The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on trade, investment, growth, and employment, all critical contributors to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Asia-Pacific region is no exception.
Quarantines, lockdowns, and the closure of public places have resulted in short-term economic losses, which are expected to be much greater than those experienced during the Asian Financial Crisis and the Global Financial Crisis (ESCAP, 2020). The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the region are, without a doubt, among the most affected.
The fallout from COVID-19 has been especially difficult for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs), leading to declines in income and employment and increased inequality and poverty. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) estimates that the pandemic could push 150 million people into poverty in 2021, resulting in a significant regression in the progress made on the Sustainable Development Goals.
Although MSMEs are the driving force behind the Asian economies accounting for 69 percent of the national labour force (ADB, 2020), the pandemic has brought a shockwave to their growth. This is particularly the case for women-owned, managed or led businesses, where access to finance remains a key constraint to maintain or grow their operations. Even before the pandemic, MSMEs faced significant constraints in accessing finance. For example, the Asian Development Bank estimates that Bank Loans to MSMEs averaged 14.8 percent of a country’s GDP and 16.9 percent of total bank lending (ADB, 2020).
These finance gaps have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Tightened lending procedures have limited access to financial services and credit in particular to women enterprises. Women enterprises are also more likely to have lower levels of digital literacy and connection rates, which restrict online opportunities. These finance gaps are compounded by existing gender-specific challenges faced by women-owned MSMEs in Asia-Pacific within key sectors, including the agriculture and Fast-Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sectors, which have significant proportions of women-owned enterprises. Women enterprises in these sectors continue to face gender-specific constraints that limit their contributions, including limited access to hired labor, equipment, technology, training, finance, and markets. These women-owned enterprises are thus especially vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic, requiring a sector-focused approach for effective solutions.
The pandemic has also made it clear that the MSMEs that are more resilient to the crisis are those that are using digital solutions to bring their products to their clients. The Asian Development Bank estimates that business-to-consumer revenues of digital platforms in the region account for 48 percent of total revenues globally. As more business transactions migrate to the digital space due to lockdowns, it is expected that there will be a significant increase in these figures in 2021. However, this digital transformation has not been inclusive of all MSMEs. As a result, the small ones and/or women-led MSMEs, which struggle to attract investments for their digitalization efforts, are being left behind.
To support the economic recovery and digitalization of these enterprises, the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) launched the Women Enterprise Recovery Fund (WERF). The WERF is supported by the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), the Government of Canada, and Visa Inc. The Fund is hosted by UNCDF’s Fund Facility Investment mechanism, through the UNCDF Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) programme, with support from the Australian Government (DFAT).
“Over its 50-year existence, FMO has worked to empower entrepreneurs across and within emerging markets. The current economic crisis has proven to be a tremendous challenge on so many levels, and for so many. We are proud to have partnered with ESCAP, Visa and UNCDF on this deeply needed fund, ensuring that women-led and women-owned enterprises in Southeast Asia not only survive but thrive," said Andrew Shaw, Capacity Development Manager of FMO.
“We have all lived through the pandemic in the past year and we have all seen the role that digital platforms have played in our daily lives. Now we need to make sure that ALL MSMEs, particularly those that are women-led and women-owned are included in the digital economy so that they are more resilient to COVID-19 and similar external shocks. UNCDF is proud to partner with ESCAP, Visa and FMO through the Women Enterprise Recovery Fund to support companies design, test, and scale innovative solutions for women enterprises that have been economically impacted by COVID-19. This Fund serves as a reminder to the importance of ensuring that no one is left behind as businesses in Asia and the Pacific begin an inclusive recovery from the pandemic.” said Maria Perdomo, Regional Manager for Asia, Inclusive Digital Economies, UNCDF.
The WERF seeks to support the development and expansion of digital business models and solutions to alleviate financial and other constraints suffered by women enterprises in South and South-East Asia following COVID-19. It will co-fund companies to pilot and scale digital and digital finance solutions that enhance women enterprise growth and resilience.
“The pandemic has dramatically impacted every economy in the Asia-Pacific region. At the same time, it has created an unprecedented uptake of digital solutions to continue business operations and work within the limitations of our new reality. To prevent a K-shaped economic recovery - where some sectors and countries thrive, and others regress further into poverty - we must all collectively take action. This requires new thinking, innovation and partnerships to direct targeted support which can catalyze recovery efforts. ESCAP is proud to be collaborating with UNCDF, VISA, FMO and our financial partner the Government of Canada, to support such digital technology and digital finance solutions specifically for women entrepreneurs who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” said ESCAP Chief of Technology and Innovation, Jonathan Wong.
The Fund invited companies to submit a proposal for a project to pilot an innovative solution that would help to meet this challenge. 83 applications were received and analyzed by a Review Team composed of industry experts. The Review Team produced a shortlist of 17 applicants, who were invited to develop a pitch on their proposed solution.
