Startup Uganda Challenge 2020 winners receive financial and in-kind support to scale up their solutions designed for underserved communities in Uganda.
In August 2020, at the height of the pandemic, UNCDF and Startup Uganda launched an Innovation Challenge to solve very specific problems close to the hearts of partners of this 2020 edition. Beyond financial support, the innovation challenge aimed to provide technical support for the startups, work closely with them to refine their solutions, unlock access to additional funding and make their solutions profitable.
In this blog we present the winners of the 2020 edition of the challenge organized with Startup Uganda. For a presentation of the partners of this edition of the challenge you can read the other blog here.
The winners and their projects
Pata Sente – Financial Health for MSME track winner
Conceived at a dairy farm in Mbarara district in 2015, Pata Sente offers a factoring platform for small businesses to buy or sell goods on favorable terms. Like Masha Dairy Cooperative, a farmers group that was the first user of this platform, small businesses often fail to meet the payment terms of their suppliers, workers and customers. They are also unable to get credit from banks because they are considered high risk, uncreditworthy and lack collateral.
Through this platform, small businesses starting with those in the dairy chain will be able to contract Patasente to deliver to them goods and services from their preferred suppliers which they can pay for later. Through engagement with the supplier, Pata Sente commits to pay on behalf of the small businesss –in part advance or fully on delivery. Through this solution, Pata Sente is enabling micro and small suppliers like farmers to sustainably earn an income from their output sales to buyers.
When asked what is next for Pata Sente, founder George Bakka says, “We are currently in an early growth stage. We are onboarding more buyers and principals (workers) on our platform as early scale to our solution.”
Famunera – Leveraging Last-mile Distribution Networks track winner
After three years of extensive research and development, Famunera launched in 2016 to serve millions of underserved smallholder farmers and become the ultimate destination for sourcing genuine, quality and affordable farm inputs and produce across Africa.
Famunera is working to address the challenge of poor quality farm inputs sourcing, delayed last-mile delivery, limited remote farming advisory support and lack of farm inputs traceability throughout production (from planting to harvest) for smallholder farmers. Famunera provides a user-friendly digital agro inputs marketplace powered by a USSD Code, Web App, Call Center and Express Last-mile Delivery System through which the underserved farmers can easily order farm inputs, access free expert farming advisory support, generate traceability reports throughout their production and get convenient last-mile delivery within 24 hours across Uganda.
On what’s next for Famunera, CEO Julius Enock Naika commented, “Famunera is working to raise a total investment of US$1.2 million in order to reach and serve over 1.5 million smallholder farmers across Uganda by 2023.”
Backspace Ivy – Digital Literacy track winner
Backspace Ivy is a female run IT consulting enabler and social innovation enterprise specialising in online digital training for underrepresented groups such as girls in STEM, youth, orphans, refugees, people with disabilities, women and young people. The company has developed a wifi-free pocket size smart learning kernel called smart booklet that allows people in rural communities to access video trainings to improve their digital and financial literacy.
Designed with the needs of the users in mind, the users do not need internet to access information and the device is solar rechargeable. Digital content preferably in audio visual form is uploaded on the device that can be shared within different households. The device can be used to deliver information, education and communication messages in a more adaptable, transformative, interactive and multilingual way.
On what’s next for Backspace Ivy, Carolyn Akello, the company’s Innovation and Digital Specialist says, “We are refining our business model further so that we can sustain our vision to digitally include underserved communities.”
The winning innovations won a cash prize of up US$20,000 each and technical support to take their solutions to the market and address the challenges identified by the anchor partners, which will in turn lead to sustainable inclusive development.
“UNCDF supports innovators that take into account the needs and circumstances of underserved communities. As the world is looking to digital solutions to improve their well-being, many people are in danger of being left behind. We are working towards an inclusive digital economy, where people who may not have the latest devices, fastest internet connectivity or the required digital skills can also be active participants in the digital economy,” said Chris Lukolyo, Digital Country Lead, UNCDF.
“We received so many inspiring and innovative solutions, and through this journey, we have had different members of Startup Uganda guide the innovators and help then to shape their ideas,” Jean Kukunda Vice Chairperson, Startup Uganda.
While there was only one winner for each track, partners have pledged to continue to give technical assistance to all the participants to be able to refine their ideas and business models to make them profitable.
UNCTAD will bring together experts to explore how science, technology and innovation (STI) can contribute to a sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, during a meeting of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) from 17 to 21 May.
UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed will lead speakers in examining how STI can help rebuild health-care systems and socioeconomic structures post-COVID-19, while reducing inequalities laid bare by the pandemic.
“Indeed, science and technology have been central in the global fight against COVID-19,” Ms. Mohammed said. “Significant financial resources, strategically invested, will be required to ensure that development gains are not reversed.”
Ms. Mohammed said the recovery from the pandemic provides an opportunity to focus on three key transitions that are highly dependent on STI: speeding up the transition to renewable energy, transforming the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food, and ensuring an inclusive digital future.
