E-commerce training with small-scale entrepreneurs in developing countries: some findings. Nidhi Tandon

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1 E-commerce training with small-scale entrepreneurs in developing countries: some findings. Nidhi Tandon Note to the reader: the following briefing draws its observations and conclusions from two main sources. A first-hand source comprises of a spectrum of e-commerce training workshops run with women entrepreneurs and women s business associations in developing and emerging economies. These training workshops have been designed and organised by Networked Intelligence for Development,. The second source draws from anecdotal and case analysis of initiatives in developing and transition economies.

2 1. Introduction: SME data and trends A 1994 survey of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in APEC economies found that they account for 90% of all enterprises. Between 1978 and 1996, women-led enterprises accounted for a quarter of all business start ups in the region. Between 1995 and 1997, women business operators increased by 9% while male business operators increased by 2.6%. These businesses typically specialise in small farming, retail, or craft-work sector 1. A number of studies and surveys show that:?? Women are leading an entrepreneurial wave?? Women are starting an almost equal number of new businesses as men?? Globally women own between one-quarter and one-third of businesses in the formal sector and are likely to play an even greater role in the informal sector?? Web-based networks of women s business associations and service portals are becoming popular?? In Russia, women business owners are involved in international trade at a higher rate (19%) than in the US (13%)In Brazil, Mexico and Argentina, 22% to 32% of women business owners are involved in international trade. In Tanzania, SMEs and the informal sectors dominate the economy earning about 35% of GDP in 1999, employing 20% of the population, of which 50% was in the trade/retail sector. While SMEs are not usually associated with international activity, they in fact already play an important role directly producing about 26% of OECD exports and 35% of Asia s exports. Evidence in the US show that women-owned firms involved in exporting are generally more established, have higher sales, more employees and are on a higher growth part than those not involved in international trade. 2. ICT realities for the typical micro and SMEs in developing countries 2.1 Informal to formal: crossing the wire Typically, micro and small enterprises operate in what is loosely defined as the informal sector, although there is substantial gray area between the formal and informal sectors. A number of ILO studies of major African cities report figures for urban labour force engaged in the informal sector ranging from 30% in Abidjan, to 50% in Dakar and Lagos, 73% in Ouagadougou and 80% in Accra 2. Globally, women represent 75% of workers in the informal sector, which comprises over 55% of the economy in Latin America, 45-85% in parts of Asia, and close to 80% in African countries. 3 1 Women in a Global Economy: challenge and opportunity in the current Asian Economic Crises. Bangkok: joint effort of the UNFEM and the CIDA South East Asia Gender Equity program 2 Jacques Giri, Formal and informal small enterprises in the long term future of sub-saharan Africa World Bank LTPS, Background paper 3 Figures from Nancy Taggart, 2002, E-commerce in developing countries: opportunities for women, Academy for Educational Development. Further information also available from

3 A number of women-run businesses operating in the retail markets for example, might not declare income, but are required to pay regular market stall and other related taxes. Small businesses often operate in an informal way, which makes important processes such as tracking spending patterns and source, income sources, and costing, difficult. Often times, a small business is made up of a number of inter-dependent microenterprises that together form an insurance policy with incomes flowing in and out of the distinct entities in order to support the whole. How is the introduction of ICT to this kind of business perceived by the entrepreneur? Most micro entrepreneurs have no option than to remain in the informal sector and this influences the kind of ICT they are willing to invest in. Usually it begins and ends with ownership of a mobile telephone. Almost all the participants in training events in Tanzania, Lithuania, Cameroon and Mozambique have mobile telephones reflecting the dramatic growth of cellular subscribers in these countries. In fact, in sub-saharan Africa and central Asia, the numbers of mobile phones exceed line phones an indication of the unmet demand for telephony in those regions (see Table I). Table I: Telephone use Region Mobile telephones per 1000 people Radios per 1000 people Telephone mainlines per 1000 people Waiting time for telephones (years) East Asia/Pacific South Asia Sub-Saharan Africa Europe/Central Asia LatinAmerica/ Caribean World Source: Chapter 7: Information and Communication Technologies, Markets, and Economic Development, Karen Eggleston, Robert Jansen and Richard Zeckhauser in The Global Information Technology Report : Readiness for the Networked World. World Economic Forum A larger or more ambitious business, however, whose market may extend beyond the immediate community, may consider investing in a wider range of ICTs to support both the communication and computerisation of aspects of its business. Small pharmaceutical stalls in Burkina Faso, for example, have benefited from using data software to track and stock their inventory, and by implication, their past and projected income. What NID has found is that the typical woman-led enterprise that participates in its e- commerce training events are pragmatic practices that straddle both the informal and formal sectors. They pick and choose those elements of the formal sector that will enable the business entity to maintain the optics of accountability and transparency, and from Simel Esim, See How They Grow: Business Development Services for Women s Business Growth

