When analyzing the rapid diffusion of innovation, we often talk about simple indicators such as overall population, mobile phone adoption rates, or GDP per capita.
They are super relevant, however, just having these alone will not give you ground for successful tech businesses. A key underlying force here is – population density, and equally importantly, connectivity.
Speak to anyone who has participated in e-commerce development in Africa, they will tell you it will take a long way. Not because the countries were poor, or the infrastructure was inadequate (the latter can be fixed if there is great commitment, and funding – just look at what Rwanda has achieved lately).
The key problem, many will tell you, is that the region is too big and sparsely populated.
What, Africa? You might be in shock. But yes, with almost the same population as China’s (and on course to overtake China in the next decades), Africa is more than 3 times bigger than China in Geography.
While countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia are densely populated, the great cities in Africa are just too far from each other. It takes almost 8 hours to fly from Johannesburg to Cairo. Talk about regional expansion or business connectivity.
South America, on the other hand, has a similar but different problem. Most of its population is concentrated along the coastal areas, making great cities far from each other again. From Bogota to Santiago de Chile, it would take more than 5 hours even before Covid-19. And even before Covid-19, there were not that many flights between the two cities.
Luckily, Southeast Asia, where I sit now, is more connected than you think, despite all these talks about its challenging geography, diversity and difficulties to deal with laws, customs and language.
It’s 650 million inhabitants (close to that of Latin America as a whole) are significantly clustered, with business centers more connected to and reachable from each other.
If you draw a circle of three hours flight distance from Singapore, you already include all the capitals and economic capitals of the region.
Now if you shorten the radius to two hours, excluding Manila and Hanoi, all the capital cities and economic capitals of the six major countries in the region are included.
There is a reason why 10 million passengers flew the routes Singapore <> Kuala Lumpur and Singapore <> Jakarta last year (before covid-19 for sure). Even compared to China and US, Southeast Asia is on par or at an advantage. From Beijing to Guangzhou it takes almost 3 hours, while New York to San Francisco takes more than 5 hours (and some dismal services, as frequent travelers on this route will attest to)
So should not Southeast Asia, and all of us working in the region, recognize this advantage and make better use of it?