Other speakers at the 24th session of the CSTD will include the president of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), Munir Akram; the president of the 75th UN General Assembly, Volkan Bozkır; the secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, Houlin Zhao; a Nobel laureate in chemistry, Jennifer Doudna; and a senior vice president of BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals, Katalin Karikó.
Need to prioritize science, technology and innovation
“The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the pressing need to prioritize STI in terms of policymaking, resource allocation and international cooperation,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics, who also heads the CSTD secretariat.
“But governments also need to make sure that the development benefits of STI translate directly into the daily lives of people all over the world,” Ms. Sirimanne said.
Moreover, Ms. Sirimanne added, it’s vital for all countries to have equal access to the benefits of life-saving treatments, not only for the pandemic but also for poverty-related diseases, future health emergencies and infectious disease outbreaks.
Closing the gap on good health and well-being
This year’s CSTD session will first address the theme “Using science, technology and innovation to close the gap on Sustainable Development Goal 3, on good health and well-being.”
Experts will examine opportunities offered by frontier technologies, some of which are used to respond to the pandemic – such as artificial intelligence, big data and robotics.
While these technologies can enable developing countries to leapfrog previous technological paradigms and transform their economies and societies, these nations – especially least developed ones – are generally not ready to apply them due to resource and capacity constraints.
Also, there is a serious risk that frontier technologies may exacerbate existing inequalities or create
new digital divides between technology haves and have-nots, according to the UNCTAD Technology and Innovation Report 2021.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has already highlighted many manifestations of profound digital inequalities within and among countries,” Ms. Sirimanne said.
She said proactive policy interventions, the mobilization of all stakeholders and international cooperation are needed to set the direction of STI advances towards a sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic.
Blockchain for development
The CSTD session will also address the theme “Harnessing blockchain for sustainable development: prospects and challenges.”
In an increasingly digitalized economy and society, the security and accountability of data transactions are critical elements for creating trust and enabling breakthrough innovations in the digital world.
In this regard, blockchain technology could be a game-changer, with the potential to revolutionize processes from finance to pharmaceutical industries, from government public services to humanitarian work and development aid, says an UNCTAD paper.
Blockchain serves as the base technology for cryptocurrency, enabling open (peer-to-peer), secure and fast transactions. The application of blockchain has expanded to include various financial transactions such as online payments and exchange platforms, as well as Internet of Things (IoT), health systems and supply chains.
However, the UNCTAD paper says issues associated with scalability, privacy concerns, uncertain regulatory standards and difficulties posed by the technology in integration with existing applications are some of the potential market constraints.
“While we have seen a few examples of blockchain’s potential to address sustainable development challenges, we need to avoid hype and make sure we understand how the potential of blockchain can be turned into effective answers to the needs of developing countries,” Ms. Sirimanne said.
Progress on summit on information society
The CSTD session will also review the progress made in the implementation of the outcomes of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
Last year was a testing ground for progress towards the implementation of the WSIS outcomes.
Digital technologies have played a crucial role in addressing the pandemic and enabling resilience in many ways. These include the use of big data and artificial intelligence for public health interventions and the use of digital services to expedite infection monitoring and testing.
Other trends include the use of the internet and videoconference platforms for work and education and the expanded use of e-commerce and online entertainment platforms.
“On the other hand, those who lack affordable connectivity have been severely disadvantaged during this pandemic,” Ms. Sirimanne said.
She said other challenges that have emerged include widespread misinformation and disinformation, privacy and data protection and cybersecurity.
The CSTD session will include a round-table discussion for high-level policymakers to exchange experiences, lessons learned and good practices, and to discuss challenges faced at national, regional and international levels, as well as those affecting specific groups.
Science, technology and innovation policies for development
The commission also seeks to raise awareness, stimulate a policy dialogue among stakeholders about the role of STI in national development and encourage stronger linkages among them.
It will include a session entitled “Applying a gender lens to STI policies in the 21st century” and presentations of science, technology and innovation policy reviews of the Dominican Republic, Uganda and Zambia.
About the CSTD
The CSTD is a subsidiary body of ECOSOC and the UN focal point for STI for development, in analysing how STI, including information and communications technologies, serve as enablers of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
It acts as a forum for strategic planning, sharing lessons learned and best practices, providing foresight about critical trends in STI in key sectors of the economy, the environment and society, and drawing attention to emerging and disruptive technologies.
Participants at this year’s session will include ministers and representatives of governments, civil society, the business community, academia and international and regional organizations. Most UN member states will be represented by high-level delegations.
In 2017, UNCDF partnered with Prabhu Management to digitalize the dairy value chain in Nepal which helped bring previously unbanked farmers into the financial ecosystem.
The pilot project that started with four dairy cooperatives in two districts (Kavre and Bhaktapur) digitalized over 20 cooperatives by 2020 with nearly 5,000 dairy farmers registered on the mobile wallet, and more than 1500 farmers receiving their earnings digitally.
