SouthXChange: Unveiling Investment Gems in South Asia’s Startup Ecosystem

SouthXChange, an event held in Singapore, emerged as a crucial nexus to bring together investors from Southeast Asia and ecosystem players to meet a collection of the brightest startups from South Asia. South XChange was supported by Google Cloud, nVentures, Aspire, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) CATALYZE Sri Lanka Private Sector Development (PSD) Activity.

Thirteen startups from Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh participated in a two-day program in Singapore designed to facilitate cross-learning between South Asia and Southeast Asia. South Asian startups are often overshadowed by their Indian counterparts, so SouthXChange preferred them an opportunity to present their compelling narratives of growth, resilience, and innovation to an audience of successful entrepreneurs, seasoned investors, and potential partners.

Rakin Savi, Founder & CEO of Hishabee, said that he especially valued the networking that came with the opportunity. “We received a lot of information about how to get access to the Southeast Asian market. We learned the legal aspects of this, and had visits to Glints and Aspire. I got a really good idea of the local ecosystem, especially what exists with all the startups here.”

The choice of Singapore as the venue for SouthXChange was strategic. Chalinda Abeykoon, Managing Partner of nVentures, said, “Connecting emerging South Asia with Southeast Asia via Singapore has always been our strategy. We are excited to enhance the startup ecosystem with continued support from USAID CATALYZE PSD, which helps boost the readiness of entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka. As an early-stage Venture Capital (VC) fund, we believe founders learn the most from other founders.”

Ranked high in the Global Startup Ecosystem and Innovation Index, Singapore offers a compelling environment for startups to interact with a sophisticated investor base. Its ascension to a global innovation hub positions it perfectly to bridge South Asian startups with international capital.

The Untapped Investment Goldmine in South Asia

The SouthXChange event came on the heels of Google Cloud’s enhancement of its Google for Startups Cloud Program. This expansion offers increased advantages to early-stage startups, from seed to Series A, in Pakistan. It specifically targets those enterprises employing artificial intelligence as the fundamental technology for creating their main products or solutions.

Oscar Ramos, Managing General Partner of Orbit Startups and Venture Partner of SOSV said, “The development of Emerging Markets is one of the most exciting opportunities within our generation. This region’s a game-changer, and we’re stoked to be part of it.”

Venture capital investing in South Asia, particularly in countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, has been burgeoning, albeit at a pace that’s yet to match India’s explosive growth. However, a closer look at the per capita venture capital investing reveals an upward trajectory. According to Statista, the capital raised in these countries in 2023 has shown promising growth, with Sri Lanka standing out at approximately $1.98 per capita. This data not only reflects growing investor confidence but also hints at a largely untapped market ripe for venture capital exploitation.

The South Asian startup ecosystem, while rich in innovation, has faced an uphill battle in attracting capital. While historical data reveals a stark contrast in venture capital per capita between India and those of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, recent figures paint a different story. As per 2023 data from Statista, there’s a noticeable uptick in the capital raised in these emerging markets, demonstrating a burgeoning growth trajectory, with venture capital investments steadily rising. 

Jun Ho Bae, Venture lead at Tenity observed that, “Regional investors should pay attention to South Asian startups because the market is huge, the potential is there, and there’s a lot of gaps to be filled with technology in those regions.”

This shift is not incidental but a result of a concerted effort by the governments in these countries. Initiatives like Pakistan’s “Digital Pakistan Vision,” Bangladesh’s dual focus on digital government and “Smart Bangladesh Vision 2041,” and Sri Lanka’s “DIGIECON 2030” indicate a strategic drive towards leveraging technology for socio-economic development. 

Governmental backing creates a fertile ground for startups to innovate and scale, addressing local challenges while generating positive social impacts. Their efforts are supported by organisations like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which strive to drive greater development results by partnering with the Private Sector. For example, through USAID CATALYZE Sri Lanka Private Sector Development (PSD) Activity, USAID Sri Lanka is working to enhance private capital infusion into crucial sectors of the Sri Lankan economy, with a particular focus on bolstering the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector to catalyze innovation, economic growth, and workforce development, especially for women.

Demystifying South Asian Markets for Investors

According to World Economics, an organization providing comprehensive economic data, 24 countries that represent the emerging markets account for 50% of Global GDP and 66% of global GDP growth over the past decade (2012-2022). These markets are home to over 4.3 billion people, which highlights their substantial role in the global economic landscape​​.

