Talk to most experts in Southeast Asia about the potential of ecommerce in the region and they’ll find common ground: the real bottleneck towards growth lies primarily in logistics that can’t keep up.
Decrepit infrastructure, outdated customs processes, and the sprawling landscape all add up to a scenario notoriously murky to navigate. Indonesia, for example, is the largest internet market in Southeast Asia and it’s expected to drive the bulk of growth in ecommerce. Economic indicators are rosy and consumers have higher disposable incomes.
The problem? It’s a massive archipelago consisting of 17,000 islands. Ecommerce deliveries can take up to a week if delivery is even offered at all, leaving customers frustrated and uncertain whether they’d engage in a purchase again.
It’s a similar story in the Philippines, which has over 7,000 islands. Countries like Thailand may be geographically easier to navigate but it’s not without its own set of challenges: the Kingdom witnesses the second-highest road accidents in the world, just marginally behind Libya.
But simply adding more delivery vehicles and hiring people to drive them won’t instantly solve the problem. Within the logistics industry, there are issues such as fuel pilferage, lack of adherence to safety rules and regulations, and rash driving. These problems entail an inherent cost for fleet operators ordinarily passed on to end consumers in the form of delivery fees. And that’s a cost which can be avoided.
Thai company Drvr is trying to tackle these challenges head-on. It uses telematics, which allows devices to send and receive information across large distances, to track vehicle performance, driver behavior, unscheduled stops, and so on. Drvr installs an array of sensors inside vehicles to help managers keep track of the fleet and also provides a SaaS platform that displays an overall dashboard. It can be modified and tweaked according to client requirements, of which Mercedes Benz is one.
CEO and co-founder David Henderson, who hails from Seychelles, first moved to Thailand in 2014 following a stint at a telematics firm in Australia. The challenges of solving mammoth problems in Asia was the primary motive – he had originally pitched the idea to his previous employer but they were far too risk-averse for his liking. So he decided to quit and branch out on his own.
“The product we had two years ago was simply a GPS tracking product,” David tells ecommerceIQ. “We’ve matured significantly as a company since, and it’s fair to say that we have one of the most advanced fleet management and IOT platforms in the world now.”
Why start in Thailand?
David explains that his target market isn’t just the logistics sector, but any business that owns and operates a large fleet of vehicles. This could entail players in transportation as well as construction. Such businesses need to keep a keen eye on the health of their vehicles to make sure that drivers and support staff aren’t running amok.
“Thailand is a natural market for us because there are over 3 million vehicles manufactured here annually with commercial vehicles accounting for half that number. That’s the primary reason we’re based here,” he explains.
Drvr’s core solution aims to make fleet operators operate efficiently. It achieves this via a number of ways – the first, as mentioned earlier, is via the predictive analytics platform it offers. The driver version of its app also combines gamification elements to help coax drivers into following the rules. There are rewards every time they adhere to a certain standard such as the maintenance of an average speed or keeping unscheduled stops to a minimum – these could be in the form of cash bonuses or enhanced performance reviews, but is agreed mutually between the fleet manager and driver. The company says this helps reduce the element of confrontation between them and HR.
“One of our immediate use cases that we can prove to our customers is in the case of fuel theft. Fuel theft is a major issue, not just in Thailand but right across the world in fact. It takes on different forms in different areas – [in Thailand] it tends to be siphoning but in Australia and other places […] people tend to fraudulently buy fuel or fill up their own car with the company credit card. We can detect these scenarios and prevent them from happening,” says David.
Before Drvr came along, the common solution to this issue was that companies would simply pay their drivers lower. These would lead to distorted economic incentives – drivers would simply shrug their shoulders and pilfer more fuel from the vehicle in order to sell it for cash. And the cycle would worsen.
David doesn’t disclose how many customers he has but does say that the startup turned a profit last month. While they’re based in Thailand, the largest market is currently Myanmar in terms of volume. However, both Indonesia and the Philippines are high on his list of priorities.
“We see Indonesia as the critical market in Southeast Asia – volume-wise, it’s just one with huge potential. Margins are a bit lower, admittedly, but there are big opportunities there,” he adds.
“At the same time it’s very tricky to get a foothold – we’ve failed a couple of times because of the difficulty of finding a reliable local partner. If you’re successful in Indonesia, it’s a massive tick on your profile.”
What trends does he notice?
Fleet analytics companies aren’t exactly mindblowing tech and there’s a few of them around already such as Cartrack and Coolasia. For David, however, they’re trying to set themselves apart in terms of the sophistication of their platform and the clients.
Mercedes Benz trucks, one of their key clients, actually ships all vehicles in Myanmar with Drvr sensors pre-installed. This provides a certain degree of validation when pitching to other companies. Drvr is also helping facilitate the growth of a subscription vehicle model – whereby fleet owners ‘rent’ vehicles from manufacturers as opposed to simply buying it outright and then allowing it to depreciate over its lifecycle.
This scenario – which David claims is already happening in markets like Australia – necessitates razor-sharp analytics so manufacturers know how to charge on an hourly or monthly basis. Analysts need to understand costs specifically and it’s simply not possible to do that without carefully monitoring existing vehicles to figure out when it’s liable to break down, what the fuel costs are, and other predictive analytics.
He claims Drvr is working with manufacturers interested in this model – the sensors and analytics will help them build a financial model – but doesn’t name names.
Will IOT engulf Asia?
Some people might scoff at the idea of high-tech commercial vehicles plying the backwaters of Asia given how cheap labor costs are, but David doesn’t believe it’s so far-fetched. He agrees on the fact that the economic imperative, for now, is missing but says the costs of devices and provisioning the service is “much lower than what it was in the past.”
“If you’re in ecommerce or logistics, the reality is that customers expect goods to be delivered the same day or as quickly as possible. In order to facilitate that you can’t have drivers sleeping on the side of the road or stealing fuel. It damages your brand and the perception of your service. Even the most old-fashioned Thai companies are beginning to realize that,” he explains.