BIZ LEADERS SPEAK | Yes, MSMEs can derive wealth from digital space

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First Pacific Managing Director and PLDT chief Manny V. Pangilinan talks about the challenges of providing the infrastructure to empower MSMEs and boosting ASEAN integration at the ABIS 2017 Entrepreneurship in the Digital Economy forum at Solaire hotel. Also in photo are (from left) moderator Yasu Ota, columnist of Nikei Asian Review of Japan; Goh Peng Ooi, founder and Executive Chairman of Silverlake Axis Ltd. (Malaysia); Dr. Yuri Sato, Executive Vice President of Japan External Trade Organisation/Jetro Richard Eldridge, CEO of Lenddo and Ricky Nash, Group President of SEA Group (Singapore). PHOTO BY BERNARD TESTA, INTERAKSYON

MANILA – Besides traditional businesses, small and medium entrepreneurs in Asia should also be able to derive wealth from the digital space, panelists at the business forums related to the 31st ASEAN Summit said Tuesday.

At the Digital Entrepreneurship Panel of the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit, held at the Solaire Resort and Casino in ParaƱaque City on Tuesday at the sidelines of the 31st ASEAN and related summits, various opportunities in the region’s digital economy were tackled.

Experts noted how, despite the millions of people in each country in the region, the proportion of those with good digital access remains wanting. This is opportunity lost because the populations of most countries here are young – and presumably, tech-savvy.

Nick Nash, president of SEA Group of Singapore, which has businesses in videogames and e-sports, e-commerce, and fintech, talked about how they make technology work in a more inclusive way.

“Our approach is all about driving true entrepreneurship, which for us doesn’t mean venture capital and IPOs. It really means small businesses in every community, in every little small village in the Philippines to Indonesia to Thailand,” he said. “And what we’re most proud of in our business isn’t the fact that we have about 70 million people playing games or millions of people processing payments. It’s that we have 1.6 million small businesses that are selling at our e-commerce platform. That gives us so much joy to be able to give them an opportunity to build a business.”

He expressed excitement at what the future holds for SEA Group, noting that the degree of optimism in the region is high.

Richard Eldridge, chief executive officer of Lenddo, also sees huge opportunities in ASEAN.

Living in the Philippines since 2001, he recalled how more than half of his employees back then would always go to him to ask for a loan. They couldn’t get the “full range” of services from traditional financial institutions like banks.

“Why can’t hardworking, well-educated people who were working for me not be able to get the same chance in life when I was growing up?” he wondered.

He took a year off and traveled to other developing countries and found the same thing. Micro, small, and medium enterprises weren’t getting the financial services that would help them grow. And when he went to the financial institutions to find out why, they replied that they didn’t have enough information and technology to serve these people.

Seeing that the people in need had mobile phones and used the Internet, he came up with a solution: financial technology firm Lenddo.

They operate in over 20 countries, including the Philippines, and use people’s personal datasets with their permission, and provide that information to financial institutions so the latter can make better decisions when approving business loans, emergency loans, educational loans, and health loans.

Philippine Long Distance and Telephone Company CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan conceded that there is a huge challenge in laying down the infrastructure to ensure digital connectivity that empowers business. He said their group continues to strive to meet the task.

PLDT CEO Manny V. Pangilinan stresses a point at the ABIS forum of experts on MSMEs and digital space. BERNARD TESTA, INTERAKSYON

At the same time, people must have the gadgets so they can connect to the Internet. In the Philippines, only about 40 percent of the population have “smart or smart-like phones,” he said.

To solve that, he suggested that companies open credit facilities so customers can borrow cellphones and even appliances.

The next step is getting people to adapt to making payments digitally by treating their cards or cellphones as wallets.

There are 117 million mobile subscribers in the Philippines, Pangilinan noted. “So everybody knows how to load a phone. It’s just a matter of making the phone the wallet, by loading on your phone not only what you need to communicate, but also what you need to pay for the Jollibees or your Meralco bills or what other payment transactions are needed.”

He made a last point on financial inclusion: “A lot of our people do not have access to money. We must be able to break that logjam.”

“At the end of the day, we in the Internet world should be judged not by the money we made, the profits we made, but if we could say that so many years from today, we can say, we have improved the lives of our people, we have less poor people by way of the Internet, then I think we’ve done a good job,” he said.