4 critical for business auditing and export-trading purposes. But also maintain a shadow business that keeps some of the income safe from declaration. 4 By implication, the application of ICTs to MSEs might push the business entities from the informal to the formal economies, and while this may be desirable from a national economy perspective, it might not be considered desirable from an individual entrepreneurs perspective. How does this manifest itself? A micro or small business can approach financial intermediaries for small low-interest loans based on real collateral value or business track income. Members of the Uganda Women s Finance Trust for instance, use loantracking software which is diffused nationally through local post offices for lenders to track their repayments. This part of the lender s business is clearly formalised and financially documented but does not mean that all the other elements of the business that are similarly documented or accessible. 2.2 Implications of management and income structures While it is difficult to generalise, there is growing evidence that women structure their enterprises differently to men, establishing flatter management structures, using consensus building approaches to decisions and valuing performance results differently. We have also found that often times, women are de facto social entrepreneurs obliged to run lean profitable businesses in order to finance the social support services that they deliver. 5 In most APEC economies, women s income is substantial to each household. On average their income represents half of the household income. Women are often heads of household in Korea, 18% of female workers are principal breadwinners. Three years ago as a percentage of the male rate, the female economic activity rate ranged from 93.9% in Vietnam to 43% in Peru, the average for all APEC economies was 70%. At the same time, other factors indirectly related to management, show that women tend to have less time to devote to their businesses than men, and are usually forced to strike a balance between family household and child care. Women also tend to be more reticent to take the time to seek counseling and advice often because these services do not target women-owned SMEs, are provided in male oriented settings, and are not adapted to the specific constraints faced by women. Women entrepreneurs, it follows, tend to take an extremely pragmatic approach to time-saving technological tools. 6 In many of our training events, we have created the space to foster dialogue between women entrepreneurs and representatives from financial intermediary services, internet service providers, local government and IT policy makers. Our most recent training event in Tanzania brought together 30 women entrepreneurs and senior staff of the National Micro-credit Bank (NMB) who recently launched a 2.5% microloan program for micro and small enterprises which participants were unaware of. 4 Nidhi Tandon, Networked Intelligence for Development, training experiences 1999 to NID is a training consultancy based in Canada 5 I would estimate that 80% of the businesswomen we work with are involved in social outreach beyond immediate family care, contributing to orphan programs, working through local church and institutions, mentoring young women in their communities. 6 Women Entrepreneurs in Small and Medium Enterprises OECD 1999

5 2.3 Cost implications for the micro and small enterprise The poor in Chile spend more on telecommunications than on water. The average Chilean spends more of their income on telecommunications than on water and energy combined. A reflection of the perceived opportunities associated with acquiring ICTs 7. Latest trends show a consumer preference for pre-paid cellular phones, more than half of all cellular telephone clients are in pre-paid mode which do not require strong credit records and where expenditure can be controlled in detail. In several poor countries where payphones are scarce, some ingenious micro businesses have made it their business to provide ambulant payphones in the form of cellular phones charging a modest markup (as in Bangladesh). In Peru, these micro-entrepreneurs make themselves more visible in public places by wearing brightly coloured headware and clothing and have become known as cholos celulares ( cellular indians ) 8 In our training experience, it has been clear that women entrepreneurs are prepared to pay a fee for training on e-commerce ranging from US$10.00 to US$20.00 per participant a measure of the need and desire for information and know-how. Small enterprises who understand the importance of business applications often face difficulties in making informed choices on simple business software, and often times resort to investing in pirate software that is substantially cheaper than off-the-shelf packages. As costs of connectivity continue to drop the obstacles women face are typically less to do with hefty hardware or connectivity costs and more to do purchasing and applying the most appropriate kinds of software applications and with functioning in a policy environment that influences their access, use and opportunities. The combined impact of low quality, high cost enterprise support services, and government policies that slow down business processes, work against the typical SME. 2.4 Government policy implications for the SME In the African countries that we have worked in, policy interventions and regulations around ICT diffusion and e-commerce support are still in the making and in most cases not enforceable. At times this has been to the interests of SMEs who have taken advantage of the policy vacuum to push through business objectives. The regulatory hurdles that one women s business association had to contend with were less due to existing regulations and more a result of a vacuum in Internet Governance at the national level. Internet governance is not about the control of the Internet and its content, but of much narrower issues such as management, administration of Internet names, numbers, licensing, frequencies, bandwidth and standards. Government intervention usually takes three forms:?? Control of entry to the market by suppliers;?? Access of suppliers to certain resources (e.g. spectrum, licenses)?? Control of operation (e.g. technical standards, service quality) 7 Telecommunications and the Poor: Jose Ricardo Melo. Paper presented at Infrastructure for Development: Private Solutions and the Poor June Telecommunications and the Poor: Jose Ricardo Melo. Paper presented at Infrastructure for Development: Private Solutions and the Poor June 2000

