Super App Helps Central America Cope with Coronavirus

The region is using an Asian tech trend to battle the economic impact of Covid-19. We investigate how OMNi can help users battle the pandemic while also creating opportunities for investors...

The dawn of 2021 is unlike any other new year in history.  The rollout of coronavirus vaccination programmes means humanity is emerging optimistically from the wreckage of 2020. Yet its clear that we will never go back to the old world, with a ‘new normal’ establishing itself around the globe.

For starters, it will take years for the vaccines to be fully implemented. That’s especially true in Central America, which lacks the medical infrastructure to vaccinate rural populations. So, in the meantime preventative measures, such as social distancing, will remain. Also, even when coronavirus has been controlled, people will keep many of the new practices. Face masks will become more common in the West, as they have long been in Asia, and society will be more cautious about potential sources of infection. More generally, many of the digital solutions that helped us get around pandemic restrictions, such as webinars instead of conferences, will remain popular even when lockdowns are lifted. Most countries around the world failed to control the spread of Covid-19. With experts warning that more pandemics are likely, governments and companies will favour technologies that can thrive during the next public health crisis.

A brave new world

Investors are already making bets on which companies will be best suited to this brave new world. For example, video conferencing platform, Zoom, has been one of the stockmarket’s best performers as it looks likely to become a central part of people’s post-pandemic lives. Another tech firm that seems well-placed to benefit is OMNi – Central America’s first ‘super app’. OMNi’s core business is fintech – think of Revolut or Monzo in the UK – but unlike those single purpose apps, it also offers a host of other services. For example, you can hail taxis, hire bikes and tune into live music streams, with plenty more features on the way. These digital solutions give Central Americans more control and choice in their financial, mobility, lifestyle and health decisions. And that will make OMNi a vital part of the region’s post-pandemic future and ensure the app’s uptake in Central America.

"OMNi lets Central Americans avoid handling potentially-infected bank notes…"

In the UK having a fintech app on your phone is a matter of convenience. But in a region where almost half the population don’t have access to traditional banks, it is revolutionary. It means poor Central Americans and those in the informal sector can make bank transfers, access credit or start saving. Of course, the spread of fintech to emerging markets was a trend well underway before the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus pandemic in March 2019. But the implementation of Covid-19 restrictions around the world accelerated the growth of fintech.

As health authorities attempted to limit physical interactions between people, it became clear that fintech offered a way for populations to avoid queuing at busy banks. Even for the non-banked, digital transfers are more hygienic than exchanging dirty cash notes. And that is one of the key ways OMNi helps Central America fight Covid-19 or any future pandemic – it replaces cash for millions of payments. From moving money between friends to taxi fares, OMNi lets Central Americans avoid handling potentially-infected bank notes. Indeed by providing a QR-based point-of-sales (POS) system to vendors that is cheaper and more accessible than existing options, OMNi willl help SMEs go cashless.

Social distancing

The central concept of OMNI – using a single digital platform to acquire a wide range of goods and services – is perfect for the age of social distancing. It avoids interaction with sales people, customer service assistants and fellow customers. And when you analyse the app’s different services in more detail it becomes clear just how well suited it is to social distancing.

Central America’s cities are filled with overcrowded busses, which remain the main form of transport for the majority of people. That’s because owning a car remains unaffordable to most, while, with the recent exception of Panama, no country in the region has built a modern urban rail system. When the pandemic hit, those bus journeys became major infection sites, spreading coronavirus between unwitting passengers. Slowly, authorities responded by limiting passenger numbers but that could never be a long-term solution in densely-populated cities that already suffer from poor transport networks. Instead, Central Americans have turned to safer mobility options, such as bicycles and electric scooters. OMNi had already launched the region’s first urban bike rental scheme in Costa Rica in 2019, so it was ready to help locals during the 2020 lockdown.

Virtual world

Live music concerts have also been hit by the pandemic. Put simply, when governments have to make difficult decisions about closing schools or businesses, listening to music is far down the list of priorities. Moreover, the very nature of gigs, where you have thousands of people pressed close to each other, means they are liable to spread infection. As a result, concerts will be the last events to resume and the first to be cancelled if coronavirus or another pandemic returns. Yet during the lockdown livestreams gained popularity, ranging from informal jam sessions by locked-down music stars to sophisticated virtual productions. OMNi took the lead during the peak of the pandemic by launching OMNi Sessions in April 2020. This showcased the best of Costa Rican talent during a series of free livestreams that entertained a nation in crisis. As a gesture of solidarity there was no charge for this service. Yet it has kickstarted a business unit that will benefit from the irrevocable shift to digital music events.

"while the pandemic will eventually recede to the past, it is already shaping our future…"

One reason Central America was hit so hard by the pandemic is that, apart from Costa Rica, most countries in the region have woefully underfunded health systems. Those long-standing deficiencies were exposed by coronavirus, as public hospitals struggled to cope with the pandemic. OMNi is now planning to roll out a range of health services to help. Its extensive user database allows it to act as a broker for targeted health insurance, including micro health products, helping to make private healthcare more accessible to low-income and informal workers. It can also connect people directly to doctors in their area, helping them to find a quick, affordable appointment. Or, if the patient wishes, it can be a video check-up that avoids the need for a potentially dangerous journey. If the doctor gives a prescription, then OMNi will be able to arrange for the medicine to be delivered from the pharmacy. And finally, all of this information can be stored on your digital medical record, which means future doctors will have all of your vital information. Again, it’s worth noting that telehealth was already gaining ground but with the pandemic it has become more important. OMNi Health will be launched in Costa Rica in spring 2021 before expanding to the rest of the region throughout the year.

Historians will remember 2021 as the year humans began to tame Covid-19. But while the pandemic will eventually recede to the past, it is already shaping our future. Innovations like OMNi, which is helping Central America cope with coronavirus, will become more important in the brave new world that we are entering.