Interview with: Alok Kumar
Firstly, introduce yourself to the readers.
My name is Alok Kumar. I came to Myanmar in 2014 and started working for Telenor Myanmar. I have lived in Myanmar for over five years and this is my sixth year. I have done a variety of leadership roles in Myanmar starting from Telenor, worked as a Head of Digital and consumer marketing. I moved on to Nokia and now I’m the group CEO of Oway. I have spent a large part of my career working with Consumer, telecom & technology companies, mostly in a high-growth start-up environment in emerging markets. Throughout my career, I’ve taken on leadership roles of increasing complexity and diverse people responsibilities, including my current role at Oway. I’m passionate about our mission: Make it super simple for our consumers to “Search, buy & Pay for our services Online & Offline”.
How did you get started at Oway as CEO?
Initially, I’ve been an Oway user since the time I came into the country because I used to get the car from Oway while I was at Telenor. So I had a good understanding of Oway and I’ve seen the company growing from early 2013/2014. I fundamentally believed that it’s a great company with potential to become one of dominant players in South east Asia covering all aspects of an integrated mobility with presence across Ride hailing, travel, fleet and delivery/logistics. When the opportunity to lead Oway group came my way, I gave it a very serious thought and decided that it would be a perfect opportunity for my entrepreneurial mindset and everything just came together at the right time. This role also meant stepping outside my comfort zone and take up an absolutely uncharted route to lead one of the distinguished Tech companies in Myanmar. While I was sure to take up the challenges, long discussions in Myanmar and Singapore with Oway board also further strengthened my belief. It was quite an experience for me to interact with such a diversified board, I met many nationalities and many people at the same time. Each of my discussion was unique in itself and each of the board members instilled me with courage and enthusiasm to take up the challenge.
It will be great if digital transactions are eased out, people are able to do interbanking activities and have the access to their money digitally.
Can you tell us more about Oway and what is your vision for it?
Oway is a young company. It was founded by Ko U Nay Aung in 2013, who is a well-known personality in Myanmar. Oway has grown in three different dimensions over the last seven years. We started off as an online travel company and later we expanded our footprint in ride hailing and fleet services. Today we have 2 companies under Oway, namely “Oway Travel” which is focused on online flights, hotels, tours, bus and fleet services for both consumers and Corporates. Our 2nd company is “Oway Ride” which is focused on Ride hailing services across Myanmar, currently we are present in 5 cities – Yangon, Mandalay, Pin Oo Lwin , Bagan & Mawlamyine with Owayride and minOway, we are the pioneers of introducing Auto’s in ride hailing popularly known as Mini Oway in Myanmar and our first launch market was Mandalay.
Today Oway is the most dominant online travel company of Myanmar along with largest Fleet services and widest presence in Ride hailing across top cities of Myanmar. We have built our own algorithms to enhance the online travel booking experience. We are proud to be the only travel company in Myanmar to have integrated with all leading domestic and international airlines. This technology is built to simplify consumer problems – like high prices, limited options, difficulty in getting refund and cancellation.
Our vision for Oway is to evolve ourselves as the largest integrated Mobility Company of Myanmar having dominant market leadership across business verticals, so millions in Myanmar can get the full advantage of the connected world.
Who are your target markets? How do you secure them?
We are mass market company, our services reach to a large consumer base primarily driven by the nature of business. We are on a mission to bring the most economical, safe and convenient travel solutions for people in Myanmar. We want to be part of every transport transaction in the daily lives of our consumers, whether it’s going to college, office or any other city/country. Our consumers are interacting with us every second both online and offline. We secure our consumers by building tech platforms which are world class that help them transition from physical to digital. It takes a while to educate consumers on the merits and knowhow of using online platforms but once they get the right experience it’s a job well done and repeat visits are much simpler. Our first challenges or ambition is to drive awareness among tech savy youth of Myanmar to experiment with Oway, they should try Oway online platform for their travel needs, we are not perfect as yet but we are getting there and with continuous feedback and support from our users and we aim to get there much faster.
We are constantly investing in upgrading our tech platforms and one of our top priority is to ensure data security of our consumers. We have multiple layers of security and all online transactions are fully secured at Oway either using OTP or other means as applicable.
How is the company structured?
As explained earlier I lead 2 companies as group CEO and I’m supported by my Management team which represents all functional areas. We have dedicated Business Heads for our three large businesses with central technology, Business Development and Operations team. We are over 300+ payroll employees and over 1000+ contract workforce dedicated to serve our consumers and clients.
To which extent has Oway reached its goals by means of the strategic partnerships with other businesses?
We, have large ambitions in short and midterm and the same cannot be fulfilled without building an ecosystem of strong partnerships. We have made strong progress in the last few months in bringing together Industry leaders and experts from across sectors, so together we can build an integrated ecosystem with synergies that gives us compounded advantage of leveraging strengths for each partner. I strongly believe in partnership as a key route to market; together with partners we can take leap steps forward by balancing investments/efforts and efficiencies.
They not only support us financially but also help us with intellectual stimulation by helping us with strategy, corporate governance and mapping the right talent both in Myanmar and internationally. We are grateful for their support and their conviction in Oway vision.
Can you briefly explain about you latest partnership with Telenor Myanmar & Wave Money?
