Matias and I have wanted to work together since we met in high school in Denmark almost 13 years ago. Good fortune and pursuit of new impressions brought us both to Southeast Asia in 2013, and since then we’ve been fully immersed in the consumer sector of the region. We’ve both been lucky to experience the space from multiple angles in our careers, including start-ups, digital marketing agencies and corporates, and seen how rapidly it’s developed.
Launching Chalawan is a dream come true, in that it allows us to continue operating in this exciting space with some clear goals: To elevate our research and insights, build and serve an audience, and discover opportunities for investment or venture building.
This post serves as a foundational (re)introduction, for you and for us, as we start this journey of diving deeper into the Southeast Asia Consumer space.
What is Southeast Asia?
In short, it’s the region of countries that borders India on its western edge, China on its northern edge, and Australia to the south. It’s 11 countries, roughly 682 million people, and a combined GDP of around 3 trillion USD. The region holds about 9% of the world’s population and about 4% of its GDP. Southeast Asia's countries are extremely varied, spanning developing and developed, fast-growing and stagnant, and stable and volatile.
Which countries should we focus on?
Southeast Asia’s countries vary widely in population, geographic size, and GDP. We believe GDP is the best lens through which to prioritise the region’s countries for commercial research, and hence our default filter will be to focus on its six largest economies, namely Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam. This “SEA-6” basket makes up nearly 96% of the total regional GDP.
Inside this basket we can further segment the countries based on their status and outlook. Our current categories are:
Indonesia for its enormous size of population (2.2x Japan, 3.3x Germany)
Vietnam for its very rapid growth (almost 2x SEA average at 9.48% annualized GDP growth from 2010-2019)
Keep in view:
Thailand for its huge tourism industry (contributing around 20% of GDP pre-Covid)
The Philippines for its rapid population growth (it added 2x Denmark’s population since we arrived in 2013, landing at 112 million)
Malaysia for its high GDP per capita (around 4x Vietnam in 2019, at US$ 10,900 in current terms)
Singapore for its unique hub-driven economy which is not indicative of wider regional development trends
Southeast Asia has gained a global reputation as a dynamic and fast-growing region on the back of 20 years of high growth. That growth came from a mix of productivity increases, population growth, increased tourism, exports of commodities, and many other things. In many cases, the growth has followed a blueprint of “catching up” to more modern economies.
The question is what’s coming next, when the region’s economies turn more mature and when more of their future growth must come from innovation and productivity increases. We will seek to understand this topic better, in part by examining some of the key development dynamics present in the region:
Politics and inequality: Whether they are nominally democratic or communist, most of Southeast Asia’s economies are characterised by a symbiosis between a powerful political elite and an equally powerful commercial elite. It remains to be seen how this dynamic – which creates billionaires but limits broad economic participation – will spur or dampen future growth.
Brands and export discipline: While Southeast Asia exports lots of commodities, there’s very few examples of globally competitive Southeast Asian consumer brands. We’ll look closer at this space and try to understand what could happen next.
The e-commerce and digital revolution: COVID pulled the future into the present in terms of e-commerce/digital adoption in Southeast Asia, and actors of all sizes are investing heavily in this space. There’s a lot of hot air (Indonesian consumer fintech valuations, 3PL margin projections) but clearly also lots of real innovation. We’ll spend time trying to find the pockets of real opportunity.
What is Consumer, and why focus on it?
In short, it’s all the goods (durable and non-durable) and services that consumers purchase. We find this space fascinating because each consumer purchase in a capitalist economy (and all of Southeast Asia’s countries are heavily capitalist) represents an economic vote on a product, service, category, brand, and provider, and that sometimes allows us to look around corners and make smart bets. That’s the case in all capitalist societies, but even more so in developing ones where there’s still lots of friction, information asymmetry and fluid consumer preferences.
We’ve chosen to focus on consumer, rather than on digital or e-commerce where we have the most domain expertise, because we believe consumer trends are largely channel-agnostic. We believe the best way to predict what’s next, and to understand how to apply our digital skills, is to look deeply at what consumers want, and then to figure out how to apply our skills and expertise against that. It has to start with what consumers want, rather than a lens of digital transformation.
And what do they want? Most of the data sources we come across either feel too broad (Malaysia’s Department of Statistics for instance meticulously breaks down at-home food spending between sugar and meat, but lumps smartphone purchases - a new key purchase for younger generations - with postage fees and phone bills in ‘Communication’) or too forced into a narrative that forecasts developing economy consumers eventually duplicating the spending patterns of Europeans or Americans. We feel that neither properly captures what’s actually going on.
We believe the best way of understanding the space is to combine top-down and bottom-up sources, and to focus on one category or trend at a time. That methodology will shape our research and publishing in the coming months, starting with the grocery space. Some of our core research inputs are:
Consumer/household consumption data: Most countries release some form of categorised data on where consumers or households spend their money. Unfortunately, countries use very different categorization logics, and several Southeast Asian countries – including some of the largest economies – only offer partial or very dated data. We’ll use what’s available and call out the gaps.
Corporate filings and press search: We’re quite good at internet sleuthing, and there’s tons of interesting information available in publicly accessible filings and interviews. These sources reveal everything from category margins to shopfront rentals and brand growth metrics, allowing us to marry the top-down numbers with more qualitative insights. These filings also help us shine a light on conglomerate ownership structures, an ‘invisible hand’ that drives lots of moves in the SEA Consumer scene and often leads to counterintuitive outcomes.
Conversations and first-party insights: Nine years in the market has helped us build an extensive network across countries, sectors, and company types. We constantly trade insights and ideas with our network, allowing us to gain an even deeper level of understanding.
OK, but how is that a business?
Simply put, our mission is to understand this space better than anyone else, and to turn that into a business. We believe it’s large enough - today, for sure, but even more so in 5-10 years - to really bet on, and we believe our experience and passion allows us at least a right to play in turning that into a business. For now our main monetization will be consulting (market entry, omnichannel strategy, digital marketing strategy), but over time we’ll amp up our investments in the space, and likely also start a venture or two when we come across especially interesting areas of opportunity. For now, we’ll just take it one question, one post and one day at a time.