The digitalization of the dairy cooperatives ended the manual process of tracking information and improved efficiency which in turn helped farmers in more ways than one. For one thing it brought farmers into the financial ecosystem and for another it saved farmers time and money on travel as the closest bank in rural Nepal can be miles away. It made payment secure for both the farmers and the cooperatives. Above all, it significantly minimized payment delays which was beneficial to farmers in reducing financial distress particularly in the wake of COVID- 19.
In March 2020, Nepal enforced strict preemptive lockdown for three months to prevent the transmission of COVID-19. This measure severely impacted businesses across industries including agriculture. The restrictions in mobility and social distancing paved the way for rapid adoption of digital technologies worldwide. To understand the impact of dairy digitalization during the pandemic and the future outlook for the agriculture sector, UNCDF analyzed the data of the farmers and their cooperatives. The data provided insight on how digitalization has helped smallholder farmers cope with the many challenges imposed by the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. The analysis also shows that the pandemic was a trigger in the adoption of digital technologies by the farmers.
Digital wallet proved invaluable to farmers during COVID-19
The data from Prabhu Management shows a spike of nearly 600 percent in the usage of digital financial services (DFS) during the COVID-19 lockdown period. The average number of transactions in this period increased from 357 per month to 2,434 transactions, while the average number of users per month also increased by 300 percent. Furthermore, nearly 56 percent of the farmers used for the first time DFS services during the lockdown period.
This analysis indicates the latent demand and acceptability of financial services in rural areas. Additionally, it confirms that grassroot organizations such as cooperatives were a vital lifeline for farmers throughout the pandemic.
Usage of bank channels increased seven times at the start of the lockdown
Many countries have reported an increase in the usage of formal financial channels during the lockdown period. The data from the cooperatives revealed a similar pattern for farmers too, showing a seven-time increase in the usage of banking channels for deposits and withdrawals during the lockdown period. Most of the users preferred banking channels to cash out their wallet balance during the initial months of lockdown. This shows that users generally prefer using bank channels to transfer the received amount to their bank accounts.
Agents played a critical role in onboarding farmers
DFS agents such as cooperatives and other community-based organizations have been key in bridging the gap between farmers and formal financial channels. Users’ data show that nearly 58 percent of the cash coming into the wallet is through DFS agent channels such as onboarded cooperatives, merchants, and agents via the Prabhu platform. Also, nearly 42 percent of cash coming into the wallet is from other digital sources such as bank transfers (16 percent), mobile banking (16 percent) and remittances (10 percent). This indicates that due to the financial services offered by these grassroots organizations, farmers were able to use other digital channels as per their need, hence, broadening their financial access.
Farmers are using the digital wallet for additional services
The analysis shows that farmers have started to use digital payments for additional services such as agriculture inputs, insurance payments, etc. This demonstrates that there is a possibility and need for broadening the ecosystem with relevant merchants and new services. Farmers are ready for the expansion of the services provided at the tip of their fingers on their phones, it is now a matter of building their awareness.
The surge in the use of digital wallet has proven that the digitalization of dairy cooperatives has helped many smallholder farmers weather the pandemic. While COVID-19 is still running its course, the analysis underscores the importance of digital literacy and digital financial services, especially in rural Nepal.
We are living through a decisive moment. The COVID-19 pandemic’s devasting impact is reaching every corner of the world. As we look back at this period, we will see history divided into a pre-COVID and a post-COVID world.
And a defining feature of the post-COVID world will be the digital transformation that has permeated every aspect of our lives. Chief Technology Officers can say that the pandemic has done their job for them, accelerating the digitalization of economies and societies at an unimaginable pace.
The digital transformation has gone hand in hand with the rise of digital technologies. These technologies have supported governments to implement social protection schemes at pace and scale. They have enabled e-health and online education, and they are helping businesses continue to operate and trade through digital finance and e-commerce.
However, ensuring that the digital transformation happening all around us does not become another facet of the deep inequalities of the countries in Asia and the Pacific is probably one of the greatest challenges we face as countries start to rebuild.
That is why inclusion must be at the heart of digital transformation if the promise to “leave no one behind” is to be met. In particular, we need to embed inclusive objectives in the four core foundations of the digital economy: Internet access, digital skills, digital financing and e-commerce.
Chances are you are reading this on your laptop or mobile phone, giving you access to the digital world. It is hard for most of us to imagine what life would be like during the pandemic if we didn’t. Sadly, this is a reality for over 2 billion people in the Asia-Pacific region. And among those two billion are some of the most vulnerable groups. For example, some 20 per cent of students in East Asia and the Pacific and almost 40 per cent of students in South and West Asia could not access remote learning this past year. This will have lasting effects that perpetuate inter-generational inequality and poverty.
To address the digital divide, our Asia-Pacific Information Superhighway initiative focuses on four interrelated pillars: infrastructure connectivity, efficient Internet traffic and network management, e-resilience, and affordable broadband access for all.
However, Internet access alone is not enough. There is a persistent and still expanding digital skills gap in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the top ten most digitally advanced economies in Asia and the Pacific, around 90 per cent of their populations use the Internet. At the beginning of the century, this share stood at around 25 per cent. By contrast, for the bottom ten economies, Internet users have grown from around 1 per cent in 2000 to only 20 per cent today.
