By Will Duncan
Following our look into transport innovation in the Global South, we take Indonesia’s Gojek as a case study to examine Southeast Asia’s bustling on-demand transport market.
Born on congested streets
Jakarta might just have the worst traffic in the world. In serious need of solutions, perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the Indonesian capital became home to Southeast Asia’s most successful innovative transport start-up: Gojek.
More than 30 million people live in Greater Jakarta — the third-largest megacity in the world, behind Tokyo and Shanghai. Cars can barely move on its congested streets so locals tend to get around on scooters or motorcycles. After all, they’re smaller, simpler, and importantly, cheaper. As in countless other Southeast Asian cities and towns, the scooter is king.
Ojeks — informal motorcycle taxis — are widespread; often more appropriate than conventional four-doored taxis. In 2010, Gojek was born as a ride-hailing call centre with twenty drivers. Just a few years later, the Jakarta-based company launched an app and with astonishing pace transformed on-demand transport and service delivery in the region. Today, its principle service GoRide, has more than two million drivers in 203 cities and districts in Indonesia. It has expanded internationally into Vietnam, Singapore, and Thailand, garnering an estimated worth of US$10 billion, making it Indonesia’s first “decacorn” start-up.
Armed with a fluency of the local market, Gojek has succeeded where Western competitors have not. Ride-sharing services in the busy cities of Southeast Asia tend to move on two wheels. While Uber has been in the region since early 2013, it was late to embrace motorbike taxis, waiting until 2016 to introduce two-wheelers. Gojek’s strongest rival, Singapore’s Grab, also happens to be a regional neighbour. Understanding how Southeast Asia works, how its people typically get around and access services, has proven to not only be an advantage — but essential. After years of competition, in 2018 Uber yielded to its rivals, ceding its ride-hailing and UberEats businesses to Grab in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, in return for a 27.5% stake and a seat on Grab’s board.
Lifestyle on demand
Offering rides on the back of motorcycles was just the beginning. After sufficiently disrupting Indonesia’s typically informal ojek market with a good quality app and a reliable payments system, Gojek, like its rival Grab, has quickly become a one-stop-shop “super app” with over twenty different services, broadening its offering to meet varied and evolving demands. What is striking throughout this expansion is Gojek’s business model, which places a strong emphasis on the role transport plays in all other service markets.
Food delivery quickly became a core element of Gojek’s business. Its GoRide motorcycle drivers could easily double as GoFood delivery people — there’s little difference in carrying passengers to carrying nasi goreng. But why stop there? GoMed offers home delivery for medicines and pharmacy products. Urban logistics are covered by GoSend and GoBox.
GoLife, a smartphone application, allows users to order from GoClean, GoAuto, and GoLaundry — each service is ordered and arrives at customers’ homes on-demand. GoGlam will send a mobile stylist your way; GoMassage lets you order a masseuse!
Despite expanding in several different directions, Gojek’s services are unified both in terms of the user experience, and the logistical networks. A single “super app” with consistent branding supports a sense of familiarity to customers. And each service is powered by Gojek’s locally-driven on-demand transport infrastructure.
This type of service integration within a single umbrella application is radically changing how companies and regulators alike understand app-based mobility services globally. Rather than non-transport sector players using transport providers as a service, Gojek has used its local expertise of how transport works as a springboard for expanding beyond its original business model. In the process, it has flipped traditional roles on their head by sub-contracting non-transport businesses rather than being contracted itself.
A new regulatory challenge
The service industry around the world is experiencing a major shift towards mobile-based on-demand business models. These changes can mean excellent news for consumers; they’ve typically offered greater choice, convenience, comfort, and often lower prices than what was offered before the on-demand disruption began. However, they also pose new regulatory challenges for countries in the Global South and North alike.
First of all, there are safety concerns. Policy makers must ensure that as the market shifts to on-demand gig-economy services, vehicle safety standards are adhered to. Drivers must be properly vetted and trained for the job. It’s worth noting that the rating systems built into most gig-economy applications tend to incentivise personal and professional responsibility on the part of drivers and, indeed, passengers who are also made more accountable for their behaviour. Nevertheless, governments must recognise their role in setting appropriate safety standards.
Then, regulators must confront the global headache that is the gig economy. In Indonesia, millions of people drive passengers, goods, medicines and the like for Gojek, for example, but they aren’t considered employees. This lack of formal employment represents a significant regulatory challenge, both in the Global North and South. It may also offer opportunities, however: in the Global South, to improve the welfare of workers in the informal sector; in the Global North, to create more flexible job opportunities. Gojek again leads the way in this respect, by providing health and accident coverage for its drivers while offering them highly flexible work arrangements.
There are externality issues to consider, too. New home delivery services and on-demand transport options ultimately contribute to more traffic on the roads — motorcycles or otherwise. This means that regulators must consider the traffic and pollution implications of new mobility services — from on-demand ojek services to mobile masseuses.
These challenges are common to countries across the world. And policy makers everywhere should approach regulation carefully. While the changes in the service industry require stricter parameters and oversight, governments risk forcing innovation out of their cities and industries, should their rules go too far.
To learn more about global transport innovation, check out the ITF Corporate Partnership Board’s new report Expanding Innovation Horizons: Learning from transport solutions in the Global South.
Will Duncan is currently studying a Master in Public Policy at Sciences Po in Paris, and is an intern at the International Transport Forum at the OECD.