Startups in Cambodia and Laos might be focussed on local problems, but meeting those needs could foster greater receptivity to them
As countries that share a border (and the Mekong River), the Southeast Asian nations of Cambodia and Laos possess traits in common. Amongst them, relatively small populations that are predominantly young and Buddhist.
At 15 million and seven million strong respectively, Cambodia and Laos both have in excess of 50 per cent of their people who are 24 or younger. A further 35 per cent and 39 per cent of Cambodia’s and Laos’ populations, respectively, are aged 25 to 54.
Berlin-based Rocket Internet recognises the potential that such a young population has for the jobs market, having launched a job listings platform called Everjobs catering to the Cambodian as well as other emerging markets.
Users can view the site in both English and the Khmer language, the latter an important feature given that it is the official language of the country and used by over 96 per cent of the population.
Opportunities and challenges posed by language
But with Khmer unique to the Cambodians, it can be easy for businesses and technology from other parts of the world that deal in English or other major languages to neglect this market.
With the majority of mobile phones not smartphones and which do not display the Khmer script, Alien Dev has developed the Khmer Smart Keyboard to meet the needs of Cambodians who want to communicate more simply in the Khmer language on their mobile phones.
The app has since shown promise by garnering 170,000 downloads on smartphones and attained the rank as the top Khmer language app in April 2015.
To be successful, however, startups have to be scalable and that means the ability to expand into the region and beyond. In this regard, entrepreneurs and startups that seek to solve niche problems posed by language as unique as Cambodia’s Khmer or Laos’ Lao will find limitations in their ability to expand.
Softening attitudes towards startups
But to criticise these startups for solving problems immediate to them would be unfair. With oft-mentioned obstacles that the Laos and Cambodian startups markets are “too young and small” and that “less than 10 per cent of the seven million population [of Laos] are willing to purchase products and services from startup companies,” the emergence of more such startups that improve the lives of the people in these markets can soften the populaces’ stances towards startups and their products and services.
These startups would include the likes of CamboWheels and CamboTicket. The former helps to aggregate vehicles on the market through their buyers and sellers. The latter is an travel ticket platform allowing users to book bus, ferry and airline tickets online.
Both are portfolio companies of SEA Ventures, which builds startups targetted at the Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese markets.
If the “average Cambodian is still used to the traditional way of doing most things [and] needs to be made aware of the benefits of new products and services”, as SEA Ventures Co-founder Rahul Anand said in an interview with the Phnom Penh Post, then one way to condition Cambodians and also Laotians is to expose them to more startups, and one way to do that is through products and services that meet their immediate needs.
And, when there is sufficient user acquisition, to use a relevant phrase, might there be more Cambodians and Laotians who would think about solving greater problems in the country and the region by becoming entrepreneurs and in harnessing technology?
That is not to say they can do it alone. They could, but the activation energy would be much more easily derived with the help of investments and mentorship from more established ecosystems in neighbouring countries.
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