In response, our Asian and Pacific Training Centre for Information and Communication Technology for Development is equipping policymakers and women and youth with digital skills by conducting demand-driven training programmes.
On digital finance, while the percentage of digital payment users has increased over recent years, the gap between men and women users persists. Additionally, in East Asia and the Pacific, there is a US$1.3 trillion formal financing gap for women-led enterprises.
And while the Asia-Pacific region is emerging as a leading force in the global e-commerce market – with more than 40 per cent of the global e-commerce transactions – these gains have been led by just a few markets.
As a response, our Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship project addresses the challenges women-owned enterprises face by developing innovative digital financing and e-commerce solutions to support women entrepreneurs, who have been hit harder than most during the pandemic. We have supported a range of digital finance and e-commerce solutions through this initiative – such as a digital bookkeeping app and an agritech solution – providing more inclusive options for women entrepreneurs to thrive. To date, the project has supported over 7,000 women to access financing and leveraged over US$50 million in private capital for women entrepreneurs.
Inclusion is undoubtedly central to the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Pacific’s (ESCAP) technology and innovation work that focuses on addressing the core foundations of an inclusive digital economy.
The recent ESCAP, ADB and UNDP report on “Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic: Leaving No country Behind” underlined the key role digital technologies played during the pandemic and how they can also play a critical role in building back better. However, the report shows that digitalization can also widen gaps in economic and social development within and between countries, unless countries can provide affordable and reliable Internet for all and make access to the core foundations of the digital economy central to building back better.
While digital transformation is certain, its direction is not. Governments, civil society and the private sector must work together to ensure that digital technologies benefit not only the economy but society and the environment, and have inclusion at their heart. Only then do we stand a chance of realizing the transformative potential of digital technologies to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals.
At the heart of the digital divide is a yawning innovation gap. Many national policies and strategies — even in developed countries — often fail to close it.
This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, putting countries with low digital technological capabilities at an increasingly significant risk of marginalization.
Talent is unfulfilled, small- and medium-sized enterprises are struggling, and slow digital transformation of communities is hampering progress on reaching the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The question is: how can we foster innovation to ensure that advances in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things, and mobile communications are widely and fairly distributed?
The role of standards
International standards are part of the answer. They are an essential aid for developing countries to build their infrastructure and stimulate economic development. Standards development must underpin global efforts to build back better from the pandemic.
Standards also drive competitiveness — not just for individual businesses, but throughout the entire global economy — by fostering efficiency, effectiveness, responsiveness, and innovation.
Standards development has been central to the work of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for over 150 years, from the telegraph to fifth-generation (5G) mobile technologies.
Each new technical standard normally stems from a collaborative process of several years between ITU Member States, equipment manufacturers, network operators, standards development organizations and academia.
Most recently, ITU published the detailed specifications for IMT-2020 radio interface technologies, which can leverage the advantages of 5G for a wider range of uses, from autonomous vehicles to smart cities.
This builds on the innovative 5G applications we have already seen in healthcare, public safety, manufacturing, and education during the pandemic.
Building trust is at the heart of all that we do in the standards community. The collaborative spirit, exemplified by ITU’s public-private membership, is why I am pleased to participate in events like the United Nations Multi-Stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation, together with eminent speakers from government, the private sector, academia and civil society.
Multi-stakeholder co-operation is also characteristic of a major ITU-led forum, the World Summit on the Information Society.
COVID-19 continues disrupting progress on all aspects of sustainable development as well as inflicting loss of life and damage to livelihoods around the world. Consequently, the need for collaboration, cooperation and coordination across sectors and borders has never been more important than today.
In challenging times, we each need to bring our own specific competencies to the table, avoid duplication of efforts, and pool resources to build vibrant digital-innovation ecosystems.
What is at stake, ultimately, is nothing less than the future of our economies, our societies, and our planet. The enabling technologies for digital transformation can be harnessed to put the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development back on track.
Only then can we turn today’s digital revolution into a true human development revolution for all.
Based on Mr Johnson’s remarks during the sixth annual Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals (STI Forum), where he opened a virtual side event, “Fostering STI Ecosystems for Impact: Enabling Technologies Advancing Human Infrastructure”.
Heads of WTO member delegations today exchanged views about issues on which they can realistically reach agreements in the run-up to the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12) later this year, and what needs to happen to make such deals possible. Fisheries subsidies, agriculture and the COVID-19 pandemic featured prominently in the discussions, with several members stressing that delivering concrete negotiated results was critical for the WTO’s credibility. The 3 May gathering was both a formal session of the Trade Negotiations Committee and an informal meeting of Heads of Delegation.
Summing up members’ interventions at the end of the day, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said what she had heard matched what she had been told in her own consultations: “Views are coalescing around the most feasible priorities for delivery between now and MC12 — although of course there are gaps on how we get there and on the content of prospective results.”
