LIVE FROM RISE 2016, HONG KONG: Taxi-hailing app Grab has used its local roots and understanding of South East Asia (SEA) to develop a rapidly growing service that makes transport more accessible and safer.

Grab has been able to out-manoeuvre US-based Uber, which has been expanding aggressively in the region, because it understands the local markets and has developed non-cookiecutter solutions, said Grab co-founder Tan Hooi Ling (pictured), who spoke at the event yesterday.

“What any company benefits from is a platform it can leverage, with minimal tweaks and nuances, because it’s easy to roll out and maintain. But we do more than this… we focus on segmented, localised and tailored service for what is needed in the region,” she said. That includes how it deals with payments and how it thinks about mapping.

Tan noted that South East Asia is extremely fragmented, with many different languages, cultures and religions within countries and even within cities. “But the market also has underlying similarities. You have to understand and leverage these differences to build something that could be successful across the region.”

It is also a cash-based market, with 95 per cent of individuals using cash, so Grab had to develop a payment system that didn’t rely on credit cards.

In just four years Grab has nearly 300,000 drivers who operate in 30 cities in six countries. About 15,000 users have the app on their smartphones. An estimated one in nine smartphone users in South East Asia are active Grab users. It uses data from its network of vehicles to analyse traffic patterns to suggest the best routes for drivers.

Tan claimed that Grab is now the largest homegrown tech company in the region. She credits the rapid success to “a lot of good luck, a lot of great people and a shared vision”.

The start
She partnered with a friend to set up the company specially to address the widespread problem in Malaysia of taxis often being unsafe, particularly for women. “We realised that there was this really big issue that both of us were passionate about,” she said. “And we had discovered potential ways to solve this via technology that nobody else had been able to execute well in Malaysia.”

Grab expanded geographically because coping with a lack of efficiency and safety in taxis wasn’t something just Malaysia had to deal with, she explained. “We’ve been successful because many other people share the same problems and desires across South East Asia,” Tan said.

The company moved on to Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok and two cities in Vietnam. “We have been able to reform and reshape the industry and it has become significantly safer and more efficient.”

Grab, previously called GrabTaxi, changed its name last year as it expanded its focus beyond taxis to motorcycle taxis. It has launched GrabBike in Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

She has no plans to move beyond South East Asia, a market of more than 620 million people, which is largely an untapped opportunity. She noted there are still five countries in SEA to to address.

It has opened offices in Beijing and Seattle, where it doesn’t offer Grab service, in order to tap quality local talent, she said.