Geopolitical tensions across the world have led to investing becoming political which is unfortunate, Bob van Dijk, the group chief executive of Naspers and Prosus, one of the largest technology investors in the world, told ET in an exclusive interaction.
His comments come in the backdrop of a global backlash against Chinese technology firms, including ByteDance-owned short video platform TikTok, because of data security issues.
India banned 59 Chinese origin apps last month, including TikTok, and there have been reports suggesting that the United States could follow suit, amid a larger US-China trade war that has been raging between the two countries for some time.
Read full interview: India remains a top destination for us, still as excited about our portfolio, not worried about Jio: Bob van Dijk
Elaborating on the impact of country-wise groupings that pit US and Chinese technology companies against each other, van Dijk said, “Foreign investors are a great source for stimulating local economies and growth. We are a global company — neither Chinese nor US — and we have always worked through local entrepreneurs, keeping jobs local which has served us well…”
Naspers was an early investor in Chinese technology behemoth Tencent and gained prominence as a tech investor globally on the back of the stupendous returns it generated from the Pony Ma-founded company.
“I cannot speak for Tencent, as they make their own investments and decisions…We have always made sure that we keep the jobs, decision making and the IP creation local. That’s always been good for us,” said van Dijk.
As for India, the South Africa-based group ploughed $500 million in the previous financial year, taking its overall investment in the country to $5 billion since 2014.
It has bet on food delivery platform Swiggy, educational technology company Byju’s, among others. It also owns and operates fintech venture PayU and classifieds firm OLX here.
India, van Dijk said, will remain the group’s top investment destination. “In India, we’ve felt welcome as an investor for a long time — being supported to bring not only capital but also knowledge — and I really want to commend Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi and Piyush Goyal (commerce and industry minister) on making doing business easier…,” he said.
Last year, Prosus, spun off from media and internet conglomerate Naspers, was listed in Amsterdam. The new entity houses all the consumer internet assets of the group, including its holdings in Indian companies such as Swiggy, Byju’s and social commerce startup Meesho, among others.
The Indian internet ecosystem has seen a major shift recently, with Mukesh Ambani-owned Jio Platforms scooping up about $20 billion from the likes of Facebook, Google and a dozen other marquee investors.
While Jio has been an impressive company — more so with its new investments — innovation will come from startups, said van Dijk, adding companies that directly compete with Jio may need to worry going forward.
“If you look at the investments we’ve done in India, it has always been in companies that are great founder-led businesses, which pushed innovation and executed well locally. And, in my experience, a lot of value creation happens through innovation and typically by startups… very few large companies manage to truly innovate…,” he pointed out.
When asked if the Reliance-Facebook-Google collective would deter the group from doubling down on India, van Dijk said, “If you’re directly competing with a product coming out of the Jio portfolio, then it may be something to scratch your head over, because they are formidable. If I look at our businesses, I don’t think they compete directly with what they run today, so I’m less focused on it…”
On the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on various portfolio businesses, van Dijk said the effect has been varied depending on their geographic presence, while recoveries have also been different depending on supply chains and operational complexities of each country.
“What we have seen across most of our businesses is a fairly solid recovery once the most immediate lockdowns were lifted…In India, we saw recovery in digital payments and classified, but food has been slower, but in the long-term, we will see an accelerated shift in people’s behaviour online — whether it is payments, buying products or delivery services,” he said.
Swiggy, where Prosus owns around 40% stake, has been severely hurt by the Covid-19 led lockdown while food-delivery businesses have excelled in the United States and Europe. Prosus is a shareholder in Germany’s Delivery Hero and owns a controlling stake in Brazil’s iFood.