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View from the Council
May 8, 2020

Small Businesses Are Tapping Digital Tools More Intensively Than Ever During COVID-19

Across the world, small businesses are adjusting to life without face-to-face interactions. With many storefronts and offices considered non-essential, business owners are adopting new digital strategies and tools to get by during the COVID-19 pandemic. These strategies rely on the right digital trade policies.

Using digital tools to connect with customers, employees

“It’s a real challenge as companies and clients cannot buy physically from us,” observes Sasibai Kimis, Founder and CEO of Earth Heir, a Malaysian ethical lifestyle brand, which sells handcrafted heritage pieces made by women, refugees and indigenous people. She added that, “a lot of events have been canceled, including speaking engagements.”

Although the Earth Heir team can no longer build revenue and relationships from their studio, a shift to creative, online strategies is helping fill the gap. “We are focusing a lot more on increasing our digital marketing and social media reach.”

Economic shutdowns have exponentially increased the need for online marketing, communication and team-building. Small businesses are using digital tools to update the public about changes in business, maintain relationships and communicate to customers how they can continue providing support.

The Elly Store, a boutique children’s bricks-and-clicks business in Singapore, experienced a significant spike in online sales immediately after the country ordered a shutdown of all non-essential businesses. Although online businesses are permitted to continue operations, founder Audrey Ng decided to stop all deliveries until the workplace measures are lifted.

While shipments are on pause, the team’s concentration is on website improvements, digital marketing and connecting with customers. “We are continuing with regular social media posts and using the month for people to get to know our wide range of products again,” shared Audry. “We have also designed marketing campaigns for when we re-open based on what we think people will be looking to buy” when they begin venturing out.

Small businesses are also using digital channels and strategies to stay connected to their own employees.

SHE Investments
, a social enterprise delivering business development programs for women in Cambodia, has introduced an array of new technology tools to keep their team connected and productive. This includes Microsoft Teams for working remotely; Zoom for team meetings, webinars and online classes; and Clockify for team timesheets.

“We are using tools to create video tutorials on our laptops to help our team and our participants to learn [how to work from home],” shared Celia Boyd, the Managing Director of SHE Investments.

Technology startups are stepping up to help other organizations combat the hardships presented by the COVID-19 crisis and adapt to the digital world.

Based in Nigeria, Transboxx Technologies utilizes a large network of software engineers to create digital platforms, from web portals to online payment platforms, for businesses throughout Africa.

“Many [businesses] recognize the need for digitized systems, but they don’t know how to build out their technologies,” Ekezie says. “We can create platforms that allow them to quickly automate, streamline and electronically improve their operations.”

Pivoting to meet new customer needs

Some companies are pivoting their focus during the pandemic. ArtGirlRising, a t-shirt business based in Malaysia with a mission to raise awareness of the underrepresentation of female artists through cause marketing, has transitioned from a sales focus to prioritizing community building.

The founder of ArtGirlRising, Liezel Strauss, shared that the team launched paid, online classes using Zoom. The classes are “presented by industry leaders, for artists to help them move their art practice online through tips on social media, the business side of art, community building and homeschooling tips.”

Caribu, a Florida-based interactive video-calling app, is seeing demand for their services grow from individuals and families trying to cope with this new reality. To help bridge the gap created by social distancing, the business is offering free access and unlimited usage of the service.

“Kids are feeling the effects of the outbreak, but don’t always understand why grandma can’t come visit, why the special family spring break trip may have been canceled, or why they’re out of school for weeks,” said Caribu CEO and Co-Founder Max Tuchman.

Other businesses are witnessing unprecedented demands and stepping up to fill the gap. Ordinarily, Dorsu, a Cambodia-based ethical clothing brand, crafts men's and women's apparel. After witnessing the gap in the market, they shifted to include the production of masks that help protect the community and keep their team employed.

“We're servicing existing wholesale clients where possible and have temporarily re-tooled to produce face masks,” explained Hanna Guy, Co-Founder and Director of Dorsu. The team is utilizing social platforms to promote the new items, sharing on Facebook, “As the story unfolds and we begin to see advice to wear masks while leaving the house (briefly) we’ve designed, tested and released fabric face masks that are reusable, washable, fit like a glove and above all - ensure comfort.”

Sasi, of Earth Heir, similarly pivoted her business to enable her network of refugee artisans to produce and distribute "Fair Trade Personal Protective Equipment” for use by Malaysian frontline medical personnel, frontline social workers and others, in collaboration with the World Fair Trade Organization Asia.

Digital trade policies can help

Governments have a critical role to play in ensuring that regulations enable the entire e-commerce ecosystem that small businesses are relying on more than ever to keep their businesses running, their employees connected and their customers engaged.

For example, Earth Heir’s digital strategy relies fundamentally on access to global services and data flows. Sasi and her team utilize social media platforms like Instagram to spread the word about the face masks they are making, YouTube videos to spotlight their refugee artisans, WhatsApp to communicate internally (and with us), payment and express delivery services to ship out their products, and Google Forms and PayPal to enable donations of PPE.

As the World Trade Organization engages in an exercise to write new rules aimed at facilitating the use of e-commerce, stakeholders have the opportunity to emphasize the importance of clarity and improvements to the existing framework of trade rules and commitments.

Successful efforts by governments would empower businesses to sell their own products and services internationally using global online platforms, payments, communication tools and other e-commerce channels, and to improve the ability of businesses of all sizes to benefit from digital technologies.

Recognizing the particular opportunities and challenges faced by developing countries, the WTO should explore mechanisms to maximize the ability of developing countries to implement ambitious e-commerce commitments for those countries who are willing to enact high-quality digital trade and e-commerce policies.

For years, small businesses have relied on an ecosystem of digital tools to operate globally. Today, these businesses need the right policy framework to enable their ability to access digital productivity, payments, shipping and logistics, communications, marketing and e-commerce platforms and navigate the new normal of social distancing and physical closures.

-- Jake Colvin, Executive Director, and Jamaica Gayle, Deputy Director, NFTC’s Global Innovation Forum

The Global Innovation Forum is a nonprofit startup that connects entrepreneur, small business, development, and university communities with policymakers and select corporations to explore the opportunities and challenges of engaging in the global marketplace. To learn more about GIF, click here.

A version of this article will appear in TradeVistas, a publication from the Hinrich Foundation.