Yes sure, we recently signed strategic partnership with Telenor Myanmar, for our ride hailing business where Mini Oway is the only ride hailing company to provide free Wi-fi to its riders for 15 minutes with unlimited data usage, also our mini oway drivers have the opportunity to earn higher daily commission by selling Telenor top up and data packages. For Telenor, they get access to our Mini oway network as mobile shops where consumers can conveniently top up their mobiles irrespective of time limits.
Our second recent partnership is with Wave money – Myanmar’s largest mobile financial services company with widest agent network. We have integrated Oway online platform with leading banks in Myanmar but one of the key challenges we faced was access to unbanked consumers. Though many people in Myanmar want to buy online with Oway, they didn’t have access to formal online banking. To resolve this challenge, we reached out to Wave Pay and other mobile financial services companies. We got extremely positive response from Wave Pay Management team and we quickly integrated it with their open API’s. As ann introductory offer to drive awareness about our partnership, we are giving first ever 50% discount on domestic flight in collaboration with wave pay.
We are extremely thankful to both Telenor Myanmar & Wave Money management teams for extending their best support in bringing our dreams to reality. I would also take the opportunity to extend our sincere gratitude to all the teams and individual contributors at both Telenor & Wave who worked extensively with our teams day and night to chase tough go-live timeliness.
I’m immensely proud of my team at Oway travel & Oway ride who believe in the power of Partnerships and for their passion to win in all circumstances. We are a small company with limited resources compared to giant Multinationals but despite being a small team Oway has proved they are no less and can take large giant steps with ease.
How do you manage to finance both Oway Travel & Oway Ride businesses?
We are a start-up company. There are large investors who believe in our vision for the future. We are blessed with the right set of investors behind us. They not only support us financially but also help us with intellectual stimulation by helping us with strategy, corporate governance and mapping the right talent both in Myanmar and internationally. We are grateful for their support and their conviction in Oway vision.
Which setbacks or challenges did Oway get through to stay competitive?
I would not say we have many setbacks as such but we are a bit concerned on two fronts. First with respect to building digital ecosystem. We often hear and read many industry leaders talking about building Myanmar as a digital economy but seldom we see definite action and concrete road map in the direction. It will be great if digital transactions are eased out, people are able to do inter-banking activities and have the access to their money digitally. Our 2nd concern is with road safety and licensing. We often meet daily wave workers, who have learned rudimentary driving somewhere and has invested to become auto/taxi driver. We have very strict norms for onboarding taxi/auto’s on our Oway platform as passenger safety is of paramount importance to us but since there are limited laws to track drivers without legitimate license. This could lead to passengers riding in dangerous conditions and lopsiding driver availability.
What are the company’s future plans?
Our future plans are quite simple. We will bring affordable and safe public transport system across Myanmar. We have a presence in five top cities and our first priority is to continue our expansion both physically and digitally to serve people of Myanmar. We are the only ride hailing company which is available on app in Bagan, Pyin On Lwin, Mandalay and Mawlamyaing and we are also the only travel company to have Oway travel App.
Our second priority is to continue our efforts in building digital ecosystem where we will further scale our investments in Tech to fast track transition from physical to digital. Lastly we are constantly identifying opportunities of in-organic growth for Oway and we are looking forward to potential mergers and acquisitions in short to midterm. In short term we wish to collaborate with insurance companies to bring travel insurance for both online & offline bookings. We strongly believe travel insurance is under leveraged in Myanmar and people have limited understanding and awareness about the benefits of travel insurance. It is a must in developed markets and is gaining significance across South East Asia. Two key impediments that hinder the development of insurance are, firstly, lack of awareness/education on insurance and, secondly, relatively high travel cost when compared with other neighboring markets. Currently, given our wafer thin margins we do not have the appetite to digest incremental cost. However, we are working to bridge the gap and soon this will be available to Oway users.
How has the company affected by the slowdown in the economy?
Obviously, our business is directly correlated to GDP growth. If there is growth in GDP, people will have enough money to spend on traveling and leisure. We see GDP growth is flattened in the first half of 2019 and is close to current inflation which could put pressure in the 2nd half of 2019 as we enter the high season post-monsoons. We are bullish about the growth in the 2nd half of the year and we will bring enough reasons for consumers to come on our platform.
I would say the Myanmar government is working on the right initiatives to propel economic activities, opening up retail, insurance and other high transaction businesses will push for financial momentum driving consumption in Myanmar. Bringing change isn’t easy in the short term but having the right intent and relentless focus is the key to success, I’m quite certain in the next few months or mid-term of next year, some of the initiatives will start to pay off significantly..
If you could recommend one change to government policy, what would it be?
I do not have much to advise here as I believe they know what is required to be done in their capacity, we strongly believe the government is doing their best across ministries, the only request that I have to the decision makers and governing body of Myanmar is that they must keep consumers/citizens at the center of focus. All policies should revolve around what is in the best interest of Myanmar citizens. Having one-sided policies or unclear rules can create a lot of confusion. We wish the government all the very best for the upcoming elections and we are quite sure Myanmar will be one of the top tourist destinations in south East Asia. We are doing our best to popularize Myanmar among international tourists and we are sure many tourists will come and experience this beautiful and peaceful country in the years to follow.