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How are business development service providers utilizing ICTs to serve women entrepreneurs during the COVID-19 pandemic?

In Business
Feb 11, 2022

Financial and Business Development Service providers are playing an important role in supporting micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a research collaboration with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Programme and the Rebuilding Better: Fostering Business Resilience Post-COVID-19 Project, supported by J.P. Morgan, explored how service providers have adapted Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) to deliver services to women entrepreneurs in response to COVID-19.

Leveraging student collaboration for initial insights

To explore how financial and business development service providers supporting women entrepreneurs have adopted ICTs during COVID-19, the ILO’s Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Programme and the Rebuilding Better Project, supported by J.P. Morgan, partnered last year with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. As part of the collaboration, a group of master students from the institute dedicated time in their final year to conduct a research project and gather initial insights.

The research team focused on three countries in the South-East Asia region which are covered by the Rebuilding Better Project - Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. In addition to desktop research, virtual interviews were conducted with respondents in all three countries in the third and fourth quarter of 2021. These focused on understanding how service providers have adapted their operations during COVID-19, what challenges - if any - they faced in the uptake of ICTs to extend their services to women entrepreneurs and what strategies they have adopted to integrate ICTs in their operations to deliver services to women entrepreneurs. The research team also aimed to identify characteristics of service providers that affect the ease and adoption of ICTs, to be able to come up with practical recommendations for service providers on how to approach this area in the future.

The collaboration culminated in November 2021 with a validation workshop held with respondents, including employers’ organizations, financial institutions and women entrepreneurship associations, which enabled the research team to eventually finalize the study.

A fast-tracked shift to ICTs

Service providers who participated in the research reported that, while the pandemic had disrupted their operations on many fronts and severely affected the organization’s revenue, it was not all negative. Strategies employed by service providers during the pandemic to accommodate for lockdowns and social distancing included shifting the delivery of services such as 
trainings, workshops, mentoring and networking online, leveraging web-based platforms. Service providers also reported increasingly using social media for marketing and information dissemination purposes and communicated with clients through different mobile applications such as WhatsApp or Line.

Abigail Gorospe, Advocacy, Research, and Communications Manager, with the Employers Confederation of the Philippines highlighted during the validation workshop that their organization had improved their outreach during the pandemic.

We have promoted our services online and attracted 13,000 new followers on Facebook. This will enable us to expand our reach and improve our services to customers over time."

Abigail Gorospe, Advocacy, Research, and Communications Manager, Employers Confederation of the Philippines
Several respondents indicated that the shift had resulted in improved communication with clients, as it is more efficient to connect using mobile applications such as WhatsApp. The frequency of communication had also in many cases increased, as this type of application made it easier to stay in touch. The transferring of services online had also enabled some service providers to expand to other geographical areas and to offer services to groups they had not been able to assist before.
After moving services online during COVID-19, we can now offer our services to women outside Kuala Lumpur, not just in Malaysia but also to women of Malaysian descent in other parts of the world."Nuraizah Shamsul Baharin, President, Association of Bumiputra Women Entrepreneur Network of Malaysia (WENA)

Financial and business development service providers have varying capacity and ability to transfer online

The shift to a fully online operating model after the outbreak of COVID-19 has posed various external and internal challenges to respondents in Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

For some respondents, particularly with clients in rural areas, poor internet connectivity has been a major issue during the COVID-19 crisis.

Clients’ familiarity with digital tools and platforms have also had a lot of impact on respondents, and needs to be considered before any services are extended. Some service providers reported that they had to provide extensive support services to their clients on how to access and participate in activities online. This included creating videos and other tutorial materials which guided their participants on how to go about the new mode of training and communication, as well as providing a lot of guidance during activities. While this proved to be effective for some organizations, some respondents reported that clients seemed to have a slow learning curve, which ultimately caused unintended distraction or delays.

Another apparent issue raised was the access to appropriate equipment and cost associated with purchasing this to be able to offer services online. Several respondents mentioned cost as being a key determinant when deciding web-based platforms for service delivery rather than the suitability of different platforms to the needs of their clients.

Unfamiliarity of employees with the use of digital tools was also reported as an internal challenge for some. It was observed that younger staff and personnel seemed to have greater flexibility and ability to respond to technological shifts more easily. This was associated with lesser resistance to change, as well as being born into a generation where technology is already heavily integrated to different parts of people’s lives, aside from the workplace.

Gender dimensions to be considered when transferring services online

Given how women entrepreneurs have been disproportionately impacted and are among the most vulnerable groups affected by COVID-19, it is essential to also consider how they have been able to access services delivered online.

According to respondents, with the added care burden that women largely have had to carry during COVID-19, it is important as a service provider to offer flexibility. Women participants were reported sometimes joining webinars and online activities while cooking, taking care of household chores or caring for children at the same time. For a service provider, it is therefore important to understand the needs of women entrepreneurs and still offer them the chance to join, maybe with their cameras off. Among respondents, almost all mentioned that it seemed to have become easier for women to benefit from their services as they have the option to join from their own homes.

Starting point for understanding how to support service providers in the transition to an increasingly digital environment

While the research collaboration enabled the ILO to provide students with an opportunity to gain relevant experience in the development sector during the pandemic, it also yielded relevant insights for everyone involved when it comes to support required by service providers adopting ICTs to serve women entrepreneurs. The collaboration constituted a good starting point for considering how constituents and other organizations that are operating in an increasingly digital environment, can be supported to ensure they can better leverage opportunities that comes with the adoption of ICTs. Without doubt, these lessons learned will be important also in a post-COVID-19 world.

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