Leveraging E-Commerce to Support the Growth of Women-Led SMEs in MENA
E-Commerce and Women-led Small and Medium Enterprises (WSMEs) in MENA, funded with US$3.82 million from the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), aims to help women-led SMEs in seven target countries to enhance their use of e-commerce platforms, thereby increasing their domestic and international market access, sales, and profits. The project launched in 2018, with an end date of 2023, and as of January 2022, operations were underway in Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia, and it is expected to launch in Algeria and Morocco later in 2022.
This case study illustrates how the project team diagnosed the main obstacles WSMEs in MENA face and describes project solutions designed to reduce those obstacles and the mechanisms used to monitor project progress; it also briefly evaluates the project’s potential future impact. The project’s most significant goals are to assist WMEs in accessing new domestic and export markets, expanding their links to financing, and improving the business environment for e-commerce.
The project aims to support increasing the knowledge and skills of women-led SMEs to conduct business online, especially SMEs unable to access or with limited access to markets beyond their immediate area. The project provides women-led SMEs with hands-on coaching to help them join e-commerce platforms, thereby increasing their market reach, sales, and profits. The project also includes activities that inform programs in the target countries working to strengthen national e-commerce ecosystems and to reform regulations to better enable e-commerce activities.
While the project was designed pre-pandemic, COVID-19 has further heightened the relevance of e-commerce, and the project team undertook targeted efforts to adjust to the limitations and opportunities posed by the pandemic (see Box 1).
Adapting: Lessons from implementation during a global pandemic
The project team has adapted to COVID-19 and continues to deliver support to beneficiaries. Some lessons can be learned from their successful adjustment to difficult circumstances:
- Tailor support. The target beneficiaries are experiencing business and personal challenges beyond the scope of this project—among these are declining household income and increasing care responsibilities. In response, the team offers attendance options (intensive versus light), pairs coaching with financial support, and focuses more on individualized coaching than on small-group sessions.
- Be flexible with project details. Proposed and designed pre-pandemic, but implemented during the pandemic, the project team faced unusual circumstances. Because it has had to conduct scoping reports remotely, getting the lay of the land was more difficult, impacting the ability to adjust the program to the conditions. The team has had to change timelines and deliverables with vendors and to let some details go to accommodate COVID-19-related delays while maintaining progress toward project results.
- Maintain momentum. The project currently implements programs virtually that were intended to include considerable person-to-person contact. Online training, while useful under COVID-related constraints, can lead to fatigue and is not as helpful in creating strong connections between WSMEs their coaches. To address the problem, the project team focuses on understanding the strains affecting all participants and on maintaining participants’ enthusiasm through positive feedback and other techniques.
Activity 1. Training
In each country, the project aims to train and certify at least 5 and as many as 20 e-commerce advisers, predominantly female, who will in turn provide tailored training and coaching to local women-led SMEs.
Making women-led SMEs visible on e-commerce platforms
The e-commerce advisers will train and coach a total of 750 women-led SMEs in marketing their goods online and will help connect the entrepreneurs to e-commerce platforms. The project works with local, regional, and international e-commerce platforms and — to benefit from partnerships already established through the World Bank’s earlier Virtual Marketplace project1 — with major e-commerce platforms such as eBay, Etsy, and TradeKey.
Activity 2. Access to Finance
To help connect women to financial institutions, the project will refer its beneficiaries to sources of finance, such as through the IFC’s Banking on Women network2 in countries where the network operates, as well as complementary World Bank and other donor programs with grant opportunities. In addition, the project prepared a knowledge piece on access to trade finance to raise awareness about this key MSME constraint in MENA.
Activity 3. Improving the e-Commerce Business Environment
Based on implementation experience, the project will recommend potential regulatory reforms for each country. In Jordan, for example, the project has already contributed to a new national entrepreneurship policy, approved by the government, that aims to build the country’s pipeline of start-ups via improvements to various dimensions of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, including training/support to entrepreneurs, venture capital and grant financing opportunities, angel networks, intermediaries (accelerators, incubators, innovation hubs), and others.