6 From all accounts, it is reasonable to conclude that current government procedures are inadequate to handle the rapid pace of change, the globalization of the Internet, its commercialization and the growth in user-driven demands. This vacuum is made even more acute by the clash between a top-down formal government-driven telecom structure and a bottom-up informal industry-driven Internet. To date, the transformation processes in the telecommunications sector s regulation has been driven by economic efficiency factors and not by equity factors. 9 This has had an immediate impact on the one service most sought after by micro and SMEs which is local telephone costs. Internet telephony, or VOIP, can drive long distance communication costs down dramatically and quickly. Most governments are however, wary of the implications of the significant threat to long distance and international service revenue. Much intra- African traffic is currently routed via Europe, but as VOIP becomes more widely available, pressure will mount for cheaper services. Policy support for an e-commerce environment has to develop hand in hand with national programs, social investment and domestic banking systems that specifically cater to SME needs. The E-commerce readiness assessment guide put forward by the APEC Readiness Initiative 2000 : a partnership of the Business Community with APEC economies is one of the few guides that asks, under promotion and facilitation activities, is your economy taking initiatives to raise awareness and disseminate best e- commerce practice among SMEs? The European Union s e-commerce strategy focuses on the opportunities presented by diffusion of e-commerce amongst SMEs. The evidence is strong that the greatest gains from e-commerce come when it diffuses throughout the economy, not when it remains closeted in a park or zone. Thus the approach of Sri Lanka, or Thailand, where business incubator operations are combined with multifaceted education and training programmes has greater potential for domestic diffusion than a model in which only firms are located together The potential impact of information technology on SME competitiveness While these are early days yet, IT and management information systems are introducing systemic changes to the ways in which small firms do business. IT increasingly plays a role in all aspects of competitiveness: products, production techniques, management methods, firm organisation, staff training, market information. The converging ICTs compensate for size and distance and enable companies to grow and to go global. Electronic conferencing, the Internet, electronic commerce, electronic networking and home working via Internet are some of the key technological innovations for women entrepreneurs competitiveness that allows them to create and continue to develop their businesses. Internet is increasingly used as a key tool for access to information on quality norms, legal and regulatory requirements, fiscal regulations and opportunities, and as a learning tool for best practices and as an address contact book. 9 Telecommunications and the Poor: Jose Ricardo Melo. Paper presented at Infrastructure for Development: Private Solutions and the Poor June Catherine Mann: Networked Readiness and Trade Exposure: in The Global Information Technology Report : Readiness for the Networked World. World Economic Forum 2002.

7 The networking element of ICTs, apart from anything else, is one immediate and clear opportunity. Les Femmes Chefs d Entreprises Mondiales (FCEM) has a homepage and it s members in 33 countries produce web-based information linked to the FCEM homepage. This has permitted them to be interactive; they boast a marketing list of around 45,000 members. One example that I especially like is to watch what the small business members of the North York Chamber of Commerce in Toronto, Ontario do to network with and support each other. They have an information website, which, amongst other things, enables members to print out discount coupons for each others services, an immediate benefit of being a Chambers member. In the US, Acenet is an electronic network for investors to find women-owned firms in which they would like to invest, while Pronet allows women-owned firms to input data about their firms in order to procure government contracts. Arguably, SMEs can boast a flexibility that large firms might not be able to which would give them a natural advantage to adjusting to market evolution. However, market access remains problematic in a competitive environment that does not always work to their advantage. 4. Experiences with training women entrepreneurs Given all the above, it stands to reason that women and businesswomen are curious to find out how the digital economy might affect them. While the training contexts have been quite different from each other, women owners and managers of SMEs have shown the same needs and interests in understanding and integrating ICTs into their activities. These are summarised in Table II. Networked Intelligence for Development has developed training programs that strike a balance between methodology and content, since the first informs the second. We usually begin by conducting a needs assessment that asks women what it is they want to know. Their responses are usually over-simplistic and focus on access issues of ICT. We then supplement their initial questions by: a) finding out and analyzing what they need to know as SMEs in their national contexts; b) providing the physical and intellectual space for dialogue that will enable enterprising participants to form alliances with ISPs, business support services, financial intermediaries and other businesses; c) providing on-line laboratory conditions for participants to experiment with and experience web navigation and software packages. Summary reviews of women-specific ICT training content show the following tendencies: Too often the training emphasis is placed on an output objective and are disappointed when there is no immediate output. The first objectives behind ICT training for women need to focus on breaking myths and pre-conceptions about the new technologies this is an outcome objective. Results-oriented donor criteria often discourage sponsorship of ICT training for this reason.

