Ascend Money to grow customer base to 100 million by 2020

Singapore

ASCEND Money - a South-east Asian financial technology firm backed by e-commerce giant Alibaba and Thai conglomerate CP Group - aims to grow its customer base by about five times to 100 million consumers by 2020, by actively tapping the unbanked population in this region.

Its ambitions, annnounced in a recent press briefing, comes as it hit a total payment volume of US$5 billion in the region last year, translating to a five-time jump in volume from 2016.

Bangkok-based Ascend has been providing financial services such as bill payments and fund transfers in six countries since its launch in 2014.

Thailand accounted for 50 per cent, or US$2.5 billion, of Ascend's total payment volume in 2017. These are mostly from online transactions using its mobile wallet, TrueMoney.

The other US$2.5 billion stemmed from Myanmar, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia, where Ascend relies on a network of 60,000 agents as the means to provide financial services. These agents provide basic services such as cash withdrawal for those without a bank account.

During a recent press briefing, Ascend president Tanyapong Thamavaranukupt said he is confident that Ascend's target of hitting 100 million customers by 2020 will be met. It now has 21.1 million customers.

The firm is currently beefing up its mobile wallet offerings and expanding its agency network to attract new users, said Mr Thamavaranukupt.

In Thailand, retail e-payment was recently added to the list of mobile wallet services. Users can now pay via its app TrueMoney at some 5,000 merchants, including international fast food giant McDonald's.

The firm has also built an "extensive catalogue" of mobile service top-ups and data packages, said Mr Thamavaranukupt. It has tapped the technical expertise provided by Alibaba's financial arm Ant Financial, using data analytics to provide more personalised services.

"Through (the use of) data analytics, we know your buying habits so we can make better suggestions."

Ascend also has plans to introduce international remittance services as they yield more transactions and "much more monetary value" than domestic services, he added.

Outside of Thailand, the agent service is more prevalent, said Mr Thamavaranukupt, given that many customers are still excluded from the banking system. Around 50 to 80 per cent of the population in these countries are unbanked, compared to about 22 per cent in Thailand.

"Some workers still give their salaries to bus drivers, who will deliver that money three days later to their parents in the rural areas. Such informal channels still exist and we see that as an opportunity," Mr Thamavaranukupt noted.

The firm began building its agency network in 2016, and is now boosting the use of its agent service with cashback campaigns and having their agents promote the service. It plans to increase its pool of agents to 500,000 by the end of 2018.

While the agent service is still relatively new in Vietnam and the Philippines, Ascend already has more than 1.5 billion customers in Cambodia, who collectively transacted a sum worth 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product last year.

The next step is to migrate these customers relying on agency networks onto the mobile wallet platform, said Mr Thamavaranukupt, who is targeting to convert 20 to 30 per cent of these offline users.

A 50 per cent cashback on mobile service top-ups using TrueMoney is one such incentive to encourage the digital shift in Cambodia.

"We've barely scratched the surface, there's so much more we can do," said Mr Thamavaranukupt.

Mr Thamavaranukupt believes that such diverse offerings will fend off regional competition in the e-wallet marketplace.

Other notable players in South-east Asia include Indonesia's ride-hailing firm Go-Jek's Go-Pay and Singapore-based Grab's GrabPay. In May, Grab announced that it has plans to bring GrabPay to all eight countries in South-east Asia by this year.