World Economics, an organization providing comprehensive economic data, says that emerging markets account for 50% of Global GDP and 66% of global GDP growth over the past decade (2012-2022). This shift heralds significant investment opportunities. For venture capitalists, the allure lies in tapping into these dynamic, rapidly evolving markets, ripe with untapped potential and poised for transformative growth.

South Asia with combined population exceeding 430 million, a median age of 27, and an increasing digital adoption signals a vast, youthful, and tech-savvy consumer base. The region’s infrastructural, environmental and social challenges further amplify the potential and the need for innovative, disruptive technologies. The region is compelling for the following reasons.

  • Bangladesh: With 180 million mobile subscribers, Bangladesh is now the ninth-largest mobile market globally. Coverage of Internet services has grown from 1% to about 90% of the population, which is fueling consumer spending and the adoption of digital financial services, and reportedly, daily transactions are worth $200 million (BCG). More than 2,500 startups have created 1.5 million jobs and attracted US$880 million in funding over the last decade. There is a high level of expertise and leadership capabilities within the Bangladeshi talent pool, with Bangladeshi talent increasingly taking the top positions in multinational companies (MNCs) operating in the country.

  • Sri Lanka: A burgeoning market for tech innovation that is cultivating a culture for digital adaptability, Sri Lanka is still at the early stage of a digital revolution. More than 24 percent of companies in Sri Lanka have a higher digital maturity and significantly outperform the market, demonstrating two to five times more revenue growth and providing faster returns to shareholders over a five-year period compared to their peers (McKinsey). With its pool of highly skilled professionals and progressive culture, Sri Lanka is poised for exponential growth in the IT sector, and investment is increasing for diversified high-end technologies and business process solutions, encompassing cutting-edge areas like IoT, AR, VR, blockchain, fintech, and robotics (Daily Mirror). 

  • Pakistan: With the world’s fifth-largest population and a significant English-speaking demographic, technology startups in Pakistan raised a record $350 million in  2021, and the first half of 2022 saw over $227 million raised. The information technology (IT) services sector in Pakistan has emerged as the country’s largest net services exporter, valued at $2.62 billion in FY 2022 (Atlantic Council). Pakistan aims for the technology industry to contribute at least $20 billion to its GDP by 2025. 10,000 software houses are registered with the SECP, with Lahore being the tech hub of the country. The mobile market in Pakistan has seen robust growth, with a staggering 3.52 billion app downloads in 2022 (Data Darbar).

Spotlight on Startups: Where Innovation Meets Investment Potential

The startups featured at SouthXChange each represent a unique investment opportunity. From fintech to agritech, these startups are not just innovating, they are actively solving regional problems, thereby opening doors to vast markets. 

Farhan S Qureshi, Google’s Director for South Asia Frontier region said, “Our support for SouthXChange reinforces our commitment to enabling startups to scale their delivery of innovative products and services. South Asia has the potential to be the next innovation hub and we are excited to be empowering daring founders in the region through tailored startup programs and AI-powered solutions.”

The Road Ahead: Beyond Borders and Growth

The startups at SouthXChange, while rooted in local contexts, have their sights set on regional and global horizons. This ambition, coupled with their proven capabilities and innovative solutions, makes them ideal candidates for venture capital investment. Their success stories have the potential to not just transform their respective industries but also to place South Asia firmly on the global startup map.

Monis Rahman, co-founder of described the event: “SouthXChange has been a highly impactful event covering all the essentials for high-growth startups. It has been energizing with many new connections and actionable insights.”  

SouthXChange stood as a pivotal gateway for venture capitalists looking to tap into the burgeoning South Asian market. For investors, it was more than a mere gathering; it was a rare opportunity to be at the forefront of an entrepreneurial wave set to reshape the economic landscape of an entire region. 

With strategic investments, venture capitalists have the unique chance to fuel the growth of startups from South Asia, turning them into regional and potentially global success stories, and in the process, reap significant returns on their investments.

