growing middle classes and increasingly digitally savvy shoppers, which can offer manufacturers and retailers opportunities to drive long-term growth. By 2023, the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) expects online grocery sales across Asia’s top 12 grocery markets to grow to US$295bn, a 198% increase. Some of these companies are global names such as Amazon, Walmart, and Alibaba, but there are regional ones on the rise, too, for example, Lotte from South Korea, Rakuten from Japan, and Shopee from Taiwan.

Among some of the growing SEA startups are Lazada’s RedMart and NTUC’s FairPrice in Singapore, Thailand’s Central Group, Tesco Lotus and Villa Market, Grab partner HappyFresh (Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand), also Indonesia’s Gojek’s GoMart, and Tokopedia’s Sayurbox.

As stated on HappyFresh Malaysia on their website, “At HappyFresh, we have been doing everything we can to keep business running as usual. It is apparent that it is not the case as we see a significant and prolonged increase in demand across all our delivery areas. We’ve implemented a few changes for the time being and we believe we can continue to deliver your #FreshlyHandpicked groceries.” Said necessary changes include providing masks and gloves for the shoppers, delivery slots additions, and cashless-payment-only policy.

2. Delivery and On-demand Service 

Several on-demand services in the region are also getting the benefit of staying home policy. Some of them are MyKuya that deliver take-out or do personal shopping in the Philippines, Deliveroo and Foodpanda in Singapore, also GrabFood and GoFood in Indonesia and some Southeast Asia countries. 

Reported on Channel News Asia, food delivery platforms have seen a spike in rider signups as Singapore moves into the second week of a month-long “circuit breaker” period aimed at breaking the COVID-19 cycle of transmission. Deliveroo alone saw an 80 per cent increase in rider applications in the past month.

As eCommerce contributes to a high percentage of package delivery orders, this line of business is also experiencing the unprecedented increase of demand throughout March 2020. And it comes with several challenges to mitigate in order to thrive. 

First, “You have to comply with the extra preventive measurements related to COVID-19 safety concerns,” as stated by J&T Express Indonesia in their press release

Second, “You have to have the experience, technology, and infrastructure to scale up operations quickly to meet demand,” according to Head for NinjaVan Singapore, Ray Chou.

3. Health-tech and AI-powered Tech

Health-tech platforms saw usage surge to 70% since February 7 as public health concerns heightened over the virus outbreak. In Singapore, such a surge has been experienced by Doctor Anywhere and Doctor World since DORSCON Orange was announced. In Indonesia, visits to Alodokter app reach 2 million and info search on coronavirus in Halodoc app arises by 600%. 

When faced with a challenge like responding to the coronavirus outbreak, there are strong incentives to overcome these constraints quickly and put new technology to the test. In Singapore, technology powered by artificial intelligence (AI) is helping track the outbreak, clean hospitals, deliver supplies and develop vaccines. 

Emerging startups like Doctor A to Z and Doctor Raksa in Thailand are also getting attention from accelerator platforms like Plug and Play, indicating a bright future for this sector in the Southeast Asia startups landscape. 

4. Telecommuting and Online Learning Platforms 

Even before COVID-19 happened, Southeast Asia had already prided itself as the hub for telecommuters and digital nomads with popular destinations such as Bali, Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Ho Chi Minh City taking the lead, according to the Nomadlist. Today, with remote work systems applied among even the conventional companies, demands and usage are spiking on platforms like Google Hangout, Zoom, LogMeIn, and Slack.

Platforms for digital-enabled activity such as online learning, workout or meditation tracking & planning apps are seeing increased popularity, too. In Southeast Asia, that includes EdTech startups exploring online learning for professional growth, like CloudSwyft in the Philippines and SkillsFuture in Singapore. 

In addition, apps focusing on providing education supplements for stay at home students like VNPT and ViettelStudy in Vietnam, Ruangguru and Zenius in Indonesia, are getting extra attention from the respective local governments. 

5. Entertainment (Streaming & Gaming) 

The uptake of streaming by Southeast Asian audiences has been rapid. Then comes COVID-19. As screen time doubles during the staying home period, both global (Netflix, HBO, Apple TV+ , Amazon Prime Video) and regional (Viu, Iflix, GoPlay) streaming companies find themselves competing over-promising huge markets of over 600 million Southeast Asian people. Such competition had cost HOOQ of Singapore to file for voluntary liquidation per March 26, 2020. 

Boredom in a confining situation also calls for gaming addiction. In the US, video gaming is up an astounding 75%, per Verizon. Beyond other types of video games, Nintendo Switch’s Animal Crossing has been the most talked-about game worldwide, with +2056% spike since its launch on March 20, according to COVID-19 consumer impact tracker Glimpse.

The gaming industry in Southeast Asia has really flourished in the past decade, with a growing youth and middle-class population. Southeast Asia is the current fastest-growing mobile games market in the world, with expected growth at 17% year-over-year in 2019 according to Newzoo’s Global Games Market Report. Mobile revenue is nearly 70% of the region’s total games revenue, with PC at 22% and console at 8%. All segments are growing, but mobile is growing the fastest.

One company leading the pack is Mobile Premier League (MPL), India’s fastest growing esports platform. Last year, MPL announced its foray into Southeast Asia’s fastest-growing market: Indonesia. Today, over 40 million registered users engage with nearly 40 games on the platform, with the number of daily gameplays increased by 55% in March.

“We are seeing a 10-15 per cent weekly increase in the number of users on the platform”, an MPL spokesperson said.

Adding that World Cricket Championship, a popular mobile cricket game that they have recently onboarded, saw a staggering 400% increase in gameplays in March.

Since launching in Indonesia in May 2019, MPL just crossed 2.5 million registered users, up from 2 million at the start of this year.


This article was prepared by Rofianisa Nurdin

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


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