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Filipino courier culture: How Southeast Asian super-app Grab puts Uber to shame

Posted by Ben Musgrove on 24th January 2023

Long-distance travel is inherently disorientating. Forcing your body to sleep when it wants to wake up, acclimatising to a new language, and not being able to eat the comfort food you’re inclined to stuff yourself with after a long day are all classic humps that can have you pining for the familiar comforts of home.

So, on my third day at M2.0 Communications in Manila on a PROI exchange—and on this side of the planet for the first time ever—it is my pleasure to accept the offer of a coffee from a kind colleague. This, at least, is something I don’t have to think about; a microcosm of the working day repeated a thousand times over.

I thank her. She goes back to her phone, and I go back to my work. We bustle about in comfortable silence. The pact is sealed.

Six minutes later, I feel a tap on my shoulder.

I turn around to face, what looks to me for all intents and purposes, a stern policeman. A mask covers most of his face; his eyes are a squint that could be anything from grim fury to vague confusion. He’s got the incredibly tightly-tucked-in white shirt of a man with authority, shoulder badge and all.

“Hello!” I say, giving him a big smile.

“What the hell is going on?” says my inside voice. I keep that bit to myself.

Silently, he hands me an unmarked brown bag, from which I retrieve a large double shot iced Americano the length of my forearm. The receipt tells me it equates to about half of my bus fare to work, including delivery.

When I look up to thank him, the policeman has already dematerialised.

I pat myself down to confirm that I’m actually in the room and not experiencing an incredibly banal fever dream back in my hotel. I sip the coffee, mostly to make sure that he was there.

But no, this is ‘Courier Culture’ in the Philippines.

Sense of security

More specifically, this is Grab—the decacorn super-app that combines the capabilities of Uber, Deliveroo, and Ocado in eight Southeast Asian countries. That includes Manila, a city where the traffic is so bad that you’re legally obligated not to drive your car on certain days, which you’d assume would ground the idea from the start.

The ‘policeman’, I later learn, is a security guard for the building. This isn’t something specific to my temporary employer either. As I explore Manila over the next couple of weeks, they’re as ubiquitous as street vendors or Jeepney (minibuses), acting as something between a receptionist and a deterrent. Yes to coffee, no to crime.

One of the more surreal experiences was spotting them at night, lurking under motorway bridges like conscientious goblins. They appear to be guarding nothing and nobody, falling asleep at uncomfortable metal tables in between bustling highways—shirts still tucked in.

They’re the last step in your Grab journey, which happens at a rate that puts Uber and its European cohorts to shame. Metro Manila is home to 13 million people—about 50% more than London—and yet the performance in terms of speed is disconcerting, for everything from condoms to pesticides (different nights). If you run out of booze at 11:30pm, you can be restocked by midnight.

Uber Eats, in contrast, is politely asking someone to bring your takeaway to you and then sitting on your hands for the best part of an hour. The company would tell you that most delivery times are under half an hour, but as someone who works in PR I’d dress up the stats as nicely as I could, too.

Grab Seize the day

On the transit side, not only can you find five Grab drivers ready to courier you to your destination on pretty much every block, they charge a basic rate based on the distance to your destination. There’s no incentive for your Grab driver to take a longer route—unlike Uber, where you’re slapped right in the overdraft if your driver takes the mickey with their route home.

You can also get picked up by a motorbike, which can be an imperative when the motorways snarl up—which happens every day. I’ve seen people dragged out of cars in central London for manoeuvres that people from Manila perform at twice the speed without blinking.

Grab leaves Uber behind, because there’s so much scope to do more. You could, if you had the money and the inclination, outsource your entire to-do list. Posting something? Send it by Grab. Running errands? Get a Grab driver to do them. Want to pay your bills? There’s an app for that … called Grab. Flights, hotels, clothes shopping, new phones. The list goes on and on.

From an outsider’s perspective, Grab seems to have a similar character to Manila: sprawling in scope; moving intensely and at pace; a bit expensive for many natives but weirdly cheap for foreigners; full of energy and innovation. It operates at the pace required to thrive in one of the busiest cities in the world.

European counterparts, by comparison, feel lethargic and imprecise—like me when I’m jet-lagged and need a coffee. Maybe we need to introduce more faux policemen.

Ben Musgrove

Bringing a can-do attitude and an exceptional work ethic to any project, Ben joined the Wildfire team in 2017 as an intern, following a role as a business operations executive with the award-winning tech startup Housekeep. Ben has a literary brain, having gained an MA in Literature & Culture from the University of Birmingham. When his nose isn’t buried in a book he can be found heckling officials from the terraces of Woking FC and trying not to upset the neighbours too much with his electric guitar.