[Read more session reports from the UNCTAD E-Commerce Week 2018]
This session explored the skills needed for African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to find success in highly competitive e-commerce marketplaces. Moderator Mr Rob Skidmore, chief of sector and enterprise competitiveness, International Trade Centre (ITC), opened the session by highlighting the enormous potential of e-trade in Africa, but noted that this potential has been highly concentrated in certain population groups, urban areas, and particular countries in the region. To empower those that are not yet benefitting from e-commerce, there are a large number of challenges to mitigate, from e-policies to online trust, and one of them is the need for information and communications technology (ICT) and business skills. Running an SME that trades online does not require the same skills as those needed for trading offline, and requires competencies in areas such as marketing, logistics, and online payment procedures. Skidmore explained that this session aims to transform the understanding of the need for skills into action: how to address this need, in particular in the context of Africa?
Ms Sarah Carroll, author of Grow Fast, Grow Global, shared the lessons learned from her more than 10 years of experience in assisting companies to get online and trade internationally. She identified the different ways in which companies can sell online, as well as the key problems that prevent them from engaging in online cross-border trade. These include a lack of awareness of the opportunities, understanding how to prioritise, and expertise to implement e-commerce strategies. This expertise is not only needed for the SMEs themselves, but throughout the entire ecosystem, including governments and intermediaries. Carroll identified a number of different skills, related to personal qualities – business, internationalisation, and e-commerce – and explained that 90% of these skills can be taught or self-learned, although no one person can master all of these competencies at once. As most SMEs follow a similar journey towards digitalisation and internationalisation, Carroll provided a framework of stages through which these businesses grow, including the different skills and projects required for each stage. She concluded that with the right training, ‘we can change the fortunes of millions of businesses and show them how to compete in the digital age’.
Ms Oulimata Fall from the office of the executive director, ITC, on secondment from Asépex Senegal, explained how Asépex – Senegal’s export promotion agency – had created a collective e-commerce platform to promote the export of products made in Senegal. The country’s SMEs are still lagging behind in adopting e-commerce, and the platform provides them with an opportunity to jump ahead and access the opportunities of digital trade. The project built on partnerships at the global level, with institutions such as the ITC, as well as at the local level. There were a number of challenges that had to be overcome for the creation of the platform, such as ensuring the commitment of SMEs and the quality of their product, as well as having the necessary skills, expertise, and access to IT infrastructure. She closed by calling for the need for capacity building programmes and encouraged knowledge sharing to stimulate a digital culture in Senegal.
Mr Dylan Piatti, Africa C&IP senior chief of staff at Deloitte and chair of the Ecommerce Forum Africa, argued that today’s world is fundamentally changing, and that it does not suffice to simply ‘look at the past to extrapolate the future’. There is a need to take a more future-oriented approach, rather than force-fitting old paradigms onto modern society. He explained that Deloitte helps organisations to become ‘futureproof’ and sustainable in a new world. In addition, one of the main pillars of the activities of the Ecommerce Forum Africa is to focus on research, education, and skills development. In this regard, it is important to work with the private sector to feed its experience into curricula, to better understand the practical issues related to establishing an e-commerce business.
By Barbara Rosen Jacobson