Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort

I had thought the roads in Mumbai were bad. The streets of Agra are less developed than Mumbai, and much less than Delhi. The current capital had the smooth, well-maintained roads befitting the nation’s capital of one of the world’s nuclear powers. The streets of the old Mughal capital of Agra were more reminiscent of a developing nation — an irony considering the Mughal empire was known for its amazing infrastructure. The (busy, of course) streets were lined with huts, piles of bricks and garbage strewn about. Holy bulls moved nonchalantly through traffic from garbage pile to garbage pile to feed.

Traffic jam in Agra

It took about three hours to get to Agra from Delhi. I had flown into Delhi from Mumbai the night before on a late flight and stayed in the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. But it was very late and I could not enjoy the amenities since I had to be up at 6:30am to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. People in Mumbai told me that the road would be nice since it was a new highway, and it was. Although it took an hour of driving through dense fog to get out of Delhi, once we got on the highway it was smooth sailing.

Rear lights of vehicles barely visible in fog
Dense fog while leaving Delhi

The highway was surprisingly empty. Not only was there nearly no traffic (which was surprising enough in India!) but the countryside was empty too. For a country with 1.2 billion people I was expecting more density, something more akin to driving between cities in the population corridors of Japan… each city and town just sort of melds into one another with no break. On the road to Agra I stared out of the car window watching endless farmland and tiny villages pass by. Vehicles passed by us as well. Apparently our hired vehicle had a speed inhibitor limiting us to 80kmh, a common thing for commercially licensed passenger vehicles.

The land was flat and green. Rice paddies and mustard seed fields were divided by deserted single lane dirt roads. Occasionally we saw Hindu temple, or a Muslim mausoleum. Every so often there was a roadside stop with a gas station and some food amenities. We stopped at a nice one that was decorated “Chinese” style and had veggie sandwiches and masala chai served in traditional clay cups. I walked around the corner to the washroom and saw that there was a Starbucks… even here in the middle of nowhere.

Entrance of a Starbucks Coffee shop
A Starbucks in “Chinese” style

After a while the verdant fields gave way to the concrete interchange of dusty Agra, the old capital of the Mughals, Islamic conquerers with roots to the Mongol hordes who ruled India from the mid-16th century until being in turn conquered by the British in the mid 19th century. Agra is partially bisected by the Yamuna river, which wends and winds its way through the plain, and whose shores are decorated with spectacular Islamic architectural treasures. Today we would visit the two most famous.

Continue reading “Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort”

Learning about the Asian fintech boom

After reading Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built with a friend, we decided to get together for a discussion with the old #StartupCoffeeKL group to go over some of our learnings. For me, the biggest takeaway was the impact Alibaba was having on the financial world. As Mary Meeker points out in the 2018 Internet Trends report, eCommerce is the culmination of a number of verticals, and Alibaba has been innovating in all of them.

Slide containing text:

E-Commerce = A Look @ Tools + Numbers...

Payment
Online Store
Online Payment
Fraud Prevention
Purchase Financing
Customer Support
Finding Customers
Delivering Product
KP 2018 Internet Trends slide on eCommerce tools

For the eCommerce giant fintech may have started merely with payment transactions, but soon turned into other offerings and eventually was turned into Alipay (2004) and then (controversially) Ant Financial (2010). The whole battle over the wallet is playing out very differently in China and is fascinating to learn about. The mix of heavily regulated banking infrastructure and wide population of unbanked has made for a dynamic context. But Alibaba has been aggressive in gaining a foothold in other markets too. Alipay has bought into Mynt in the Philippines, Ascend Money in Thailand, and in 2017 Alibaba took a $200B (40%) stake in KakaoPay, the payment arm of Korean chat giant KakaoTalk. Alibaba’s messaging platform is not that popular so it is is interesting to see them take a stake in a different platform to get the kind of business intelligence Tencent is getting from WeChat. In preparations for the Olympics, and to accommodate the massive amounts of Chinese tourists in Japan, Alipay has made huge strides, going from about 50K retailers in 2018 to more than 300K. But they are not stopping there, and are looking to bring their partners along too.

Other companies are getting in on the act. Tony Fernandes’ AirAsia is trying to make the switch from a low cost airline to a data company and has spun out BigPay. Hear him talk about this shift in this short CNBC interview.

Slide from recent AirAsia investor deck showing their shift in business model.

It is interesting to see how these payment products are being born out of other data-intensive businesses. I am not sure if you can built a payments company from the ground up with no data anymore. Grab and Gojek in Southeast Asia are also examples of this. They are both covered in this month’s fintech special report from The Economist which I recommend. Two small tidbits from that special I would like to highlight:

This quote from Singapore about competition shows that not all models are the same:

“As a public policymaker, we are working with banks to rationalise their costs, and create a level playing field for them to compete with non-regulated entities.”

This approach has had the desired consequence: fintechs in Singapore have largely shifted from offering services to consumers to offering digital services to banks.

Secondly, from the same article, I found this comment about Ant Financial by Piyush Gupta, the chief executive of DBS, Singapore’s biggest bank illustrative:

“They are getting the customer relationship and the data to create value, and then passing the regulated part of the activity to banks.”

It makes me wonder, are we seeing another Uber-style disruption in the offing? You already know how I feel about that…

In conclusion fintech in Asia is a boom that has been going on for a while but just got on my radar this year. Payments seems to be a vertical on fire (think of even Apple getting into it with their own card earlier this year), but it is not one that I fully understand. And in Asia we have a very dynamic lab that we in North America could learn from. I certainly intend to continue learning about it.