The significant and far-reaching impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected ASEAN citizens and businesses, particularly the MSMEs. Millions of small business owners across Southeast Asia have struggled to stay afloat in the past two years as operations grinded to a halt due to pandemic measures. The severity of the crisis has put our MSMEs in a completely uncharted territory. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) reported that up to 70 per cent of the MSMEs in the region had suspended activities during this period.
MSMEs are the backbone of ASEAN’s economy; they make up more than 97 per cent of business establishments in ASEAN, and are significant provider for employment. Our infinite task is to assist our MSMEs to keep them inspired and uplifted during this unprecedented crisis. Vibrant, thriving and competitive MSMEs is fundamental for the region’s continued economic growth and development.
Amid every crisis lies a great opportunity.
Indeed, this global health pandemic has been challenging. Yet, our MSMEs have demonstrated incredible resilience throughout and continue to inspire the region to build back better. Their creativity and determination have enabled them to maintain revenue during difficult circumstances, and tap into new opportunities as the economy gradually recovers.
Huong Giang is a clothes seller in front of Thai Nguyen University of Education in Vietnam. During the pandemic, the shop suffered a significant decline in sales as she lost her main customers following the school closure to contain the spread of the virus. To keep the business running, Huong Giang pivoted to digital by selling her products online through Facebook as taught in her Go-Digital ASEAN training course. Her effort resulted positively. Her sales have returned to normal, while also adding a significant number of new customers who were connected through her social media to buy her products.
As in the case of Huong Giang, many leveraged on digital technologies to keep their business running and even reported growth in sales as they receive a significant number of new customers who were able to access their products and services online.
The pandemic has certainly propelled ASEAN’s transition into digital economy and society. By the end of 2021, the region recorded an increase of 62 per cent in e-commerce gross merchandise value. A staggering 60 million people in Southeast Asia turned digital for the first time – an unprecedented growth compared to 100 million new internet users accumulated in the five preceding years, and solidifies ASEAN’s position as the leading internet market in the world.
Our flourishing digital market has also attracted global tech capitals to invest in the region. Often MSMEs are an indispensable part of these companies’ business. However, Amazon Web Services reported that 90 per cent of MSMEs in Southeast Asia recognises the need to upgrade their digital skills. Google also highlighted that in order for regional digital economy to thrive, a collaborative ecosystem among communities as well as the public and private sectors is essential. In this regard, ASEAN is determined to work with our partners to capacitate our MSMEs in navigating the digital era.
ASEAN has been taking concrete steps to ensure that the digital transformation is inclusive and beneficial for all. Last year, we adopted the Bandar Seri Begawan Roadmap, which outlines the initiative to provide relevant skills for MSMEs to embrace the new normal, remain competitive and come prepared for future crises.
ASEAN SME Academy: The first online learning platform for MSMEs
With a shared vision and mission to support the growth and expansion of our MSMEs to thrive and further contribute to the region’s prosperity, ASEAN has brought together support from the US-ASEAN Business Council (US-ABC) and the US government to launch the ASEAN SME Academy (the Academy) back in 2016.
The Academy offers entrepreneurial education programmes to help MSMEs elevate their businesses. The platform put together online courses from large multinational corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Visa and Mastercard on topics ranging from finance, operations, marketing, logistics to digital tools. The course is free for MSMEs to access, and has garnered 465,000 visits as well as 10,000 users across ASEAN to date.
The Academy equips MSMEs with skills and strategies to help expand their sales volume and market reach. An example of this success is Yulia Prayanti, a 26-year-old user of the Academy and entrepreneur from Lombok in Indonesia. She expanded her snack business beyond her hometown after learning how to use social media as a mean to sell her products through the Academy. Orders are now received from places as far as Sumbawa, Kalimantan, and Central Java.
ASEAN SME Academy 2.0: Learn anytime, anywhere
The pandemic makes the Academy much more relevant for the MSMEs today and it gives us the stimulus to continue doing even better. The partnership is committed to upgrade the Academy to reach wider audience through a redesigned platform that is learner-friendly, content-rich, and inclusive. As a result, the revamped platform, ASEAN SME Academy 2.0, was launched on April 8, 2022, with a view to become a one-stop online platform in Southeast Asia for MSMEs-related ideas and resources.
The revamped platform is now mobile-friendly, light on bandwidth requirements, and making learning possible anytime and anywhere, even in the remote areas. With this upgrade, the platform also offers multi-lingual support in Indonesian, Thai and Vietnamese and the opportunity to receive globally recognised certification that will help them stay relevant and competitive in the job market.
Build back better and stronger by upskilling ASEAN MSMEs
As digitalisation transforms every aspect of business and society, it is key for MSMEs in ASEAN to leverage on this technology and optimise their business growth. Participating in the digital economy is now imperative for MSMEs not only to survive the crisis from the pandemic, but also to capture new opportunities.
The ASEAN Academy 2.0 is a great example of an ASEAN initiative that directly supports the up-skilling of our workforce and empowers businesses in navigating opportunities in a post-pandemic world. We are encouraged to hear stories like Yulia’s, and also hopeful that more MSMEs will join others in this journey of digital transformation and economic recovery through the use of learning tools offered at the ASEAN SME Academy 2.0.
The ASEAN SME Academy is accessible through the link https://asean-sme-academy.org/
Lim Jock Hoi is secretary-general of ASEAN