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No doubt digital technology has brought about more inclusivity. Not too long ago, one of the few ways a small entrepreneur could sell his goods was through tiangges. If he had enough volume, he could share shelf space with the bigger brands in the groceries. But unless he was a big player in the consumer goods market, he had no chance of selling in sari-sari stores, except perhaps the one in his neighborhood. With online shopping platforms, however, a small entrepreneur can hope to see his product sold across a bigger geographical area, regardless of volume.
There are more opportunities now for MSMEs. Beyond being able to sell to wider markets, they themselves are able to promote their products by becoming influencers. Today, an entrepreneur doesn’t need a celebrity endorser or a huge advertising budget; he has just as good a chance as an established brand at going viral on social media, thanks to algorithms of platforms like TikTok or the power of word-of-mouth through organic reviews by happy customers.
And that’s just the marketing and logistics end of the business. The cashless payments system made it possible for people without a bank account or aren’t accredited merchants of credit card companies to receive online payments. And now it is even possible to access credit via digital platforms, giving banks a run for their money, so to speak, when it comes to reaching the unbanked.
Even access to knowledge is easier than ever. You can watch a YouTube tutorial and learn anything from cutting hair to playing the guitar. For us at Go Negosyo, the internet has opened up so many possibilities in mentoring; the lockdowns served to accelerate our own learning curve as our in-person entrepreneurship mentoring programs had to adapt during the pandemic.
Our Kapatid Mentor ME programs and its agri-focused offshoot, Kapatid Agri Mentor ME Program, were conducted over online conferencing platforms during the height of the pandemic. From this experience, we were later able to fine tune and conduct region-wide the ASEAN Mentorship for Entrepreneurs Network (AMEN), our legacy project from the Philippines chairmanship of the ASEAN. Last August, 194 entrepreneurs from all ten ASEAN member-states graduated from AMEN; it would have been tougher to pull off something as logistically complicated as AMEN had we not had the opportunity to conduct online classes as often as we did with KMME and KAMMP.
The lockdowns forced us to suspend our in-person events and, for a time, we conducted our free mentoring via a Facebook Live Show called Go Negoshow. It had quite a following and served to fill in the mentoring gap until such time we were able to resume our mall-based mentoring event, the 3M on Wheels. That experience opened so many avenues for us as we were able to grow our social media accounts to become one of the most-followed NGO pages in the country. Moreover, it gave us a very active channel where we can interact more often and in real time with entrepreneurs from all over the country and even with entrepreneur-OFWs abroad.
It’s difficult to not get excited about the possibilities of digital technology. But are things moving so fast that we are leaving people behind? Consider that in order to get online, one must have a device capable of connecting to the internet and an internet connection. This barrier to entry is very real for many poor Filipinos, and it can all be too easy to speed along on the information superhighway and pay no mind to those who aren’t even on the road yet.
And then there is the knowledge gap. At the Digital Powerhouse forum during the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit early this month, one of the speakers pointed out that we are in danger of leaving out not just those who don’t have the means to get online, but also those who are today only being introduced to these new ways of doing things, namely the seniors. I personally mentored two septuagenarian entrepreneurs recently, and one of them was quick to adapt to social media, thanks to the mentoring of her grandchildren. But some are not as lucky to have other people holding their hand as they navigate the internet; we have to also think of them. I, myself, like many during the early days of the lockdowns, had to get used to Zoom meetings, so I know that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
That is why we’ve made digital technology a major part of our mentoring programs. At every 3M on Wheels event, we invite entrepreneurs who use social media to promote their business as a way of inspiring the active and aspiring entrepreneurs that they, too, can do it. This Saturday, Sept. 23, we are holding our annual Digital SignUp event where we will have panel discussions with digital enablers to get a peek at where the industry is headed and how it will impact MSMEs. For our entrepreneurs, we have invited successful brand influencers and entrepreneurs to discuss everything from powerful storytelling to cash flow. It should prove to be a very interesting and informative day.
The world is changing and all of these platforms, if used for good, can create greater, more inclusive prosperity. Where these tools – for mentorship, money and markets – were accessible only to a few, now they are at our fingertips. We must be careful not to move so fast that we leave others behind.