While e-commerce has provided a huge boost for start-ups around the world, many in developing countries have been left behind for reasons of illiteracy, access to technology, poor internet connections and more. The UN is striving to make e-commerce open to all through its eTrade for all initiative, which seeks to open access to everyone irrespective of gender, economic situation and educational attainment.

E-commerce is a well demonstrated powerful driver of economic growth, inclusive trade and job-creation across the developing world but while some developing countries have made significant progress, the vast majority are still lagging behind. The UN claimed that 57% of the world’s population remain offline and are unable to take advantage of the enormous economic and social benefits the internet can offer.

One website, Inclusive Trade, is pioneering inclusivity for many small businesses around the world. Based on principles of sustainability and ethical trade, the company hand picks the likes of craftspeople and artisans, to be on the website, in a bid to help talents hidden in the remote, rural areas of the world, not only get exposure, but protect their crafts. Gender equality, providing decent work and economic growth for all and reduced inequalities are key growth indicators and goals set out as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. These are the pillars of the platform’s ethos. 

Founded by Rupa Ganguli, the platform has now brought together women from countries like Guatemala, Ethiopia, Tajikistan, Peru, India and Brazil. With a career in international trade and development which started at the World Trade Organisation, Ganguli is a passionate entrepreneur, who founded the award winning non-profit SPINNA Circle which has been recognised for its successful projects in empowering women globally.

With so many legal and technical aspects to understand in relation to even being able to engage in e-commerce with international buyers especially, several organisations are trying their best to help educate and empower. For example, to sell to the European Union, an SME would need to look at product requirements, trade preferences schemes, health and safety regulations, privacy laws, data protection and regulations, very complex for small, rural, often poorly educated artisans.

In Kenya, the e-commerce platform and association, Ubunifu - Swahili for creativity - has been working to empower local craftswomen, creating jobs women and youths, and educating them to the ways of local and international trading. Also an online store, it began in 2016 as an initiative to help garment and textile SMEs producing traditional leather and beaded African products and jewellery, through trainings and webinars about trade, to bridge the information gap. The association’s members have since participated in both local and international trade fairs such as, New York Now, Ambiente Germany, Birmingham Spring Fair and Origin Africa.  

She Trades from the International Trade Centre is also using technology to provide women entrepreneurs with a unique network and platform to connect to markets.  Through the SheTrades app, women entrepreneurs are able to share information about their companies, increase visibility, expand networks, connect and internationalise. SheTrades, which aims to connect one million women entrepreneurs to market by 2020, also helps corporations to include more women entrepreneurs in their supply chains.

Having identified that women entrepreneurs were being excluded due to being unable to identify companies to engage with in business, an international tech competition was set up in 2015 to call for solutions. ITC teamed up with Google and CI&T, a Brazilian technology company, to run a tech challenge with the aim of creating a platform through which corporations can meet and identify women-owned supplying companies of goods and services. It was a female owned Kenyan company, Greenbell Communications (GBC) which won, and working with ITC, Google and CI&T, the SheTrades platform became a reality, seeing its launch in December 2015 at the International Women in Business Forum. Several organisations have signed up, including the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Turkey, PromPerú, Apex-Brasil, CAWEE (the Center for Accelerated Women’s Economic Empowerment) and the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA).

Another digital platform connecting SMEs to the world and helping grow their business, is Connect Americas, from the Inter-American Development Bank. The first social network for businesses in the Americas, dedicated to promoting foreign trade and international investment, the goal is to help SMEs strengthen their businesses, by providing them access to communities of clients, suppliers and investors in the region and all over the world, segmented by industry. It also helps educate businesses about the likes of legal and regulatory procedures, as well as connecting them with financing opportunities. They also provide training and scholarships for girls. Created by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), it had the support of Google, DHL, Sealand, Facebook and Mastercard. There have since been many success stories, for example Latin Food Fresh & Frozen, which is a women-owned company employing women from Guatemala producing superfoods such as chia and amaranth. It is not only women it’s empowering however. Many others from Peruvian honey makers to animators, have been supported by the project. 

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