“A good beginning is half of the success.”—ancient proverb

As South and Southeast Asian digital economies rapidly expand, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the region face two dilemmas—both wrapped up in this one proverb. First, entrepreneurs can see the value of digital tools, practices, and infrastructure, but do they want to use them? Electronic payments, digital banking, and mobile applications clearly make business faster and more versatile, but not all business owners are ready to jump on the digital bandwagon. Second, businesses could adopt digital tools, practices, and infrastructure, but do they recognize the responsibilities that come with them? There are always benefits and risks of rushing to incorporate the latest online platforms.

If we, as development practitioners, fail to acknowledge that some business owners do not want to use digital tools, we could inadvertently burden SMEs with foreign and incomprehensible tools. And if we encourage SMEs to embrace digital tools without educating them on cyber safety, malicious actors could exploit them and their communities. Even though virtually all SME owners wholeheartedly accept digital tools, research by the South Asia Regional Digital Initiative (SARDI) initiative revealed that development implementers cannot take for granted either the desire or adoption of digital tools.

Through SARDI, implemented under the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), DAI’s Digital Frontiers project supported several organizations in the region, including Accelerating Asia, Inspira Advisory and Consulting, and NITCON, to help SMEs use digital tools while also teaching them to protect themselves from cyber threats. The following three lessons came from our work with SMEs.

1. Deliver Digital-Focused Training that Aligns with the Needs and Schedules of SMEs

SARDI partners found that SME owners often saw the benefits and potential of digital tools but did not automatically want to adopt them. Because of this disconnect, development implementers need to truly understand entrepreneurs’ motivations and critically examine whether they will benefit from adopting particular digital tools. Local partners must also carefully tailor upskilling to SMEs’ desires. For example, one of SARDI’s local grantees encountered resistance from business owners who did not feel that they could afford to devote time during their workday to partake in training. Taking this into account, the partner had to create alternative strategies to persuade businesses to participate, such as creating tailored videos that could be watched at business owners’ own pace and convenience. In adapting to this asynchronous model, SARDI’s grantee navigated the time restrictions SME owners and staff faced, removing any inhibitors that prevented business owners from receiving the educational trainings.

The importance of tailoring programs to meet the unique needs of each SME was further evidenced in SARDI’s WeScale and WeScale+ initiatives, programs that were designed to harness existing women-led companies’ ambitious business goals. In these two programs, Accelerating Asia and several regional investors trained entrepreneurs in fundraising, product, operations, regional expansion, growth, and marketing, and found that the SMEs that aimed to grow or improve efficiency participated more enthusiastically in the WeScale and WeScale+ personalized digital literacy training. Immediately, these participants saw results that ranged from expanding payrolls to doubling revenue. When SARDI partners knew their participants’ motivations, they tailored their training, which increased their effectiveness, and also ensured that business owners would retain the information they learned long after they returned home from the workshops.

1-7316a7.jpgEntrepreneurs based in South Asia attend the WeScale+ symposium. The WeScale+ program was an intensive four-week program with a live summit that aimed to distill the lessons learned through the wider WeScale and attract investors. Photo: Accelerating Asia.

2. Showcase Both the Functional–and Business–Benefits of Technology Adoption

Once entrepreneurs understood the concept of digital tools in trainings led by technical consulting firm and SARDI partner NITCON, their most frequent questions were, “What software should I buy?” and “How much does it cost?” These questions confirmed that the SMEs were getting interested in adopting digital tools, but they were anxious about the tools’ cost, safety, and ease of integration. When NITCON investigated this anxiety, they found that SME owners were intimidated by the tools, and most felt they could not commit to adopting digital tools. NITCON learned not to overwhelm first-time attendees with technical details, and instead keep the business owners interested with step-by-step demonstrations of the tools’ functionality and use.

SARDI’s local partners also learned that SME owners are rarely convinced to adopt digital tools without a business case—implementers must show, not tell. Understandably, when SME owners want to grow their businesses despite limited time and funds, they will only invest in proven methods. However, testing those methods themselves carries a time burden and a financial risk. Recognizing this, SARDI partners found that once their audiences trusted them, they could sustain the entrepreneurs’ interest by presenting real-life, tangible benefits of affordable and easy-to-use digital tools.

3. Cybersecurity Awareness is an Indispensable Part of a Business’s Digital Literacy

Even though one-third of Bangladeshi MSME owners have experienced a cyberattack, 62 percent of respondents to a survey by SARDI’s partner Inspira Advisory and Consulting did not think that their business was at any risk from such attacks. In turn, SMEs that are unaware of cyber risks invest less in cybersecurity tools and resources. In cases like these, broad digital literacy training is not enough. Development actors must pair digital upskilling with cybersecurity awareness, emphasizing that though cybercrime affects all sizes of businesses, they can take easy measures to combat these risks.

Inspira’s online cybersecurity awareness campaign in Bangladesh reached 3.4 million users, and more than 800 SME online business owners attended the in-person workshops, which included discussions of cybersecurity awareness, digital preparedness, and action planning in case of cyberattacks. Inspira and other local partners used real-life examples of cybercrimes against SMEs to underscore the seriousness of the threats to their businesses, then reassured participants by demonstrating safeguards against those cybercrimes as well as recourse for victims of cyberattacks such as retrieving lost data or regaining access to locked accounts.

While workshops and training aid in initial awareness raising, Inspira also built popular and important cybersecurity infrastructure that incentivizes local communities to sustain interest in digital tools. For example, Inspira collaborated with the Dhaka-based cybersecurity firm Backdoor Private Ltd. to launch a one-stop service desk that accepts cybersecurity-related queries 24/7. As a high-demand help desk—serving more than 400 people in the first few months of operation—the desk helps ensure sustainability by providing a unique service to the community. Additionally, most of SARDI’s partners across the region utilized the momentum after a workshop to establish virtual peer group spaces on Facebook and WhatsApp. As these groups grew large and active, SARDI partners saw that participants valued connecting with their training peers and enjoyed supporting each other, ultimately sustaining the conversation about digital upskilling, even after the project’s end.

2-95c8da.jpgInspira launched community theater performances (“Gambhira”) on cybersecurity best practices, presenting awareness messaging in a manner that was enjoyable to target audiences in the rural/peri-urban zones of Khulna, Jessore, and Bogura. Photo: Inspira.

Looking Forward

To progress from good beginnings to great outcomes, SARDI partners found that digital literacy program design must incorporate a deep understanding of participants’ motivations, needs, and digitization challenges. When those participants own small businesses, increasing their demand for digital tools requires a pragmatic business case that shows the tools’ efficacy. Most importantly, these businesses need resources to help them mitigate the risk of cyber threats while implementing these solutions. Programs that apply these three lessons are best positioned to create sustainable change that will support emerging markets in their rapid digitization—emphasizing proactivity to avoid reactivity.

Julia Moon is a Project Associate and Robin Banerji is Data Management Analyst on DAI’s Digital Frontiers project. Acute Incite also contributed to this blog.