[B-SIDE Podcast] A digital economy for everyone, everywhere

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Economic growth can and should be inclusive, and the way to get there is to connect small businesses and individuals with the networks that drive the modern economy.

In this episode of B-Side, we’ll hear from Alison L. Eskesen, vice-president at the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.

Ms. Eskesen, a seasoned international development executive with more than 20 years of experience at the intersection of development and finance, tells BusinessWorld reporter Patricia B. Mirasol how the Center advances sustainable, equitable economic growth and financial inclusion around the world.

“Connecting small businesses and individuals to those networks leads to revenue growth and prosperity, which over time leads to more job creation in underserved communities,” Ms. Eskesen said. “That’s where you see this lift of entire communities, and not just one or two individuals who may have been supported.”

Takeaways

Connecting microbusinesses to the digital economy requires both systemic and individual changes.

The challenges of connecting microbusinesses to the digital economy are both systemic and individual. At the systemic level, it requires infrastructure and connectivity so everyone can participate regardless of their geographic location or socioeconomic status. At the individual level, it requires bridging the knowledge gap as well as allaying the fear of change by developing skills and know-how in them.

“It’s addressing questions such as, how can meaningful financial inclusion be extended to the underbanked?,” said Ms. Eskesen.

Entrepreneurs should have access to tools tailored to their needs.

Collaborating with regional partners is a way to take the particular needs of entrepreneurs into account so financial products could be created to meet those needs. Solutions have to be looked at from end-to-end to empower change. Organizations creating solutions should also be cognizant of the fact that certain locales have cultural considerations that are not relevant elsewhere.

In South Asia, for instance, the role of family and the expectation of women in families plays a huge role in creating a ceiling as to how engaged or successful a woman entrepreneur might be. “Either that’s because her husband may take over a business once it gets to a certain size,” she said, “or because her mother-in-law expects her not to be outside the house for such a long time.”

Education and professional know-how are the keys to addressing inequality.

In Indonesia, Ms. Eskesen said, the government is focused on skilling because it wants the digital economy to be a larger part of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The Center’s Mastercard Academy 2.0 is in line with this goal, as it aims to empower 100,00 Indonesians with the necessary digital skills to succeed.

The Center also rolled out its girls-for-tech curriculum in Indonesia, and is providing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for 60,000 girls over the next three years.

“We know from research that girls around the age of 14 years start to decide that they are no longer good nor interested in STEM and thus take themselves off that educational pathway,” Ms. Eskesen said, “which then leads to gender imbalance for future jobs in the digital economy.”

In the Philippines, the Center works with the Landbank of the Philippines and local government units with the goal of bringing in 10.2 million Filipinos into the formal economy and having them banked. 82% of those 10.2 million, added Ms. Eskesen, are not previously banked.

Tertiary school subsidies have been also given to students in the poorest schools, together also with the help of Landbank and the government.

“This is important because we don’t want to see the challenges that COVID-19 has brought to disrupt education,” said Ms. Eskesen. “That creates ripple effects that continue and linger [even past] this pandemic.”

As we come out of this pandemic, data inequality will continue to become a bigger problem and create a chasm that’s difficult to overcome.

Data can be used to empower and enable civil society and policymakers to have the necessary information to make better decisions, which is why inequality over data access also has to be addressed as the world comes out of the pandemic.

One initiative meant to tackle this issue is data.org, a platform that began as a collaboration between the Center and the Rockefeller Foundation. It hosted a $10 million challenge around solutions that look to solve access to credit around the world, with seven just declared winners.

“We are waiting to see how they develop these solutions and roll them out to the market,” Ms. Eskesen said.

Access to credit, for example, is a challenge for mom-and-pop shops because most are informal, do not have collateral that traditional banks are willing to accept, and are therefore locked out of the banking system.

The Center was able to work around this challenge in Kenya by asking for the sales data–often going back years–of these shops from Unilever, one of their partners. They were then able to get one of their banking partners to lend loans to these mom-and-pop shops on a recreated cash flow based on the said data. The result was the creation of a digital credit facility that brings in thousands of small businesses previously unable to access these financial services.

“This was in Kenya, but because we did that with Unilever, we are able to think about how we can replicate it in different markets,” said Ms. Eskesen. “When we creatively think of how we can bring in all the different pieces, we get an almost plug-and-play approach that we can then really think about replicating.”

This B-Side episode was recorded remotely on March 18. Produced by Paolo L. Lopez and Sam L. Marcelo.

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