The policy explicitly notes the especially low number of female-owned businesses in Jordan and makes increasing that number a key objective of policy implementation. The project team shared its scoping report and its list of the challenges faced by women-led SMEs with the government as an input during policy development.
3. Project Design
Step 1. Diagnostic
Using Scoping and Market Assessment Reports to Identify Challenges
Scoping and market assessment reports for five of the seven target countries (Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia), as of January 2022, revealed the challenges discussed below3.
Landscape for B2C e-commerce: Major findings
The reports reveal common obstacles to e-commerce, including:
- No specific regulatory framework for e-commerce exists at the country level: Djibouti, Lebanon.
- Digital payment methods are insufficient: Djibouti, Lebanon, Tunisia.
- Consumers prefer cash-on-delivery payment (because of low rates of participation in the formal banking sector): Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia.
- Businesses lack awareness about online sales: Djibouti, Jordan, Lebanon.
- A variety of problems arise over delivery logistics (warehousing, shipping, importing and exporting), with associated costs: Egypt, Jordan, Tunisia.
- The barriers to entry for international and regional e-commerce platforms include requirements that businesses formally register locally: Djibouti, Lebanon, Tunisia.
The scoping reports also found country-specific, challenges such as:
- Exorbitant rates for internet access and for smartphones: Djibouti.
- Cumbersome customs processes and procedures: Lebanon.
- Restrictive foreign exchange and foreign trade regulations: Tunisia.
On the other hand, the scoping reports identified some e-commerce opportunities. Across MENA, the social distancing required by COVID-19 accelerated adoption of e-commerce. In Djibouti, for example, some traders began selling on Facebook, and in Egypt, the regional marketplace Jumia reported an overflow of applications as vendors began to transition online.
Requirements and opportunities of active e-commerce platforms
In addition to global online marketplaces such as Amazon, eBay, and Etsy, MENA has popular regional online marketplaces4. This variety of e-commerce platforms results in a range of requirements to join. These include product fit and formalization as well as various more specific criteria. For example, Etsy sellers must be the original creators of their products, and SouqFann asks new sellers to upload pictures of their products, so the platform can analyze the quality and fit of the inventory for its users. Country-level activities must take this variety into account.
Challenges for women-led SMEs
Throughout MENA, barriers for women-led SMEs may include cultural norms about gender roles that affect women’s mobility and require them to balance work with family responsibilities. Another barrier is a lack of policy frameworks that address gender gaps. Furthermore, women in MENA have even less access to technology than do women in other regions. In addition, the Jordan and Egypt scoping reports identify a set of specific barriers that keep women-led SMEs from using e-commerce effectively—particularly knowledge of and access to e-commerce platforms and payment gateways. These key e-commerce challenges fall into five main categories:
In Djibouti, the scoping report found that women entrepreneurs are underrepresented in information and communications technology and lack knowledge about solutions and techniques for online sales.
The report for Tunisia revealed some promising engagement: A survey conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) showed that half of women-led businesses would like assistance in gaining better access to e-commerce and virtual business platforms.
Step 2: From Diagnostic to Design
The project used challenges identified in the scoping reports to design interventions in Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The interventions thus considered country-specific challenges aligned with the overarching We-Fi program, taking care not to duplicate activities conducted under other programs.
Target beneficiaries in each country
The project uses the definition of women-owned SME adopted by We-Fi for its projects: a formal, fully or partly women-owned and women-managed SME with an average of five or more employees (or, if fewer, showing high potential for growth) that meets a nationally adopted definition of SME and produces goods sellable through e-commerce platforms. In addition to the traditional sectors in which women-led SMEs in MENA tend to operate (handicrafts, food, and fashion), the project aims for non-traditional sectors (e.g., pharmaceutical supplies, science kits, etc.). While Tunisia found entrepreneurs fitting this profile, other countries struggled to meet the criteria. In Djibouti, because of the small population of SMEs in general and of women-led SMEs in particular, of the 38 applications received for the second cohort of trainees, more than half were informal businesses. To find women-led SMEs with the greatest potential, the application deadline was extended, and local business organizations helped with outreach efforts, netting a final group of 25 women-led SMEs. In Lebanon, because of the ongoing crisis and government challenges, of the 73 SMEs coached, 25 were unregistered businesses and 11 use e-commerce platforms to sell services rather than goods. The project has aimed to adapt to the local context of entrepreneurs, particularly in these two FCV countries with unique circumstances.
