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Digitising Services for a More Productive MENA Region: An Interview with Careem CEO Mudassir Sheikha

“We find local solutions to local problems. This is what we built Careem on,” says Careem’s co-founder and CEO, Mudassir Sheikha in this exclusive interview following the recent release of the company’s SuperApp.

“In our region, it’s not straightforward to launch consumer internet businesses,” says Mudassir Sheikha, Careem’s co-founder and CEO. “It’s not like you can launch a service and are able to leverage foundational blocks from others, and build something. What we realised when building Careem into a regional platform, we solved a lot of the legal, operational and technical issues, and that we can launch new services much faster. Our SuperApp was supposed to come out later this year, but when COVID-19 hit, we realised it was much more pressing.”

Speaking to StartupScene from his home office in Dubai, Sheikha - like most of us - has seen his work life flipped upside down, as lockdowns, social distancing and working-from-home has become the norm across the world. “Most of us are stuck at home, we are not able to go out into the offline world and consume services. We’re relying more and more on digital platforms so we brought forward our release date,” he explains. “It was really hard to make it happen, but now on a single app you’re able to do multiple things you need to do in your daily life. Towards the end of this year, we will open this platform up to the ecosystem too. So other companies and  developers that have services that people need at this time, can actually reside on the Careem SuperApp and make use of the customer engagement, with a single log-in that already has the customers payment methods and location, and launch much faster.”

Launched in early June 2020, Careem’s SuperApp marks a clear shift in the company’s strategy. Starting as a ride-hailing service, Careem now looks to become the leader in the regional market for the movement of people, goods and money, as e-commerce and digital services become more and more part of their scope. “The digital transformation of the region is being accelerated,” says Sheikha, with clear excitement of what that means for internet-first companies like his. “So many people who would not usually use digital platforms, are now forced to. And that’s really exciting. Our plan, all along, was not to just provide transportation, and we had already started diversifying into delivery and digital payments. In that regard, this crisis, and the mid-to-long term outlook as a result of this crisis, will bring more digital penetration, more digital services and a more efficient and productive region over all.”

As the world moves online at a faster pace than ever, Careem’s SuperApp hopes to solve a consumer pet peeve: multiple apps with different log-ins, profiles and payment methods, cluttering our phones and minds. “There is a setup process for every service you use. The one big convenience we’re offering is that you only need to do that once when using Careem - and many people in the region already have a Careem account,” says Sheikha. “We’re also tying every service on the app to a single Careem Loyalty Programme, so you can collect points across every service and start getting benefits across these same services.”

In addition to the consolidation of its transport and delivery services, the app also aims for financial inclusion. Careem has long been a front-runner when it comes to adapting its models for local markets, being one of the first transport apps to accept cash payments in its many territories, such as Egypt and Pakistan, where cash is king. They’ve also integrated with local payment solution service providers like Fawry, in a bid to provide flexibility for underbanked communities. “Many people in the region don’t have credit cards. Many - particularly our Captains - don’t even have bank accounts. However, what we’re realising is that if you keep relying on cash, the ultimate cost of any transaction increases, because cash is not convenient. One of our big objectives in making the SuperApp happen is to convert this cash into digital payment. If we can put the digital payment rails in place for both Captain and customer, then a lot of these transactions become very seamless,” explains Sheikha, as he explains the addition of a digital wallet to the new app. “We have enhanced the CareemPay digital wallet with external acceptance, like Visa and others, to make everything as seamless as possible.”

“Aside from payments, we’re finding solutions to location issues. Locations in our part of the world aren’t reliably mapped but if you look at the map inside Careem you will find much more structured maps than on Google, for example,” continues Sheikha. He adds that the SuperApp tackles the inconvenience of bill payment methods that are still prevalent in the region, as well as pointing to the integration of third party vendors on the Shops function of the app, allowing users to access the inventory of any store around them, even if they don’t have a formal e-commerce platform. “We find local solutions to local problems. This is what we built Careem on,” affirms Sheikha.

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