APP OPPORTUNITIES AVAILABLE IN MENA
Attractive Sectors for New Entrants
In early 2012, Facebook found itself in a position that many businesses find themselves in today; the people using Facebook were migrating away from the desktop website to the mobile web and mobile apps—a behavior spurred by the rapid adoption of Apple’s iphone and Android-based smartphones.
Later that year, Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how the company pivoted
interview to become a mobile first enterprise during an at Techcrunch Disrupt. The bet worked and today Facebook is one of the most pervasive and heavily-used mobile applications out there.
From Offline to Mobile, Skipping the Desktop Age
While the shift to mobile is perhaps less of a pressing existential dilemma for non-technology firms, it is undeniable that the consumer behavior around it is having a significant impact on how businesses acquire, engage
with, retain, and drive long-term value from their customers.
Let’s look at the three largest markets in the MENA region (the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt) with the number of people on Facebook and their mobile behavior as a proxy for the market as a whole.
The numbers in Figure 1 speak for themselves. People in the region overwhelmingly use mobile devices as their primary computing device and within that Android devices represent the substantial majority. This is a growing market, waiting to be served.
Mobile devices are blurring the lines between the physical and digital worlds,
Uber Careem enabling the realtime mediation of supply and demand. Apps like or could not have existed on desktop; the service they provide is born from behavior inherent to mobile. This same consumer behavior is permeating businesses in all sectors. People coming online for the first time are doing so from mobile devices, free from the legacy of the desktop web with no particular affinity for the brands and services that shaped that era.
What is also clear is that native mobile applications are handily winning against the mobile web, as illustrated by the charts from Flurry, a mobile analytics firm (Figure 2 and Figure 3). These charts are based on US data, but given that smartphone usage in MENA over-indexes the rest of the world, the trend shown is likely more pronounced in the region.
While fostering an ecosystem that can help build an export economy for apps from the MENA region is a worthy ambition, equally, there is a more immediate opportunity for local businesses to build services that cater to regional specificities. Online retail is an example of a sector that has been quick to embrace this.
All of the major ecommerce players in the region have released native mobile apps in the past year or so and in most regional markets rank above international competitors like Amazon and Wish in the local app stores.
Local pricing, delivery times, ability to easily return items, cash-on-delivery, local language support both in terms of the interface and customer service are all requirements that favor local apps compared to global ones.
A Case from the West
A good example of a traditional business adapting to this reality by analyzing the behavior of their customers, identifying market opportunity, and using the technology tools available to build an app that delivers both utility and delight to their customers while also making a significant contribution to their business is the US retailer Target and its
Target already had a legacy desktop and mobile friendly ecommerce site and a newer ecommerce app. However, their physical locations remained a fundamental part of their business, so they built a separate app whose sole purpose is to assist customers with product discovery based on their purchase history and then drive customers in store to purchase those items, incentivizing them to do so using coupons, a distinctly US consumer behavior.
Within a few weeks of launch, the Cartwheel app was already seeing a significantly higher number of downloads than the existing ecommerce app. This trend has remained the same ever since, making Cartwheel a core part of Target’s digital strategy.
The App Opportunity for Businesses in MENA
Based on a personal assessment, combined with some of the other data presented in this article, here’s an attempt at mapping the opportunities for apps in the MENA region on both IOS and Android. When thinking about weighting the opportunities, some of the following factors were taken into account: strength of existing players in the space, whether those players have generic propositions or if their services are tailored to the region, the white spaces that exist for potential disruption in a given sector, and how much impact such disruption could have. Though not comprehensive, this chart indicates that while there are some strong regional players in these key categories, other areas are wide open.
Time to Think Mobile
First In conclusion, mobile devices are where a growing majority of people are spending most of their time, and spending time in apps is what they’re doing on those devices.
Given the lead times involved, if you’re building something now, think of how the world going to look like in 18 months when you ship it. One thing that is clear is that if you’re not thinking mobile first, and more specifically, about building an app rather than web, then it may be worth
going back to the drawing board.
The good news is that building an app today is easier than ever before and likely to get even easier over time. Solutions like which Facebook acquired in 2013.
Finally, the important thing to bear in mind is that the best mobile apps focus on solving for one particular problem. The opportunity for your business is to zero in on a particular pain point and build an app that addresses it, thus allowing your business not only to serve existing customers more effectively, but also to use the app as a channel to acquire new ones.