World Economy

Softbank Takes Driving Seat in India Online Shake-Up

SoftBank is the biggest investor in India’s leading ride-share player Ola.SoftBank is the biggest investor in India’s leading ride-share player Ola.

After plowing about $2 billion into minority stakes in Indian e-commerce businesses over the past few years, Japan’s SoftBank is upping the stakes, looking to play consolidator and take a more active role at a trio of leading start-ups.

According to sources with direct knowledge of the matter, the solar-to-tech conglomerate is seeking to secure a piece of India’s industry leaders in everything from payment systems to online shopping and groceries, in a series of deals that would shake up the $65 billion sector, Reuters reported.

Among the most high-profile plans is SoftBank’s push to engineer a merger between Snapdeal, the No. 3 player in one of the world’s most competitive online markets and one of its biggest Indian investments to date, and market leader Flipkart. The deal could be finalized as soon as next week, one of the sources said.

SoftBank has poured roughly $1 billion into Snapdeal since 2014, but competition in e-commerce has risen dramatically with US giant Amazon cranking up its presence and taking the No. 2 spot from Snapdeal.

Besides Snapdeal, SoftBank is also close to finalizing a cash infusion of more than $1 billion into Alibaba-backed digital payments firm Paytm—another leader in a highly competitive sector—giving it a more direct say in that group too, according to one source familiar with discussions.

Media reports have separately linked SoftBank to a tie-up between grocery delivery group Grofers, in which it has invested roughly $70 million, and market leader and rival BigBasket.

SoftBank, Snapdeal, Paytm and BigBasket did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Grofers said the company did not comment on merger speculation.

At the heart of the push is the charismatic Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s founder and chairman, the sources said. Son has taken a more active role in the group globally since last year, when he pushed aside his heir apparent, Nikesh Arora.

SoftBank is best-known for its hugely lucrative early stage bet in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, in which it is still the single largest investor. But it has also been a long-time supporter of India—and with some success.

“Son is thinking India is the place where he will create one or two Alibabas,” said one of the sources familiar with SoftBank ambitions, adding Son sees the country right now as the “land of golden opportunity”.

SoftBank is the biggest investor in India’s leading ride-share player Ola, which competes with Uber, and its top hotel aggregator Oyo. Son and other partners have also pledged to pour $20 billion into solar projects in the energy-hungry South Asian nation.

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