She said three concrete deliverables stood out: an agreement to curb harmful fisheries subsidies; outcomes on agriculture, with a focus on food security; and a framework that would better equip the WTO to support efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic and future health crises.
Looking to the weeks and months ahead, the Director-General expressed hope that by July members would be able to finalize an agreement on fisheries subsidies and achieve clarity about what can be delivered by MC12, scheduled to run from 30 November to 3 December in Geneva.
On fisheries subsidies, she urged members to exercise the necessary flexibility to overcome the remaining hurdles. With ministerial involvement likely required to finalize an agreement in July, she called on delegations to work with the chair of the negotiations, Ambassador Santiago Wills of Colombia, to prepare a draft negotiating text with a minimal number of outstanding issues for ministers to resolve. “We are almost there, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said, stressing she stood ready to help members and the chair translate increased flexibility into an agreement.
Noting that for many members, meaningful outcomes on agriculture were necessary to make MC12 a success, DG Okonjo-Iweala said that the pandemic, and rising hunger around the world, made a strong case for a WTO “food security package”. Elements for a prospective package included public stockholding, the proposed exemption from export restrictions of World Food Programme humanitarian purchases, domestic support and transparency, with some delegations also raising cotton and the special safeguard mechanism.
The Director-General welcomed the view expressed by many delegations that MC12 can deliver concrete responses on trade and health. The WTO’s spotlight on export restrictions and the need to increase vaccine production volumes was gaining attention and engagement from leaders, she said.
Reporting on a 14 April event where vaccine manufacturers, international organizations, civil society and members looked at how the WTO could contribute to efforts to combat the global scarcity of COVID-19 vaccines, she said it was clear that underused manufacturing capacity existed in several developing countries.
DG Okonjo-Iweala praised members’ support to India amid the upsurge in COVID-19 cases there, which followed India’s own exports of a large number of vaccines. “That is what the WTO membership should be about — working together, supporting each other,” she said. She asked members to bring the same sense of common purpose to bear on engaging in text-based negotiations on the TRIPS waiver proposal aimed at finding a pragmatic compromise that works for all.
With regard to dispute settlement, where many members called for resolution to the impasse over the Appellate Body, the Director-General expressed hope that by MC12 members “can reach a shared understanding on the types of reforms needed”.
The General Council chair, Ambassador Dacio Castillo of Honduras, is consulting on proposals about issues specific to least-developed countries such as the G-90 proposals on special and differential treatment as well as on small economies and areas such as the e-commerce Work Programme, she said.
She noted that groups of members had signalled a desire to move ahead in areas such as services domestic regulation, e-commerce, investment facilitation, women’s economic empowerment, micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises as well as issues related to trade and climate change.
For issues not in a position to be concluded this year, the Director-General said members had called for post-MC12 work programmes on multilateral issues relating to agriculture, services, and special and differential treatment as well as in joint statement initiatives in areas including plastics pollution and environmental sustainability.
DG Okonjo-Iweala said that in the coming days, she would intensify her own outreach with heads of delegation, organizing meetings “in various configurations large and small” to support the chairs of negotiating groups in their efforts to broker compromise among members. She reiterated her commitment to ensuring adequate representation and transparency in these meetings. “Nothing will be done behind closed doors that people don’t know about,” she emphasised. She indicated that she would work closely with the General Council chair and the chairs of the negotiating bodies as well as MC12 chair Kazakhstan to conduct these meetings.
Emphasising the tight timeframe for members to resolve their outstanding differences, the Director-General said the “path to July” would involve a large number of intensive meetings aimed at narrowing gaps. “Week in, week out, this is what we will do now.”
The pandemic has, however, resulted in mixed fortunes for some e-commerce companies, reversing the profits of firms offering services such as ride-hailing and travel.
The dramatic rise in e-commerce amid movement restrictions induced by COVID-19 increased online retail sales’ share of total retail sales from 16% to 19% in 2020, according to estimates in an UNCTAD report published on 3 May.
UNCTAD released the report as it hosted a two-day meeting on measuring e-commerce and the digital economy.
According to the report, online retail sales grew markedly in several countries, with the Republic of Korea reporting the highest share at 25.9% in 2020, up from 20.8% the year before (Table 1).
Meanwhile, global e-commerce sales jumped to $26.7 trillion globally in 2019, up 4% from 2018, according to the latest available estimates.
This includes business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) sales, and is equivalent to 30% of global gross domestic product (GDP) that year.
“These statistics show the growing importance of online activities. They also point to the need for countries, especially developing ones, to have such information as they rebuild their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Shamika Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s director of technology and logistics.
Table 1: Online retail sales, selected economies, 2018-2020
|Economy||Online retail sales
(% of retail sales)
Source: UNCTAD, based on national statistics offices.
Mixed fortunes for some firms
The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in mixed fortunes for leading B2C e-commerce companies, according to the UNCTAD report.
Data for the top 13 e-commerce firms, 11 of which are from China and the United States, shows a notable reversal of fortunes for platform companies offering services such as ride-hailing and travel (Table 2).
