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While app development is gaining traction, monetising apps remains a challenge for the Cambodian market. Photo supplied
While app development is gaining traction, monetising apps remains a challenge for the Cambodian market. Photo supplied

Warming up the state of apps despite lack of incentives

When it comes to app development, app sustainability, and app monetisation, the Kingdom is very much in its infancy – that much is agreed on by Cambodia’s top digital technology experts.

However, with more aspiring commercially viable apps vying for locals’ support via various business models, the current infant stage is showing much promise.

Although international apps like Facebook, YouTube, Line and Facebook Messenger still dominate the top tier of app popularity among Cambodians, there have been weighty efforts injected into the local app industry in tandem with the rise of e-commerce.

“Social media is still very much dominating app usage in the country, but in the coming months the launch of some key e-commerce apps will help boost the locally developed business app usage,” Steven Path, president of Cambodia’s ICT Federation, said.

Path is also the chief executive of Pathmazing, which is releasing Tesjor next month, the Kingdom’s first e-commerce ecosystem app.

Meaning ‘tourism’ in Khmer, the app is all about the food and beverage industry, where registered Tesjor users can use Tesjor points to order food, top up their Tesjor wallet through physical kiosks, and pay for their orders exclusively virtually through their online wallet or collected points.

With this launch, Path is confident and hopeful that “it will accelerate the e-commerce market here so that people are more comfortable completing transactions online, and it can also open up doors for other merchants.”

Path counts roughly a few hundred locally made apps in the market now. However, only about 20 of these are commercially viable.

According to a report released last year by Caribou Digital through the Mozilla Foundation titled Winners and Losers in the Global App Economy, “studies have shown that the reality for most developers is far from glamorous, with 60 percent making less than $500 per month from apps.”

The report went on to state that developers in low-income countries flounder with exporting apps onto the global scale.

“Sixty nine percent of developers [from low-income countries] were not able to export compared to high-income countries, where only 29 percent were not able to export.” This paints a stark contrast with the US, where only three percent of developers did not succeed in exporting.

Path attributes the frustrating state of app development in Cambodia to a lack of incentives and monetisation, and recognition from Google – one of the world’s two major app stores – of the country’s local banks.

“Companies making games don’t have access to making their apps chargeable on the Google Play Store because the businesses in Cambodia don’t have a merchant account. The local banks that an app company would want to work with to make their app chargeable is not recognised by Google,” he notes, adding that it is a huge hindrance in helping Cambodian apps become commercially viable.

While Apple recognises a number of local banks, Path is continuing to push forth for Google’s recognition of Cambodian banks to open smoother gateways for the country’s app growth that would generate a larger return on investment.

As highlighted in the report, “Google’s lack of support for developers in dozens of countries … prevents these developers from directly monetising through the app store, undoubtedly dampening participation and value capture in some of the lowest-income markets.”

According to Mike Gaertner, chief operations officer of Sabay Digital Group, the viability and commercial success of an app developed in Cambodia is still a very elusive goal. Gaertner pins this elusiveness to the 30,000 credit cards in use in the country – too paltry a number to aid apps’ monetising aspirations.

“With Apple and Google officially prohibiting any other payment options, this limits the chance of commercial success in the Cambodian app market,” he added.

Sabay, which published commercially sustainable mobile games several years ago but was shut down after Google’s and Apple’s policy change, currently directs its focus of mobile content distribution via Facebook.

Nevertheless, it still produces apps: its e-novel app was launched last week to encourage Cambodians to take up reading, while a Khmer card game was launched in January.

“After a successful beta period, the current uptake is very promising but we are in the very early stages and tuning of the app is a constant ongoing process,” Gaertner says.

He explains that many developers in Cambodia underestimate the costs involved in developing a good mobile app – “costs can easily exceed $100,000 if the app has international or local competitors.”

Furthermore, Gaertner says that finding ways to collect money for services is formidable if the app is not supported by ad sales or offline goods. In Cambodia, “the most widely available digital wallet is a user’s mobile balance, but only Cellcard is offering to charge for digital services.”

A vast portion of the smartphone market, thus, remains untapped for digital payments. A whopping 70 percent, to be precise.

With a Cambodian-focused content offering and the support of Cellcard for mobile billing of its e-Novel app, Gaertner is bullish that Sabay can flip the app into a commercial success story.

As with Sabay’s business model of monetisation, digital solutions company Mobimedia works closely with mobile operators to monetise apps due to the trifling credit card penetration in the Cambodian market.

Klara Grintal, Mobimedia Cambodia’s marketing and operations manager, said: “Because of that, app developers have to have a strategy in place to educate the user on how to incorporate apps in their lifestyle and make them stick. Also, we have to work out different business models that actually allow us to easier monetise our apps.”

Mobimedia is currently partnering with all Cambodian mobile operators, the most prominent being one with Smart Axiata for its Matchstix app, a social platform to meet and connect with new people. Matchstix Premium is exclusively available to Smart Axiata subscribers who can pay for the premium version with their mobile balance.

Leaving no stone unturned, Mobimedia is also in collaboration with the majority of local music labels to help them diversify their revenue streams and legally sell their music to a wider audience.

“E-commerce especially is on the rise in the country, and we have been partnering with payment gateway companies and Acleda Bank in their pursuit to offer their clients digital payments of more services,” Grintal says.

While the aforementioned report noted that many small markets in low-income countries do not seem to offer enough revenue potential to incentivize and support thriving domestic app production, Grintal prefers to see things through a glass half-full approach.

“I am actually impressed how supportive Cambodians are of local apps; they get behind it and young developers actually have a great feeling for addressing relevant needs and issues, and promoting their apps.”

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