September 18, 2022

The future of “going global” is digital

Contributed by:

Ms. Pamela Coke-Hamilton

Executive Director, ITC

This Commissioner Insight was published in the 2022 State of Broadband Report,

Advocacy Target 6: Get MSMEs online 

The future of “going global” is digital. This is especially true for small businesses: the road to overseas markets will run through digital channels and platforms. The firms who can connect, compete and change will thrive. 

The Broadband Commission’s Advocacy Target #6 emphasizes the need to get MSMEs connected and performing online. My fellow Commissioners and I set the target of reducing the number who are unconnected by 50 per cent before 2025. During the pandemic, we saw how doing business online went from being useful for business to critical for survival. Now, facing an impending downturn in the global economy, we need an even bigger and more broad-based boost in connectivity. Over the next three years, the resilience—in fact the very survival—of small enterprises will largely depend on how well they manage the shift to digital.  I see three challenges ahead: first, listening and learning; second, walking the talk; third, leaving no one behind. 

Our first challenge is one of measuring and understanding the gap in connectivity for MSMEs. Beyond the task of collecting data, we need a more profound understanding of how we can solve the barriers for small firms to get connected. The lessons of the last few years show that the business case for going digital is self-evident—and yet many small businesses continue to remain offline. Others are unable to access or afford this critical capability. We need to look for solutions that could provide lower cost access to bandwidth or innovative financing that could unlock its adoption.   

Secondly—to quote an old Apple slogan—those of us working in the development sector really have to “think different”. And do so on multiple levels, if digital connectivity is going to really become universal and achieve its potential. As agencies with mandates and budgets and staff, it isn’t easy to step back and say that we need to change. But we need a different offer and a different mindset. We need new and better partnerships with the private sector, critical to delivering infrastructure and services.  

Finally, we have got to keep focusing on the base of the pyramid—not just those individuals and companies that are already well-connected and have a digital presence. I know from our own projects that selling handicrafts onto a platform such as Etsy from a border town of Guatemala is not the same as selling from Kuala Lumpur. But that’s where we need to be—squarely focused on leaving no one behind. 

The ideas and opinions expressed in this insight are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of ITU and UNESCO or the Broadband Commission. The mention of specific companies, products or services does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by ITU or UNESCO or Broadband Commission in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.