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At two major events I hosted this week, there was a curious intersection: digital technology.
I had planned to conduct two private sector meetings, one that had technology up front as it was a cocktail party to thank our partners in the digital technology sector, and the other one was about exploring possible solutions to help our agripreneurs and increase food security in the country.
At the agriculture meeting, several suggestions put forward came mostly from private sector experiences, and we also had the privilege to hear from the perspective of national and local government. One of the suggested solutions involved digital technology, specifically the streamlining of regulatory and financing processes so our farmers have one less thing to worry about and they can focus on making their farms productive. It was agreed that access to the internet can aid knowledge-sharing and keep our farmers updated with developments in crop technology, commodity prices, or even something as mundane as the weather in their specific area.
The second event I hosted had digital technology front and center, and I was happy to see that it was well-attended. All the big players in telco were there, and so were the nimble, future-forward young innovators that are introducing new and different ways to deliver products and services to people. Congressman Sandro Marcos attended on behalf of his father, President Marcos Jr., though he himself is well-placed in the conversation. This is not only because he belongs to the digital-native millennial generation, but also because he showed that he prioritizes MSMEs by having as his very first bill an act that expands loan programs for MSMEs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He, together with the people at that gathering, have so much potential to help our MSMEs. In addition to the online shopping, food delivery and ride-hailing companies, there were mavericks continuously thinking up ways to make things faster, efficient and inclusive. The digital innovations of some of those people in that room were the very ones that saw us through the pandemic.
During the pandemic and with the restrictions in mobility, people turned to the Internet to procure goods and services. In the process, consumers discovered products and services that would probably have gone under their radar had they restricted their purchases to brick-and-mortar.
With the forced shift in consumer habits, businesses were forced to adapt. The good news was, businesses had equal access to the consumer. Whether you were a supermarket or a neighborhood retailer, you can make your products available online, either through a Facebook page, an online selling platform or a dedicated e-commerce site. Everyone with a device and an internet connection were suddenly thrust into the same marketplace, each one relying on their savvy and the strength of their product or service to vie for the consumer’s attention.
The sudden rise in online transactions also accelerated the shift to digital payments, and it proved to be a boon to our small entrepreneurs because, let’s face it, there are many barriers for micro and small entrepreneurs when it comes to financial services. Before e-wallets, the only way you could receive cashless transactions was through credit and debit cards, maybe even cheques, and these came with investments not just in devices and volume, but also in getting access to financial services. A very large portion of the Filipino population remains unbanked, and for micro entrepreneurs, it’s a barrier that is harder to negotiate. E-wallets changed all that. All the micro or small entrepreneur needed was a phone, a digital payments app, and an internet connection.
In other ways, digital technology became an equalizer for other business tools like market research and promotions. By selling online, he can not only scale his operations with minimal risk but he also gets instant feedback, plus free publicity if people actually like his product and start telling other people on their social media accounts.
A small entrepreneur can put his products on Shopee or Lazada just to test them out. This is more difficult to do in traditional channels; just imagine a guy who’s recently found a new recipe for kangkong chips trying to get space at the supermarket shelves. Beyond his immediate circles, he has no idea what people think of his chips, and you can hardly blame the supermarket for thinking twice about risking precious real estate on him.
We at Go Negosyo took the same journey of digitalization along with our entrepreneurs. During the pandemic, we experienced the increased digital shift happening with our own mentoring programs, KMME and KAMMP. We traditionally relied on in-person interactions to conduct our multi-module programs, especially the one for aspiring entrepreneurs: the Mentor Me on Wheels program. With the restrictions on in-person gatherings, we shifted our programs online using social media, online conferencing platforms and video-sharing tools. Doing so not only allowed us to continue with our programs, we were also able to reach more people across the country.
This inspired us to organize special mentoring sessions for MSMEs to help ease them into using digital technology in their businesses. We continue to cooperate with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Agriculture as we incorporate digitalization into our mentoring curriculum.
To create a more inclusive economy, we have to encourage the use of these digital platforms. We need to teach more MSMEs how digital platforms and tools can be used to reach customers and make their business processes more efficient.
Will digital technology create a more inclusive economy? Only if done right. We must not move too hastily as to leave people behind or make them vulnerable to exploitation. We must remember that internet penetration in the Philippines has not yet reached levels where we can safely say everyone’s online. We are limited by what we see. Many more of our countrymen don’t have access to the internet and we must be careful not to leave them behind. That is inclusivity.