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Digital trade

A small business surge in digital trade

Published 14 May 2020

The right digital trade and e-commerce policies from governments can help small businesses move online and support global digital entrepreneurs.

Global entrepreneurs are going online. Here’s how governments can help.

With many storefronts and offices around the world shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, small business owners are adopting new digital strategies and tools to keep their businesses alive.

“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.”

As businesses such as Earth Heir increasingly adopt a life online, governments have a critical role in enabling a robust e-commerce ecosystem that allows small businesses to keep their businesses running, their employees connected and their customers engaged. The right set of digital trade policies will be the key.

Digital lifelines for small business

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,” said Audrey. “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 time sheets.

“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],” said Celia Boyd, the Managing Director of SHE Investments.

Earth Heir shopping site

Image: e-commerce site

How digital trade policies can help

Public policy can help businesses like SHE Investments, Earth Heir and the Elly Store by facilitating the flow of digital trade.

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 (WTO) 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, WTO members should explore mechanisms to maximize the ability of developing countries to implement high-quality digital trade and e-commerce commitments.

Small businesses adjust to a post-pandemic world

Emerging technology startups are also stepping up to help other businesses 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,” says co-founder Obinna Ekezie. “We can create platforms that allow them to quickly automate, streamline and electronically improve their operations.”

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 under-representation of female artists through cause marketing, has transitioned from a sales focus to prioritizing community building.

The founder of ArtGirlRising, Liezel Strauss, said 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.


Image: / Dorsu has suspected retail sales, selling only online, and is now making masks for wholesale orders to keep their workers employed.

Other businesses are witnessing unprecedented demands and are 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, social workers and others, in collaboration with the World Fair Trade Organization Asia.

What governments can do

For years, small businesses have relied on an ecosystem of digital tools to operate globally. More than ever, 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.

With the right set of digital trade and e-commerce policies, governments have the opportunity to not only help more small businesses move online, but also support a new era of global digital entrepreneurs.

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Jake Colvin

Jake Colvin is the Executive Director of the Global Innovation Forum and Vice President at the National Foreign Trade Council.

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Deputy Director, Global Innovation Forum.

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