Key partner platforms
In addition to considering international platforms (eBay, Etsy, etc.) for We-Fi entrepreneurs, the scoping and market assessment work in each country included assessing local and regional platforms that can also match well with the WSME beneficiaries. These locally based platforms are a better fit for some of the smaller businesses, which may not be equipped to handle all the requirements of being an Amazon seller or may not be ready to take on the payment rules, shipping costs, and logistics associated with being a foreign seller on an international platform. In addition, COVID-19 has meant increased local and regional e-commerce opportunities as local consumer demand rises, meaning international sales are not the only option for these businesses.
The appropriateness of local platforms varies by type of product sold by the SME, but examples of some platforms that match beneficiaries’ needs well are Founa.com and Savanna.tn from Tunisia, Kwikby from Lebanon, Souqfann and Shopgo in Jordan, Djibshopp in Djibouti; Ahalife and Jumia are options at the regional level. During the coaching sessions between the e-commerce advisors and the SMEs, the women are supported in carrying out specific tasks related to becoming a platform seller: listing products, improving marketing, pricing, product pictures, developing customer relations skills, domestic and international shipping and logistics, and others. The advisors and SMEs select the platforms most suited to the SME’s products and the entrepreneur’s business goals. In some instances, this may be an international platform, but local or regional platforms will better suit others. Several platforms, like Ahalife, Jumia, and Shopgo, operate in multiple markets, thus offering the SMEs opportunities for exporting to other countries.
Content for advisor training
Advisor trainings aim to prepare female e-commerce advisors in each country to provide, in turn, tailored training and coaching to local women-led SMEs that will enable them to improve their sales offerings and product-market fit and to expand their market reach and market mix. Advisors learn about e-commerce market strategy, pricing, returns policies, shipping options, platform requirements, product listings, payment options, exporting, and warehousing, to name a few. Speakers from partner organizations, like Libanpost, Shopify, and eBay, participate in sessions.
Content for coaching of SMEs
Beneficiaries are matched with coaches according to the type of expertise or industry experience they are seeking. Typically, each coach supports 5 or 6 businesses, starting with a brief getting-to-know-the-business period or mini-diagnostic to identify a few key business goals as the focus of the coaching sessions. Some country-specific adaptations are made. For all countries except Lebanon, SME coaching thus far has included digital marketing.
In Djibouti, the project selected a communications firm to support the SMEs in developing graphics, pictures, posts, and messaging, which was a common challenge. In Jordan, the most pervasive challenge was not only digital marketing, but also analytics for determining whether the marketing investment was generating a return.
For Jordan and Tunisia, the coaching has included logistics and payment options, and in Jordan and Lebanon, coaches also gave the entrepreneurs access to light boxes and professional photography equipment to improve the photos of their product listings. In Jordan, SMEs sought expertise in setting up in-house shipping capability. Jordanian SMEs also wanted guidance in establishing an online store, improving packaging for their goods and setting up merchant accounts for international sales.
In Lebanon, because of strict currency controls and supply challenges, SMEs particularly needed coaching on how to set up online marketplaces focused on aggregating goods for sale in the Lebanese market, rather than using international e-commerce sites. A number of additional businesses in Lebanon were also selected for support in a follow-on phase. These businesses either had had their premises damaged during the Beirut port explosion (see Box 2) or were operating very informally as social sellers on social media applications; they were seeking to continue with e-commerce and needed support building websites with e-commerce capability, given that currency challenges made non-Lebanese platforms unfeasible.
