How digital training for women-led MSMEs in Cambodia is enabling businesses to recover and rebuild.
COVID-19 has, like all countries around the world, hit Cambodia’s economy hard. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to be out of work, with the World Bank estimating that this could increase to 1.76 million jobs lost, whilst simultaneously creating a significant debt crisis; over 110 garment factories, one of Cambodia’s key export industries, have closed; the tourism industry has suffered significant losses, with international tourist numbers down over 76% in 2020; and micro, small, medium and large business owners alike are 11 months into the biggest economic crisis facing the country (and the world) in our generation.
As soon as the crisis began in March 2020, business owners who were doing fine in February suddenly started to see customer numbers drop within days. People cancelled travel plans. Expatriates started flying back to their home countries. Overseas businesses started cancelling their orders with factories. Business’ cash-flow forecasts dropped from months to weeks.
Governments and aid agencies alike jumped into action, juggling a massive healthcare crisis alongside an economic crisis. In many countries governments launched support systems, including financial support to enable businesses to keep operating, and importantly to keep people employed. In countries like Cambodia, government systems are not in place to the same extent to provide such support; and in a country where an estimated 90% of the private sector is informal (not registered), accessing formal financial support is not a possibility for many.
The impact of COVID-19 on women’s businesses
Sreypov is the founder and CEO of AGAPE Coffee. She grows coffee beans on her coffee farm in Koh Kong province, harvests and roasts her own beans, and sells the beans and coffee to low-income customers in Phnom Penh through her roadside coffee shops.
“I started from nothing with this business. I did not even have the skills to make coffee. I had to learn everything from the start to operate my business.”
In 2018, Sreypov applied to participate in the SHE Incubator Program, to enable her to learn business skills so she could manage and scale her coffee shops. After graduating from the incubator, she then quickly also applied for the Accelerator Program. After graduating from these programs, Sreypov increased her average monthly revenue by over 200%, created 18 new jobs, and donated basic living supplies to over 60 families living in poverty.
“…and then, during COVID-19, I lost all my customers.”
In March and April of 2020, just as we at SHE Investments were in the midst of crisis management ourselves, we were also scrambling to provide much-needed support to the hundreds of Cambodian women micro-small entrepreneurs in our network across the country. Many of the women we were speaking to, through phone calls and Zoom webinars, told us that their immediate priority and biggest concern was keeping their staff employed. Their second priority was adapting their business to the new situation, in which they could not reach their customers through their usual channels.
“I had to close down my shop but that would mean my employees would lose their jobs. Then, I came up with an idea to sell a new product, coffee drip bags, online.”
In April 2020, we were contacted by Youth Business International. As part of their Rapid Response and Recovery Programme, sponsored by Google.org and working with partners across the region to quickly respond to the impact of COVID-19 on entrepreneurs globally, YBI contacted SHE to ask if we had any ideas on how to support entrepreneurs in Cambodia to recover and rebuild.
By this time, we had had two key realisations;
1. The work we are doing to support women entrepreneurs is more important than ever. Women entrepreneurs make up 61% of business owners across the country; they are going to be crucial for Cambodia to recover from this economic crisis over the years to come.
2. The digital literacy and skills of many of the women we were supporting were lower than we expected. When it comes to digital literacy, despite technology advancement in recent years, Cambodian women are being left behind.
With YBI and supported by Google.org, we worked fast. In June 2020 we launched the SHE Digital Literacy Program for women entrepreneurs affected by COVID-19.
We brought together an all-female team of industry experts in Cambodia to collaboratively design and deliver this project:
Sotheavy AT, digital communications expert & founder of Think Plastic
Sokneang NENG, SHE Graduate and founder of Kokopon
Lida LOEM, Co-Founder and Head of Learning & Development at SHE
Celia Boyd, Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHE
SHE Graduates and all-female media production team, 606 Digital
Keolydeth HUN, Communications Manager at SHE
Panhary SOEU, MEL Coordinator at SHE
Chanthy OEM, Project Assistant at SHE
We also partnered with KOOMPI, the first Cambodian made laptop company, who are making affordable computers designed for Cambodians. KOOMPI provided our first 40 participants with brand new laptops to enable them to learn new computer skills.
Phase 1 saw over 75 female applications for this program (in November 2020 we’ve received over 90 applications for Phase 2, kicking off in January 2021). It seemed like women entrepreneurs definitely needed (and wanted) this training.
We quickly created a training program that would be delivered in 2 streams:
In-person training for 70 women, across 4 cohorts (as long as COVID allowed us to have in-person workshops)
Online training (using video tutorials and online learning materials) for over 300 women
606 Digital worked closely with the lead trainers (Sotheavy, Lida and Sokneang) to film video tutorials on their key training content.
Anak, another Digital Literacy Program graduate, said:
“With social distancing, customers are staying (home) and most of the markets are closed. Therefore, digital marketing and online selling are skills to be learned. The program came in at the right time for business owners.”
“I learned about product photography, Facebook for business, and copywriting. I also learned how to make my business available on Google Maps and how to create a simple website for my products.”
“As a business owner, the program helps me finding the ways to move forward in this situation.”
In October 2020, graduates of the Phase 1 Digital Literacy Program saw the following results:
55% increase in women who have their business listed on Google Maps
54% increase in women who have their own business website
Full employee retention between July – October (and 63 employees re-hired or hired for the first time)
Revenue recovery (overall business revenue increased by over 200% between July – October, as entrepreneurs gradually recovered, and many began making sales online)
Participants who said they knew how to use basic Google applications (Drive, Maps, Gmail, etc.) increased from 35% to 94% of women
Women who use a cash-flow forecast to help them manage and plan ahead during the crisis increased from 58% to 81%
98% of businesses continued trading throughout the program
100% of graduates said that learning new digital skills helped their businesses to recover from COVID-19
100% of graduates said they would recommend the program to other women
After graduating from the program, Sreypov of AGAPE Coffee said:
“It was all thanks to the Digital Literacy Program, where I learned to sell my products online and save my business.”
“I learned about my target audience and how to increase my customer reach, and with this knowledge I was able to increase my sales dramatically. This means that I also did not have to let go of my employees. I was able to save all of their jobs.”
What’s next for SHE Digital Literacy Programs in 2021?
From January 2021 we’re excited to be launching new programs, supporting new cohorts of women entrepreneurs both online and offline to learn digital skills through training and coaching.
New topics will be introduced to enable even more skills development and support.
And importantly, we’re excited to introduce new tools and methods to create an accessible digital literacy program for women entrepreneurs with disabilities, by adapting existing content and creating new tools to enable women with physical disabilities to be able to apply for and participate in lessons.
Women are already running the majority of the private sector in Cambodia; investing in their capacity to digitalise their businesses is how we can contribute to the rebuilding of the economy from 2021.
“Many businesses like my own will be able to open up again with the help of this program.”
“It would be a very important and useful program for entrepreneurs if they could make it available nation-wide.”
– Anak, SHE Digital Literacy Program Graduate 2020