List of Participating Startups 

AgriFintechBangladeshAgroshift is a technology platform transforming the agri-supply chain of Bangladesh. We are building an omni-channel agri commerce platform for low and middle income consumers of Bangladesh through community buying, micro fulfilment and embedded finance
B2B SaaS & FintechBangladeshHishabee is a vertical SaaS, that transforms the operations of traditional pen-and-paper businesses. With over 230,000 small businesses registered on the platform, Hishabee enables digital record-keeping, propelling these businesses into the digital era and facilitating e-commerce and digital lending. Hishabee exhibits a remarkable 20% month-over-month steady revenue growth while actively contributing to social impact initiatives aligned with Sustainable Development Goals 5, 8, and 9.
B2B FintechBangladeshA former Unilever executive is spearheading SupplyLine, a Bangladeshi Fintech revolutionizing retail distribution. Within a $174 billion market, they bridge neighborhood stores with suppliers and banks. Addressing cash crunch challenges, they extend 7-day credit and collaborate with microcredit giant BRAC. Supported by industry experts, they serve 4,000+ stores and seek a USD 1 million in funding to drive innovation, transforming the CPG distribution landscape.
AgriFinTechBangladeshWEGRO is a platform connecting investors with smallholder farmers, promoting sustainable agriculture. Users invest in farming projects, earning returns from harvest sales. This model empowers farmers economically while providing investors a unique opportunity to support agriculture. WEGRO financed $6MN to 7k farmers in last 2 years of operation.
e-commerceBangladeshPickaboo redefines the mobile, gadgets, and electronics retail of the $10.5 billion market. In the current financial year 2023, Pickaboo generated nearly 1M+ revenue from $7.9M sales and achieved 20.35% average quarterly growth. Serving over 576K registered users, Pickaboo earned an NPS of 4.6/5.
BNPLSri LankaMintpay, Sri Lanka’s pioneer BNPL and cashback aggregator platform, serves 150k+ active customers and has 1,000+ leading partner merchants in its portfolio. Demonstrating an impressive 300% year-on-year growth, Mintpay solidifies its position as a key player in Sri Lanka’s fintech sector with its innovative financial solutions.
B2B SaaSSri LankaSimplebooks has digitized the incorporation of over 4,500 companies in Sri Lanka, and is the market leader with  18% market share in company registrations. It has enjoyed an impressive 42% growth in gross sales over the past two financial years.  Currently, the platform is being tested in India starting with company secretaries in Chennai. 
8Kaiju Labs 
web3Sri LankaBacked by Ripple through XRPL Accelerator, Kaiju Labs builds a no code backend as a service for Games with inbuilt Web3 support that makes it 10x simpler and cost-effective allowing developers to build their games easier and ship faster.
9Smart COOP 
FintechSri LankaSmart COOP is a digital platform that digitizes the entire process of co-operative banks / credit unions. It also provides a mobile application for members to enable access to their accounts and information in real time. To date, SmartCOOP has digitized over 250 societies that serves more than 700,000 members.  
FintechPakistanDukan provides digital banking and ecommerce infrastructure to 440k MSMEs and their supply chains, embedding financial services in their transactional workflows. The company partners with banks, telcos, and wallet providers to enable data-driven credit scoring and provides end-to-end white labeled vertical ERP’s to digitize and enable unsecured SME lending. The company is profitable.
11Unity Retail 
e-commercePakistanUnity Retail is Pakistan’s pioneering e-commerce logistics marketplace startup, similar to Powered by our AI-enabled SaaS platform, online sellers just need to sign up, top up and start shipping. With a single KYC across all couriers built into the platform, sellers can spend time on directly improving customer experience instead of onboarding and integrations. In the past year, Unity Retail has improved its revenue per shipment 3x, and has experienced 250% revenue growth. 
Booking PlatformPakistanBookme is Pakistan’s biggest booking platform with over 12 million customers. Bookme digitized the ticketing market of 5th largest population. Bookme just turned profitable this year with growth of 18 percent QoQ. It has raised over 10 million dollars and has been offered 2 acquisition offers by 2 multibillion $ companies.
13Red Buffer 
AIPakistanRed Buffer stands at the forefront of AI-driven innovation, providing software services and solutions that propel businesses forward. Their expertise has catalyzed success for over 50 clients through more than 150 projects, culminating in their clients securing upwards of $60M in funding and achieving 4 strategic acquisitions. Red Buffer’s commitment to excellence has established them as a linchpin in the technological transformation of the finance, legal tech, insurance, and health tech sectors.