Adapting: Support Duration National Crisis in Lebanon
Lebanon has been enduring multiple disasters: a persistent economic and financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the deadly August 2020 explosion at the Port of Beirut. Preliminary data suggest that a high number of women-led businesses were within the explosion radius. After the blast, this project pivoted to support a broader World Bank effort to create the Building Beirut Businesses Back and Better (B5) Fund of $25 million.
The fund was intended to provide grants to as many as 4,300 MSMEs damaged in the blast, with a target of 30 percent of the grants going to women-owned SMEs. In addition, a package of non-financial services was available for MSMEs, which included a focus on e-commerce and digital sales, leveraging We-Fi experience. The We-Fi project added a small set of support activities for businesses impacted by the blast to help them continue sales via e-commerce-enabled websites, since their premises had been damaged.
The project team selected output and outcome indicators (Table 1) to monitor progress under the project, choosing those for which data collection was feasible and reflecting the major activities of each project component.
The project also plans to conduct an impact evaluation of the intervention in Morocco (see Box 3) to draw lessons from this type of intervention.
Impact Evaluation in Morocco
Recent studies on training programs suggest that training-only activities may be insufficient to boost SME growth. Moreover, little is known on how to better incentivize trainers to provide their best performance and ensure trainees benefit as much as possible from training programs. To help answer these questions and evaluate the project’s causal impact on outcomes such as visibility, sales, employment, etc., an impact evaluation will be conducted in Morocco as a project component. The research design will test various incentive schemes for trainers, such as fixed pay versus pay by performance, and it will also evaluate whether providing in-kind services, such as professional consulting (marketing, communication, legal, accounting, and others) and shipping and logistics support, will improve outcomes for project beneficiaries. The results of the impact evaluation will provide clear evidence regarding the project’s success and will yield recommendations on the best incentives for trainers in future entrepreneurship projects, as well as specific examples of what additional assistance firms need to grow.
Diagnosis of Constraints to E-Commerce
The project team shared the information from the five completed scoping reports with other World Bank project teams working on women’s entrepreneurship activities in those countries. Scoping reports in the remaining two countries (Algeria and Morocco) will be done in FY22 as one of the first activities for those country programs. Furthermore, the project began assessments of logistical and e-payment constraints in all seven target countries, but these were delayed because of the pandemic. The logistics assessment will examine small parcel delivery.
Training Advisers and Women-Led SMEs
By June 2021, the project had trained e-commerce advisers in the four active countries, who in turn had coached 222 women-led SMEs: 32 in Djibouti, 50 in Jordan, 60 in Lebanon, and 80 in Tunisia. All trainings and coaching sessions were conducted virtually in FY21, because of COVID-19, requiring adjustments at many levels (see Box 1). Because the profile of informal entrepreneurs applying to the program differed from the formal beneficiaries targeted by We-Fi, drawing the target population required a high level of effort, especially given constraints imposed by the pandemic and the low numbers of women-owned businesses in MENA.
Making women-led SMEs visible on e-commerce platforms
In Djibouti, five women-led SMEs integrated into international marketplaces, and two created their own e-commerce websites. In Jordan, two clients launched Shopify e-commerce stores, and two lowered their shipment costs. In Tunisia, about 70 beneficiaries created at least one seller account on a local or international marketplace.
- This project leverages work done during the earlier World Bank Virtual Marketplace project P119810 and incorporates lessons learned from Jordan, Morocco, and Tunisia. The project, which ended in 2018, deployed an innovative approach. It first trained 60 export advisers who in turn trained 255 WSMEs, 162 of whom were then able to export using e-commerce platforms. Building on the VM, the project trains primarily women advisors.
- A meta-analysis comparing all seven countries will be prepared using the scoping and market assessment reports. It will provide an overview of the challenges faced by women-led SMEs in the region, as well as cross-country comparison of the e-commerce ecosystem.
- Some key regional platforms include:
- Souq, UAE-based, acquired by Amazon in 2017;
- Noon, UAE-based, launched as a competitor to Souq;
- Jumia, UAE-based, includes a marketplace that connects sellers with consumers, logistics services to facilitate shipment and delivery of packages to consumers, and payment services in selected markets; and
- Souq Fann, Jordan-based, specializes in artisan products.