Digitizing Small Businesses

USAID is empowering small and medium enterprises to manage their business operations efficiently through crucial digital skills.

By Burton Bollag

November 2022

Digitizing Small Businesses

The Digital Sarthak project provides training on digital skills like using smartphones for payments, record-keeping, and advertising on social media to rural women micro-entrepreneurs. (Photograph courtesy Digital Empowerment Foundation)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, cattle-feed producer Modern Feed Industries switched to digital payments for daily transactions with customers. The switch made it easier for company head Akshay Mittal to track payments and inventory. Impressed with the potential of digital business practices, and eager to modernize his business, Mittal signed up for Google Workspace, a platform that uses cloud computing to make company data accessible from any device. He now wants to use his digital knowledge to monitor machinery remotely to prevent breakdowns.

“Once we get data analytics in place,” says Mittal, “we can do wonders with things like customer satisfaction, operational efficiency, procurement of materials and worker efficiency.”

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supports several initiatives to help micro, small and medium businesses (MSMEs) switch to digital practices. It partnered with local stakeholders to facilitate digital training for women in rural areas, digital financial training for small women-owned convenience stores and for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.

One such program is the South Asia Regional Digital Initiative (SARDI). Through SARDI, USAID engages with the private sector, government and civil society to enhance digital literacy and build cybersecurity capacity.

DEEP benefits

Haryana-based Modern Feed Industries is a beneficiary of the DEEP (Digital Enablement and Empowerment) program, supported by USAID. The DEEP program has a pilot training in digital practices for 1,500 youth and women-led SMEs in Haryana and Madhya Pradesh.

Another beneficiary of DEEP is Shubh Enterprises, a product distribution company with 200 employees, which also provides skills training for the Government of India. Akshay Jain, chief financial officer at Shubh Enterprises, says the online training helped him guide his company to adopt cloud-based business solutions and improve cybersecurity.

The switch to cloud computing by Shubh Enterprises, he says, has led to “greater ease of doing business, as well as greater traceability of who makes changes to data and when.” Jain says many SMEs are interested in digital business solutions but don’t know where to begin. Additionally, the equipment, software, training and support required to go digital are often expensive. The DEEP program goes beyond training to answer questions on digital tools through a telephone help desk. “The objective is the sustainability of the initiative,” says Juned Jamil Usmani, director of Trioca Technologies, the company that designed the program after surveying 2,500 SMEs to understand their prevalent digital practices and interests.

Empowering women shop-owners

Project Kirana also builds digital skills in women-owned SMEs. It is a joint program between USAID and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth to help small women-owned-and-operated kirana convenience stores learn the digital and financial skills needed to grow their businesses. The program includes training on digital payments, banking and insurance, and basic business management skills like inventory management and book-keeping. The project has already reached 3,500 participants across several cities in Uttar Pradesh. In the second round, the project will focus on cybersecurity aspects like avoiding phishing attacks and other scams.

Digital guides

The Digital Sarthak project–a part of the USAID program–provides training on digital skills like using smartphones for payments, record-keeping, and advertising on social media to 16,000 rural women micro-entrepreneurs involved in stitching, embroidery and animal husbandry.

In a train-the-trainer model, the program creates Digital Sarthaks–women trained in crucial digital skills, who then each identify and train about 100 women micro entrepreneurs in their communities. Pratima Jaiswal, a shopkeeper in Rasoolpur village of Uttar Pradesh is a Digital Sarthak. “In the beginning, I had very little knowledge of smartphones, but they trained me,” she says. “The program sends me new training modules every month.” Jaiswal has been working with about 100 local women. “Most were only semi-literate and didn’t know how to make a call from a smartphone,” she says. “Initially, we faced a lot of opposition, especially from family members. They said, ‘Why do you want to give a woman a smartphone? What does she need it for?’ ” Jaiswal answered with her own example, explaining how using a smartphone helped her run her small business more successfully.

The program had “a very positive impact on the lives of these women,” she says. “They are more independent now.” Jaiswal says after the training, women business owners and operators can access information like weather forecasts, clothing designs, and order new components and supplies. Chhutki Sharma runs a small general store in Dungasra village in Madhya Pradesh. She received training and support from a local Digital Sarthak for two years. “Initially my family was apprehensive,” she says. “But they soon changed their minds after seeing the benefits the program could bring.” One of the practices Sharma learned was to create a WhatsApp group with her customers to advertise new products. “Before I started training,” says Sharma, “people didn’t know what products I offered. Now many more people come to my shop.”

Burton Bollag is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.


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