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When political outsider Joko Widodo was first sworn in as Indonesia’s president five years ago, a little company called Go-Jek Indonesia was barely known. Their rise together since then has broken a technology barrier that was holding back the world’s fourth-most-populous country and promises the chance for a better future.
Jokowi, as he’s known, is starting his second term with the dramatic, yet pragmatic, appointment to his cabinet of Nadiem Makarim, CEO and co-founder of what’s now called Gojek, which has gone from ridehailing novelty to one of the engines of tech transformation in Indonesia.
Gojek has issued a statement that its president, Andre Soelistyo, and the other co-founder, Kevin Aluwi, would be joint CEO.
A play on the word ojek, or motorcycle taxi, Gojek was mostly operating as a call center for courier deliveries and motorbike rides when Jokowi took office. Three months later, Gojek launched the mobile app that would make it one of Southeast Asia’s biggest startups, with a valuation of around $10 billion.
Today, Gojek offers ridehailing, food delivery, payments and a host of other digital products not just in Indonesia, a nation of some 265 million people, but throughout the region. More importantly for Jokowi, it has more than two million drivers and 400,000 merchants on its platform — creating far more jobs and livelihoods than an iPhone factory ever could.
In Indonesia, Gojek is now a national champion. Its riders vie on Jakarta’s notoriously crowded streets with those of Singapore-based rival Grab Taxi, both of them oddly liveried in green and black. They notably upended Uber Technologies’ expansion into Southeast Asia and are vigorously competing around the region, total population nearly 650 million.
Now, Gojek will have a man on the inside. Harvard-educated Makarim, 35, resigned from the company Monday in order to join the cabinet, portfolio to be determined. The appointment is in line with Jokowi’s goal of bringing industry professionals and millennials into the inner circle.
Jokowi set policies in motion early in his first term to open the economy. They have had mixed success. A deep streak of economic nationalism has long frustrated foreign direct investors. Growth has chugged along at a steady 5 percent for years. He has struggled against entrenched interests. Yet at a time when regulators and traditional taxi companies worldwide were pushing back against ridehailing companies, Jokowi’s government refused to crush them. His biggest contribution may have simply been to get out of Gojek’s way.
Being a local favorite hasn’t hurt Gojek. It now has a coveted e-money license, allowing it to offer financial services to millions of customers who don’t have a bank account or credit card. Grab now gets around this by teaming up with local partner OVO.
Gojek isn’t alone in Indonesia’s expanded tech universe. Online travel provider Traveloka, e-commerce company Tokopedia and online marketplace Bukalapak have all become unicorns. From $8 billion in 2015, the internet economy grew to $40 billion this year and will triple again to $130 billion by 2025, according to a research report from Google, Temasek and Bain & Co.
The common element: Each operates in a space called O2O, or online-to-offline. They leverage internet technology to deliver physical-world services, helping people eat, shop, and travel in a nation where infrastructure is unevenly parceled out across 18,000 islands straddling the Indian and Pacific oceans.
A strong and viable digital services economy employing millions was an accidental achievement of Jokowi’s first term. It may not be enough to sustain future economic growth, however. The president and the entrepreneur will need to sit down and write the second act.
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.