All of them experienced sharp declines in gross merchandize value (GMV) and corresponding drops in ranks.
For instance, Expedia fell from 5th place in 2019 to 11th in 2020, Booking Holdings from 6th to 12th and Airbnb, which launched its initial public offering in 2020, from 11th to 13th.
Despite the reduction in services companies’ GMV, total GMV for the top 13 B2C e-commerce companies rose by 20.5% in 2020, higher than in 2019 (17.9%). There were particularly large gains for Shopify (up 95.6%) and Walmart (72.4%). Overall, B2C GMV for the top 13 companies stood at $2.9 trillion in 2020.
Table 2: Top B2C e-commerce companies by GMV, 2020
|Rank by GMV||Company||HQ||Industry||GMV
|5||9||Shopify||Canada||Internet Media & Services||41||61||120||48.7||95.6|
|8||12||Walmart||USA||Consumer goods retail||25||37||64||47.0||72.4|
|9||8||Uber||USA||Internet Media & Services||50||65||58||30.5||-10.9|
|11||5||Expedia||USA||Internet Media & Services||100||108||37||8.2||-65.9|
|12||6||Booking Holdings||USA||Internet Media & Services||93||96||35||4.0||-63.3|
|13||11||Airbnb||USA||Internet Media & Services||29||38||24||29.3||-37.1|
Source: UNCTAD based on company reports.
Note: Alibaba year beginning 1 April, Walmart year beginning 1 February. Figures in italics are estimates. GMV = Gross Merchandize Value (as well as Booking Value).
Business-to-business sales dominate e-commerce
The report estimates the value of global B2B e-commerce in 2019 at $21.8 trillion, representing 82% of all e-commerce, including both sales over online market platforms and electronic data interchange (EDI) transactions.
The United States continued to dominate the overall e-commerce market, ahead of Japan and China (Table 3).
B2C e-commerce sales were estimated at $4.9 trillion in 2019, up 11% over 2018. The top three countries by B2C e-commerce sales remained China, the United States and the United Kingdom.
Cross-border B2C e-commerce amounted to some $440 billion in 2019, an increase of 9% over 2018. The UNCTAD report also notes that the share of online shoppers making cross-border purchases rose from 20% in 2017 to 25% in 2019.
Table 3: E-commerce sales: Top 10 countries, 2019
|Rank||Economy||Total e-commerce sales
|Share of total e-commerce sales in GDP (%)||B2B e-commerce sales
|Share of B2B e-commerce sales in total e-commerce (%)||B2C e-commerce sales
Source: UNCTAD, based on national sources.
Note: Figures in italics are UNCTAD estimates.
E-commerce firms perform poorly in digital inclusion
Despite e-commerce firms’ sizeable fortunes, an index released by the World Benchmarking Alliance in December last year rated them poorly on digital inclusion.
The index ranked 100 digital companies, including 14 e-commerce firms, based on how they contribute to access to digital technologies, building digital skills, enhancing trust and fostering innovation.
E-commerce enterprises underperformed compared to companies in other digital industries such as hardware or telecommunication services.
For instance, the highest-ranked e-commerce company was eBay at 49th place. Overall, e-commerce companies obtained a score of just 20 out of a possible 100.
According to the UNCTAD report, a main factor for the poor performance is that e-commerce companies are relatively young, typically founded only in the last two decades.
“These firms have been more focused on shareholders rather than engaging with a wide group of stakeholders and compiling metrics on their environmental, social and governance performance,” the report says.
Nonetheless, there are some bright spots. For instance, several e-commerce companies provide free training to entrepreneurs on how to sell online including in some cases, specifically targeted at vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities or ethnic minorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit hard the economies of many African countries, and pushed many more citizens into poverty, but some countries like Rwanda and Togo have used digitization to keep their economies running.
Speaking during the launch of a Pan-African peer exchange series on the benefits of responsible digital government payments, the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), Ms. Vera Songwe said the pandemic had a huge toll on African economies with GDP growth estimated to have dropped from 3.3% in 2019 to -2.6% in 2020. It is, however, anticipated that growth would return to 3.3% in 2021.
The ECA further estimates that about 100 million people have been pushed into poverty by the pandemic, Ms. Songwe said, adding the scars of COVID-19 were going to ‘remain with us for a very long time’.
Digitization, the ECA Chief said, presented opportunities for African countries to lift the poor out of poverty.
“Digitizing tax payments and related processes can raise additional resources for African governments to fight COVID-19 and help move countries back to growth,” said Ms. Songwe in opening remarks during the launch of the series that will see policymakers sharing challenges and successes and set a high bar for what can be accomplished on the continent through digitization of government payments.
“As economies digitalize, the benefits from digital payments and e-commerce multiply, thereby accelerating recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, sustaining development, and facilitating achievement of the sustainable development goals, through taxes and wages, among others.”
The ECA has been in the forefront, nudging African countries to turn to and accelerate digitization to not only keep their economies running, but to also respond to the rise in poverty among marginalized citizens.
