“We were selling a dream.” 

That’s how Emeka Ajene and his co-founder Greg Costamagna described traipsing around the motorbike parks of Lomé, Togo’s capital city, in 2018, trying to convince skeptical motorcycle drivers to join their new ride-hailing service. That ride-hailing service would be the first feature of an ambitious super app called Gozem, which would rapidly expand to offer food delivery, e-commerce, and financial services.

Picking Togo — population 8 million, gross national income per capita $1,670 (2019) — wouldn’t be your obvious choice in West Africa for a consumer-facing tech startup, much less a multipurpose super app. To the west, Ghana offers a larger, fast-growing and stable economy, while one country over to the east is Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy and home to the continent’s most vibrant tech hub.

But Ajene, Costamagna, and Raphael Dana, Gozem’s third co-founder, focused on what they saw as the underserved digital markets of Francophone Africa, starting with Togo, moving next to Benin and then on to Gabon.

“There’s a certain market pull towards super apps for bottom-of-the-pyramid users, as they eliminate certain pain points that multiple, single-purpose apps present to users,” said Ajene, who had previously worked with Uber in Nigeria. Those pain points include challenges, like most consumers owning cheaper low-storage smartphones, which force the user to delete some apps in order to download others, and the overall cost of internet data. “[Super apps] bundle together frequently used services, like transport, shopping, delivery, and more into a uniquely high ‘bang for your buck’ experience to this value-conscious segment, and they also present an often underappreciated economic boost and job creation for local economies,” Ajene told Rest of World.

Nearly a decade earlier, Dana and Costamagna said they had seen the success and power of super apps in Singapore and other Southeast Asian markets, with players including Grab, Gojek and Tokopedia. They believed there were very similar socioeconomic dynamics in African markets.

On the one hand, entering a market with limited competition like Togo seems to have had obvious advantages, but a lot of the early work the team did was building both the supply and the demand for their services: for instance, convincing drivers the new service offered a more steady way to earn a living. The pitch was that rather than you, as a driver,  hanging around taxi parks for half a day waiting for passengers, you could have a regular stream of passengers who could contact you. 

Gozem came into the market as smartphone sales were just beginning to tick up. But it’s one thing for an informal worker — earning the equivalent of $5 to $10 a day — to own a smartphone, it’s entirely another thing for them to pay for the data to try out unfamiliar apps. This was not an easy sell.

But here’s the thing: the desire to position Gozem’s offering as a super app is part of a broader trend in developing and emerging markets that are trying to catch up with the rest of the world. They are also inspired in part by Chinese behemoths, WeChat and Alipay, who between them serve nearly 2 billion users a month across China and parts of Southeast Asia.

Real and wannabe super apps have proliferated across the world, from El Salvador to Kenya, over the last few years, spurred on most recently by Covid-19 lockdowns that accelerated the need for more real-world digital consumer services. The challenge in many markets has been to get around digital infrastructure barriers, including expensive internet data, phones with limited storage, and low financial inclusion rates. 

But when you overcome those structural challenges — even partly — successful super apps become uniquely good at managing user flow, said Mark Greeven, a professor of innovation and strategy at the IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland. “I’m leveraging these users to third parties of other services, whether they’re taxi drivers or buying airline tickets,” he said. “I can get all these things through to you conveniently, then every transaction might become a commission, and the more I expand, the more I add to my super app, and the more I know about my customer.”

For entrepreneurs and investors, the appeal seems obvious: build a walled-garden ecosystem of services, so your app gets to provide almost every waking consumer need, and, thanks to captured user data, it has a competitive advantage to anticipate and then upsell even more profitable services as you build it out.

The key is to offer essential services that consumers want in the first place, and that’s where it gets tricky. Most markets don’t have the size and scale or homogeneity that helped WeChat and Alibaba succeed in China. That’s very much the case in Africa, for example, where, in the last few weeks alone, there have been several plans announced to launch multicountry super apps with similar ambitions to Gozem’s. 

The players behind those efforts include two of the continent’s biggest phone companies, Vodacom and MTN, as well as Gokada, a motorcycle-focused transport app. OPay, a Nigeria-based super app ecosystem being built from scratch with backing from Chinese billionaire Zhou Yahui, is reported to be in the process of raising $400 million to expand beyond Nigeria and improve its fledgling payments system, transport network, and more.

“From a consumer standpoint, the concept of a super app makes sense to capitalize on a digitally resource-scarce demographic,” said Stephany Zoo, founder of China Africa Tech Initiative. “However, from an operational perspective, the amount of regulatory fragmentation over a large population makes Africa completely incomparable to China.” 

In Asia, investors, including SoftBank and Sequoia China, have backed super apps such as Singapore’s Grab and China’s Meituan. Alibaba and Tencent are investing in local super-app ecosystems beyond China, including last month’s $18 billion super-app merger between Indonesia’s two largest tech platforms: ride-hailing and delivery company Gojek and e-commerce site Tokopedia, creating the GoTo Group. The merger speaks to that desire for scale and consumer data to offer even more valuable services, particularly in the financial sector.

For Gozem, starting in a small market like Togo, it might look to the experience of Hugo in El Salvador for inspiration. After starting to challenge Uber, Hugo has expanded to offer services in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica and has reportedly been estimated to have done $50 million in yearly revenue last year. Gozem is looking to other Francophone Africa markets in West and Central Africa, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, and Cameroon.  

“Every company that wants to build a super app always has their own commercial self-interest in mind,” said Chris Boncimino, co-founder of Flow Networks and a former Visa VP for innovation in the Asia-Pacific region. “I don’t know that you could start from the idea that we want to be big — that’s a distribution problem, not a consumer problem.”

Regardless of size, what’s become clear for founders like Gozem’s over the last few years is that building super apps has become more necessity than vanity. They argue they’re serving a market need that they’ve anticipated as more smartphones and internet access become mainstream in underserved markets. The numbers Gozem’s founders disclose seem to suggest it’s gaining traction, with 2.5 million transactions and 500,000 users since launching 30 months ago. They also said they’re doing “several million dollars” in gross merchandise volume on an annual run rate.