8 Content is too simplistic, too academic or generic. The nature of ICTs lends itself to problem-based learning. Women are unlikely to invest the time required to explore ICTs on their own, but are more inclined to ask questions and to determine their training priority needs in an applied group dynamics workshop once they understand what computerisation and connectivity can mean for their businesses. Training often overlooks or underestimates the uses for today s software users still have not grasped the full implications of virtual networks, user support groups, free ware, share ware, and basic computerization software. Diffusion of, and making these basic tools free and user-friendly is a first step to taking businesswomen across the threshold to full ICT use. Once introduced, these kinds of applications find their natural homes in different MSE contexts. There is a fine balance between methodology and content, the first informs the last. While women should be asked to identify their training needs, this has to be supplemented by finding out about their national contexts and what they need to know. There is a gradual but growing trend towards investing in ICT training for small scale businesswomen 11 with new sponsors joining the small rank of agencies that support MSE development such as the Inter American Development Bank s recent training initiatives for women in Costa Rica and Bolivia. 11 Training programs for women are also extending in other sectors that encourage women s employment, such as CISCO s gender networking program and the Call Centre Academy training for women in the Phillipines, but this is not the study focus

9 Table II: Dimensions of ICT training needs 2002 micro and SMEs matrix Entrepeneur interests / ICT dimension Infrastructure and access Interventions and services Informatics and applications Micro business Cellular phone, sometimes an account. Access to microcredit scheme, potential client for mobile (phone-based) financial services. Usually interested in getting an account set up. Wants to understand the Web, the functions of search engines, how to find information and navigate the web. Introduction to concepts of strategic alliances and B2B business models. How to access information on government programs, credit schemes, market prices. Small enterprise Cellular phone, account access at public or other cyber centre. Some financial intermediary services - may be delivered with ICTs or using traditional means. May have graduated from micro credit schemes. Marketing through trade shows. Usually a member of a business support organisation. Interested in ICT policy and likely impact on business. Wants to understand listserves, group discussions, user support groups and virtual networks. Interested to begin applying simple accounting software and curious about other SME specific software applications. Looking for on-line courses. Wants to understand how software can be downloaded off the Net. Curious about other web sites that market products or services, digitization of images and an understanding of secure payment transactions over the Web. Keen to compare business models with like-sized businesses. Beginning to understand the business opportunities of actually providing telecom services to other businesses. Medium enterprise Cellular phone Personal computer Dial up connection Usually a member of local chambers of commerce or business association. Is usually a B2B networker even if ICTs are not applied in the networking. Looking at different operating systems, curious about Linux and ASPs. Beginning to computerise some basic business processes, payroll, accounts. A few beginning to link information systems within the business. Interested to compare and use CD Rom business tools. Most are keen to set up a business entity website and build virtual company profile. Source: Networked Intelligence for Development, Conclusion There is great optimism over the potential for ICTs to promote economic development and alleviate poverty.

10 Currently, however, there is neither a solid theoretical basis nor convincing empirical evidence to support such optimism 12 Support of entrepreneurship, especially local-based programs to develop social capital and to incubate and mentor new entrepreneur are critical. We need to expand our efforts to help existing businesses better utilize IT. This new phase of the information revolution will be marked by the transformation of small and medium size businesses. 13 The reality of SME approaches to adopting and integrating ICTs into the business and marketing functions lies somewhere between these two quotes. Our training experiences with women entrepreneurs to date confirms our optimism about the potentials and opportunities presented by ICTs to micro, small and medium enterprises. Sources and background reading World Telecommunication Development Report 1998 Mainstreaming gender in World Bank lending: an update The Global Information Technology Report : Readiness for the Networked World. World Economic Forum APEC Readiness Initiative 2000 : a partnership of the Business Community with APEC economies. E-commerce readiness assessment guide. 12 The Global Information Technology Report : Readiness for the Networked World. World Economic Forum Adam Thierer, Director, Telecommunication Studies, CATO Institute, Washington DC.

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