Ms. Songwe congratulated Togo and Rwanda for using digitization to manage the pandemic in a way that would have been impossible if there were no digital platforms, including social protection cash payments to cushion citizens from the effects of the crisis.
Sharing her country’s experience of using digital cash transfers to citizens during the pandemic, Ms. Cina Lawson, Togo’s Postal Affairs and Digital Economy Minister, said they built a USSD platform in 10 days, and people who registered, didn’t need Internet connection to connect.
“We had 1. 6 million Togolese registering on this platform. From onboarding to receiving cash, it was all digital. If the platform deemed you eligible, you would straight away receive an SMS with the money. It takes a minute from onboarding to receiving cash,” she said.
The number of people who registered onto the platform represented about 44% of the population, and 840,000 people became beneficiaries, which is approximately 22% of all Togolese, explained Ms. Lawson.
She said the platform guaranteed transparency as transactions were traceable. An independent firm was hired to audit the transfers daily. The country is using the same platform to register citizens for COVID-19 vaccinations.
For his part, Rwanda’s Minister of State, National Treasury, Mr. Richard Tusabe, in sharing his country’s experience with digitization, spoke about the ‘Ejoheza savings scheme’, an inclusive scheme which targets both salaried and non-salaried workers and has a social component. He said about 95% of Rwandan citizens are not covered in any pension scheme hence the need for the savings scheme which came in handy during the pandemic.
“So, to capture the 95 per cent to start to save and be able to retire with dignity, Ejoheza was started in December 2018. It is also a USSD platform. The government then set up a matching fund, and when you save up to $18, the government gives you a matching equivalent,” said Mr. Tusabe.
The two ministers shared experiences, challenges, and good practices and undertook to keep learning from each other’s experiences in using digital innovations to improve the productivity of businesses and ensure positive economy-wide benefits.
In her remarks, Ms. Ruth Goodwin-Groen, Managing Director of the United Nation’s Better Than Cash Alliance, commended the two countries saying; “This is what we need. You understood what your citizens needed, and you responded quickly with responsible digital payments.”
Ms. Goodwin-Groen lauded the partnership with the ECA to launch the series, adding this was a unique opportunity for governments to convene and collaborate by sharing experiences, challenges, and key learnings from responsibly digitizing payments.
The launch will be followed by a series of three round-table workshops over the next two months for policymakers only. Each round-table workshop is specifically designed to focus on a critical aspect of digital government payment, such as Government to People (G2P) and People to Government (P2G), for example tax, pension, and health care. The final session will share insights and recommendations from the workshop participants and will be an open session.
Click here to access the series launch recording: https://youtu.be/xQDqcEqZjNk
Trade has a critical role to play in rebuilding developing and least developed countries’ economies, alleviating rising poverty and creating a greener, more inclusive future for all. This was a unifying theme that ran through three days of panels discussions and debates at the Aid-for-Trade Stocktaking event the World Trade Organization (WTO) hosted online from March 23 to 25.
Covid-19 has reversed 30 years of development gains, deepening inequalities from the household to country level and threatening to push 150 million into extreme poverty, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala noted in an opening plenary session that also brought together leaders from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), UNCTAD, World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO).
The opportunity to take stock of Aid for Trade’s progress so far and steer its future direction comes at a critical juncture, especially for those least developed countries (LDCs) that were hit hardest by the steepest fall in global trade on record and have benefited least from its rebound. “The post-Covid recovery must not leave anyone or any country behind,” she stressed.
Here are 6 takeaways from the event:
Invest in pharmaceutical supply chains and ensure equitable access to vaccines
With just 10 countries receiving 76% of the Covid-19 vaccines administered globally by the time of the event, ensuring more equitable access is critical. Ramping up vaccine production by investing more in LDCs’ and developing countries’ manufacturing capacity would help, as would boosting trade cooperation to address supply bottlenecks and lowering regulatory hurdles to facilitate vaccine purchases.
The creation of geographically diverse medical supply chains represents an opportunity for export-oriented investment in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), argued Okonjo-Iweala. Finding a way to share certain intellectual property rights while incentivising research and development will also improve resilience in the face of future health crises, she added.
Speakers at other sessions highlighted a need for regulatory mechanisms to support developing countries’ integration with global supply chains as well as the free movement of skilled workers. LDCs also need support in pivoting existing manufacturing capacity to meet the needs of medical and pharmaceutical supply chains, which will additionally help their economies diversify. For example, Ethiopia, Madagascar, South Africa, and Vietnam boast robust textile industries that could help meet surging demand for personal protective equipment, noted Spring Gombe of the UN Technology Bank for LDCs.
Expand LDCs’ access to finance with innovative tools and capacity building
Identifying innovative, sustainable sources of funding is vital for LDCs’ recoveries, speakers agreed. Although Aid-for-Trade funding to LDCs has grown 13% annually since 2006, reaching $13.5 billion in 2018, the pandemic threatens to slow or reverse this trend. Some OECD scenarios envision an up to $14 billion decline in official development assistance at a time when the pandemic is widening the $1.5 trillion trade finance gap.
