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What is a super app?

A super app is a seamless platform which hosts a cluster of businesses and services, and allows you to do everything with a single log-in. Let’s take the example of setting up a social meet: you can agree on a show (chat or video chat function); book the tickets (e-commerce); pay for them (mobile banking); send the details of the theatre, (geolocation); book a fare (service); and play a game while you wait for your friends.

Or you could use the waiting time to pay your Council bill, sort out your diary and book a dentist appointment, still using the same interface.

How do they work?

A super app is built around a single hero feature – messaging, or P2P transactions. Third parties create mini programs inside the app which are fast, lightweight, and small enough to refresh automatically. Each mini program is tightly integrated, with 60 or more entry points and deep links to relevant sub-pages..

What’s in it for the customer?

The big win is that users have only one interface to learn, but enjoy seamless multifunctionality. Super apps offer a superior user experience that is both fast and intuitive, even on less sophisticated smartphones.

This is timely: as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the uptake of digital engagement, so customers’ interest in digital solutions – and frustration at having to switch between apps to coordinate needs – has become more acute.

What’s in it for businesses?

For owners and sub-businesses, the benefit is stickiness: a super app that meets most of or all of the needs of the customer, dominates that customer’s attention and business, and becomes the intermediary for all functions. And it’s lucrative: a super app may generate revenue from commissions (charged either to merchants or end-users) on every transaction.

What’s the downside?

As the app gains data about the user, it is able to create an incrementally better experiences. However, privacy considerations mean data protection capacity is critical. If a super app is hacked, it has access to everything – from contacts, to preferences, to medical data and financial access information.

There is also an advertising dimension. Advertising is part of the financial model. Super-targeted ads are one outcome of deep insight, and pose their own threat, especially to less sophisticated users.

Who are the super app superheroes?

TenCent is the granddaddy. It took its WeChat messaging community – a billion users – into an ecosystem of more than a million integrated mini-programs offering services from airline bookings to transacting with business and government; from a virtual wallet to hotel reservations and more.

Others are building momentum:

  • PayPal – which has its roots as a payment app – is morphing into a super app, with new financial services including crypto support, messaging, and shopping tools including buy now/pay later.
  • Shopify, an Amazon-owned subscription-based software that allows businesses to set up e-commerce stores, is aggressively building out its support capability to take itself into the super app space.
  • Google is making advances, adding features for public transit payments and enabling marketing from certain partners.
  • Apple is a master at the happiness ecosystem, with a super-loyal customer base – and it’s been investing heavily in games, movies, music, apps, cloud etc.
  • Amazon Prime’s more than 100 million subscribers can access grocery discounts along with video streaming, photo storage, and ever-ready Alexa.

What are the must-have characteristics of super apps

  • User experience is king: an intuitive and attractive layout; single sign-on; seamless payment redirection etc.
    • In tune with the Zeitgeist – they must understand and meet immediate and changing needs.
    • Data privacy. Nothing is hidden; artificial intelligence applications are able to use the customer’s activities on a super app to build the most comprehensive picture of them ever. This is both the greatest benefit and the greatest risk.
    • Openness to collaborating with third parties’ mini programs to extend the use and reach of the super app.

Should banks be nervous?

Banks have been in on the benefits of value aggregation for some time. SA banks already help customers travel, save on fuel, beat the Home Affairs queues and more – they’ve just been doing in real-world ways, not centred on an app. As things stand now, financial services offered through apps are still underwritten by traditional banks. But there are some real considerations:

•      The super app holds the relationship. That’s obviously not optimal for banks: the lesson learned from MPesa, the mobile money service, is that consumers will choose banks only when a more convenient option is not available. KPMG argues that this disintermediation is a profound threat to the financial sector when coupled with the intuitive and “friendly” interface that is in the DNA of super-apps.

•      Another consideration for banks is that the deep knowledge super-apps build up about users allows them to improve operational functions like risk-assessment for loans, offering a viable alternative to traditional bank functions. This same intelligence, of course, could be a real asset to financial institutions’ daily business.

•      Super apps are actively seeking to play in the financial services space. Two super apps in south-east Asia, GO-Jek and Grab, both of which emerged from ride-sharing platforms, are competing to help consumers find and buy financial products. As South Africa wrestles with financial inclusion, it’s worth considering whether alternatives like this will better support those South Africans who are currently excluded.

There are many upsides, too, such as the super app’s ability to avoid double-paying for costs like know-your-customer and anti-money-laundering checks. Done once, these can be reused across e-wallet, insurance, and lending functions.

What’s the take-out?

•      Super-apps symbolise the move away from a world of verticals (banks, shops, travel agencies, hospitality aggregators, municipalities, etc) into a world driven by customer experience. In this world, the value of anything is measured by the value of the network into which it is integrated. This is a paradigm shift for any business’ value proposition.

•      Super-apps also represent a breakthrough in that most elusive of user experience challenges: a single view of the customer. The relevancy and friendliness of any one business is challenged by any device which appears to have accomplished this. For any business, therefore there is an imperative towards best-in-class data capture and data analysis.

•      Particularly for the financial services sector, there’s now a real question of identity: are we to be a front-office player within a super-app? A back-office enabler? Something else?


•      https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-18/vodacom-raises-profit-target-on-growth-outside-south-africa

•      https://electrum.co.za/super-apps-how-can-banks-compete/

•      https://home.kpmg/xx/en/home/insights/2019/06/super-app-or-super-disruption.html

•      https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/21420357/kenya-mobile-banking-unbanked-cellphone-money

•      https://www.paymentsdive.com/news/super-apps-are-the-next-evolutionary-step-for-financial-services/601424/

•      https://www.plugandplayapac.com/post/the-in-depth-guide-to-super-apps

written by: heather parker