Tharum's blog

How startups in Cambodia navigate the pandemic

by Tharum Bun

[This story was first published on Kiripost: How Cambodia’s Startups Surf the Uncertainty of the Global Pandemic]

The ripple effects created by the pandemic uncertainty have tested Cambodia’s startups and small and medium-sized businesses. It has transformed Cambodia’s startup landscape for better and for worse.

Notably, Covid-19 has spurred digital consumption as many new users switched to online services for the first time. Many startups — especially in the travel sector — have faced major setbacks, but those providing access to essential goods, education and entertainment have seen accelerated growth.

A Surge in Deliveries

Across the capital of Phnom Penh, motorbike food-delivery riders are busy taking newly-cooked meals to the customers’ doorsteps. Their presence grew rapidly amid lockdowns and restricted mobility, and continue to flourish.

Amid a boom, a multitude of delivery startups are trying to build their base in Cambodia, including Meal Temple, Nham24, FoodPanda, Muvve, Bloc, GrabMart and many more.

Borima Chann, CEO and co-founder of food delivery service Nham24, told Kiripost that his business needed to be agile.

“As with any other business, the Covid-19 crisis took us by surprise, and we had to adapt quickly. Although it was very unfortunate that we have had to go through this pandemic, we were lucky enough to have the time to prepare,” Borima said.

Social distancing and citywide lockdowns triggered the surge in delivery service adoption. Changes in consumer behavior — which may have taken years to develop — happened overnight. Lasting adoption gives some businesses in this sector a glimpse of hope of getting through a tough time.

Some local startups already saw market demand rise well before the global pandemic, and with new funding and investment, a startup like Muuve was able to scale up its operations following its founding in early 2018.

And like other countries in Southeast Asia, Cambodia has two emerging startup sectors, ed-tech and health-tech.

Why? Having more time at home contributes to spending more time online. For some, it’s time for online entertainment, whether it’s music or movie streaming. But for lifelong learners and students, and curious minds, online learning and education is a new daily routine.

Some of Cambodia’s startups in ed-tech include Sala Enrollment, Edemy, eSchool Cambodia, Wikischool, TesDopi and Velocity. In health-tech, there are PillTech, MeetDoctor, and PetYoeung.

Also: As Covid-19 Rules Fall, Businesses Face an Uncertain Future

The Setbacks

Meanwhile, travel-related businesses have had an especially hard time during the Covid-19 crisis.

Unlike Nham24, which scaled up its operations to keep up with growing demand, online bus ticketing platform BookMeBus took a big hit. Chea Langda, its founder and CEO, told Kiripost that its growth trajectory had been disrupted.

“No one is fully prepared for a pandemic like Covid-19, especially those in the travel sector. For BookMeBus, we were growing very well both with local and international travelers,” Langda said.

“Since the pandemic began, we aren’t able to welcome any foreign travelers and with a number of travel restrictions, even the locals aren’t traveling as much as before.”

In early 2020, BookMeBus quickly shifted its focus to providing mobile grocery stores. However, its Grocery Mobility platform didn’t gain much traction to take off.

“While we are still operational, the low demand and uncertainty are certainly not good for our team’s morale,” Langda said.

However, with the founder’s persistence and supports from bus company partners, BookMeBus can navigate through the pandemic waves. In the mid of the country's lockdown, BookMeBus partnered with one of Cambodia's largest bus operators to quickly launch Vtenh, a Lazada-like e-commerce site.

But the unforeseen shock of Covid-19 continues to push more Cambodians toward digital channels. Some 52.6% of the population is online mostly through their mobile phones, representing more untapped opportunities.

In addition to Covid-19, convenience and saving time drove the adoption of e-commerce among young Cambodians, and many SMEs will have no choice but to move online to meet the growing demand.

Nham24’s Borima said one needed to be bold despite the uncertainties.

“The lesson is: don’t wait for others to act in the face of a crisis. Take your destiny in your own hands, don’t be afraid of making decisions, and don’t shy away from asking others for help and advice.”