UNCDF, ESCAP, Visa, and FMO provided mentoring and guidance for the applicants’ pitch preparation. This helped them focus and refine their pitches to better present their business solutions and expected impact. The shortlisted applicants then delivered their pitches to an Investment Committee composed of top industry experts from each target country. The Investment Committee selected the best projects based on criteria including stage, relevance, impact, sustainability and scalability, team experience, risk profile, additionality, and value for money.
“Visa is committed to helping small and micro businesses thrive, and we believe in the power of women entrepreneurs to drive economies everywhere. In the wake of COVID-19, our focus on empowering and uplifting women is more important than ever as we seek ways to contribute to an equitable economic recovery. Alongside our global commitment to digitally enable 50 million SMBs by the end of 2023, we are privileged to be a partner in the WERF to advance digital solutions for women entrepreneurs in the region,” said Nate Low, Senior Director, Asia Pacific Social Impact, Visa.
Following this rigorous and independent selection process, we are delighted to announce 10 winners who will pilot their innovative solutions over the next 12 months. These projects will receive risk capital to pilot their solutions, in addition to mentoring and guidance from industry experts.
AgUnity (Indonesia) will rollout its digital mobile platform for coffee farmers in Indonesia, enabling users to perform and record transactions, improve the productivity of their agricultural practices, and connect to service providers. The AgUnity solution which uses smartphones and QR codes allows users to record transactions in their digital wallets, access learning materials, and organize to sell and buy marketplace items.
ASYX Holdings Pte Ltd/PT ASYX Indonesia - ASYX Hoori (Indonesia) will provide various digital solutions, equipment financing, and training support to women-owned, managed or led MSMEs to promote and upscale digitized Supply Chain Financing (SCF) solutions for firms in the Indonesian garment/fashion and agriculture industries.
Boost Capital (Cambodia) will provide an end-to-end digital microfinance platform that allows women-led MSMEs to apply for a digital loan, and will also provide accessible local-language financial education modules to strengthen customer’s financial knowledge.
BRAC Bank Limited - SME Bondhu (Bangladesh) will pilot a one-stop digital solution for MSMEs in Bangladesh for seamless set-up of online stores, including access to digital tools for their businesses, such as an integrated logistics facility and payment gateway solutions.
CROWDE - Radhia Tani (Indonesia) will create a fintech lending platform that digitizes the agricultural process by prioritizing education for farmers in technology and financial management while providing cashless financing for agri-entrepreneurs.
CVC Finance Limited - Digital Un-divide (Bangladesh) will develop a digital platform focusing on retail micro-merchants, enabling them to keep a digital track of their transactions through a mini ERP/m-POS App allowing them to order inventory and access finance.
Himalayan Innovations (Nepal) will connect rural smallholder women farmers in Nepal with urban markets through a blockchain enabled e-commerce platform, while providing them with foundational digital literacy and access to finance through the young digital managers from Himalayan’s Girls4Rurals network.
Khmum Technology Co., Ltd. (Cambodia) will train and onboard women entrepreneurs onto their e-commerce platform, while allowing women MSMEs to build a dashboard of their business health for financial institutions to facilitate lending.
Kiu Global (Viet Nam) will implement its Business Management Platform (BMP) and Mobile Applications to support women-owned or led MSMEs in Viet Nam, by providing (m)SMEs with digital tools for record-keeping, which allow them to connect with financial institutions to offer financing using the (m)SMEs transaction history.
Reach52 Pte. Ltd. (Cambodia) will introduce affordable micro-insurance and health products to rural populations in Cambodia through recruiting and equipping women entrepreneurs as community agents, conducting training on business strategies, product knowledge, digital literacy, and provision of the reach52 access e-commerce platform.
About the Women Enterprise Recovery Fund
The Women Enterprise Recovery Fund is supported by the Dutch Entrepreneurial Development Bank (FMO), the Government of Canada, and Visa Inc. The Fund is jointly implemented by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship programme in partnership with the United Nations Capital Development Fund’s (UNCDF), under its “no-one left behind in the digital era” strategy. The Fund is hosted by UNCDF’s Fund Facility Investment mechanism, through the UNCDF ASEAN programmatic agenda, which is supported by the Australian Government.
The UN Capital Development Fund
The UN Capital Development Fund makes public and private finance work for the poor in the world’s 46 least developed countries (LDCs).
UNCDF offers “last mile” finance models that unlock public and private resources, especially at the domestic level, to reduce poverty and support local economic development.
UNCDF’s financing models work through three channels: (1) inclusive digital economies, which connects individuals, households, and small businesses with financial eco-systems that catalyze participation in the local economy, and provide tools to climb out of poverty and manage financial lives; (2) local development finance, which capacitates localities through fiscal decentralization, innovative municipal finance, and structured project finance to drive local economic expansion and sustainable development; and (3) investment finance, which provides catalytic financial structuring, de-risking, and capital deployment to drive SDG impact and domestic resource mobilization.
The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of UNCDF, the United Nations or any of its affiliated organizations or its Member States.