Will Chinese-style 'Super Apps' conquer Latin America?

In recent years, Chinese "super apps" such as WeChat have become one-stop shops. Their billions of users have little need for any other platform or service. It's time to consider whether this could happen in other mobile-first regions like Latin America.

Tech-savvy Westerners today are often accustomed to doing things using mobile apps. Users will have apps for their various social-media presences, and often different ones specially for messaging. Another app might offer management of a bank account and its associated debit card. Another might allow online shopping. Another might permit tickets to events and shows to be booked: yet another might be for travel arrangements. Often these vertical, single-focus apps have customer bases spanning the entire developed world.

Outside the developed world, however, a different model is emerging; that of the "super app" which does everything. Most often-cited is Weixin from Chinese giant Tencent, branded WeChat for the international market.

WeChat does messaging, in pretty much every possible manner and format: group, voice, picture, text, video, broadcast, location sharing, all of it. WeChat is a social media platform: like other social-media platforms it also functions as a huge advertising and marketing portal. Organisations use WeChat as a delivery platform, allowing users to pre-register for hospital, renew visas and other official documents, manage their credit services and more. Employees and businesses use WeChat to manage leave days, expenses and clocking on and off. It's a payment service and digital wallet, too: a popular use for WeChat is the sending of digital "red envelopes", replacing the packages of cash traditionally exchanged among friends and family during holidays in China.

WeChat is also a mobile operating system. Developers can create apps that run within WeChat, providing yet more ways to use the payment system. This has created a huge app store with the margins going to Tencent rather than Google or Apple, and has allowed WeChat into the lucrative gaming industry. It has also offered WeChat users many other services which in the West would be delivered via stand-alone apps, such as food delivery, bike sharing, taxi hailing and more.

Just as WeChat began as a messenger app and then mutated to become a mobile one-stop shop, other super apps have expanded from different starting points. Alibaba's Alipay was a payment platform originally: now it too is a super app. Singaporean ride-hail app Grab and Indonesia's Go-Jek have used billions in venture capital not only to block the expansion of Uber in their regions but also to expand their offerings beyond ride-hailing and become super apps too. The Asian super apps, rather than being vertical and global, are horizontal and regional. They achieve their reach among developing-world populations which have never had widespread personal computer ownership, arriving online instead via smartphones and tablets.

Where else has lots of mobile-first people?

All this, to many analysts, indicates that the next big destination for super app expansion is Latin America with its hundreds of millions of mobile-first people, rapidly expanding connectivity and (compared to some parts of Africa, for instance) stability and hospitable business environment. The established Western vertical apps are, for the moment, mostly not well established in Latin America, perhaps offering an opening for super apps either foreign or home-grown.

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