Solutions highlighted by the IFC included risk-sharing facilities with first-loss guarantees, and blended concessional finance, for example through the IDA Private Sector Window.
Just 6% of private finance mobilised by blended finance in 2012-2018 however went to LDCs, noted Olivier Cattaneo from the OECD. He called for a higher proportion of grant funding within Aid for Trade, more equity investment rather than loans from the private sector, plus greater focus on capacity building to help LDCs navigate the thousands of instruments now on offer.
A new series of Trade Funding Insight briefs from the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) aims to help here. The EIF has also partnered with the Islamic Trade Finance Corporation (ITFC) to offer technical assistance and capacity building around trade and trade finance to financial institutions in LDCs.
Several speakers also called for debt relief, noting that plunging incomes and investments in economic stimulus are pulling more into debt distress.
Facilitate trade with supportive regulatory frameworks
The importance of eradicating tariff and non-tariff barriers, and of developing legal, regulatory and commercial environments and infrastructure that are supportive of free trade and help integrate LDCs into the global trade networks was also stressed.
LDCs need support to develop investor-friendly regulations that will help them diversify their economies and improve their export competitiveness but also ensure that local MSMEs are able to fully participate in trade opportunities, speakers argued. WTO Chair Holder Leila Baghdadi, for example, called for a relaxation of local content requirements and argued that trade restrictions ultimately result in a “tax of poor people” as they drive up inflation and increase the cost of essential goods in LMICs.
Help MSMEs benefit from digitisation and tap opportunities in e-commerce
LDCs need investments in infrastructure and skills to benefit from rapid growth in e-commerce and trade digitisation, or risk being left further behind. Henri Monceau of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF) noted that 81% of people in LDCs lack internet access and said it would take $450 billion to close the growing digital divide.
EIF investments to date include its partnership with UNCTAD to integrate Vanuatu’s customs and postal systems to facilitate the clearance of goods for e-commerce trading partners.
Cambodia’s E-Commerce Acceleration and Go4eCAM initiatives were also provided as examples of how multi-pronged approaches – combining investments in regulations, ICT infrastructure, payment systems, digital skills and marketing – can help MSMEs in LDCs formalise and expand their e-commerce businesses.
Empower women with digital skills, mobile money and gender-sensitive policies
With millions of women and girls in LDCs and developing countries pulled out of education at the very time the pandemic was accelerating digitisation, many see opportunities for cross-border trade – such as those unleashed by the African Continental Free Trade Area – moving further out of reach. They must therefore be empowered, speakers argued.
To this end, an EIF partnership with the ITU in Burundi, Haiti and Ethiopia is working to mainstream gender perspectives in domestic policies and regulations to ensure women participate fully in the digital economy. Training in digital literacy and e-commerce skills has also been prioritised for 3,500 women-owned businesses supported by the SheTrades Commonwealth project.
To enable women to engage in digital trade, especially cross-border, their access to mobile money must also be improved. While women are 7% less likely to own a mobile phone than men in LMICs, they are 33% less likely to own a mobile money account noted Tamara Dancheva at GSMA.
International Trade Centre (ITC) figures show that women own only 15% of the world’s SMEs that export, despite them owning a third of all SMEs. They must therefore be supported into more lucrative export-related jobs and industries. Trade policies that disproportionately negatively impact women – such as tariffs on garments and apparel – must also be addressed, said Antonio Nucifora at the World Bank.
Invest in climate resilience to boost sustainability and revive tourism
Developing and least developed countries need investment and assistance to adapt to climate change, build climate-resilient infrastructure and create greener and more diversified economies. Governments must also seize opportunities to incorporate climate-friendly policies into their recovery plans, argued OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, adding that opening trade channels will help widen the availability of environmental technologies, goods and services.
Strengthening climate resilience and environmental health, especially in remote island states, is also crucial for the sustainable recovery of LDC’s pandemic-battered tourism industries. Travel- and tourism-related trade have missed out on a broader rebound in global trade in recent months, remaining two-thirds below pre-pandemic levels in the third quarter.
Initiatives that demonstrate the link between investments in climate resilience and tourism trade include the EIF-backed Tourism Infrastructure Project, which helped revive tourism in Vanuatu by relied by rebuilding cyclone-damaged waterfronts.
Countries in tropical regions will be particularly impacted by climate change, so will need support to identify new comparative advantages, adapt production methods, diversify their economies and build respective value chains while climate-proofing existing activities, said UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant. However, “these measures do not come for free,” she stressed. With only 3% of Aid for Trade disbursements currently allocated to climate action, “we can do more.”
From 12 to 15 April 2021, the World Customs Organization (WCO) delivered an Online Regional Workshop on E-Commerce for the Americas and the Caribbean region. The workshop was organised with the financial support of the Customs Cooperation Fund of Korea and gathered more than 70 participants from 20 Member Customs administrations and speakers from the WCO Secretariat, the South America Regional Intelligence Liaison Office (RILO South America), the Universal Postal Union, the Global Express Association, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Amazon and UPS Brazil.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the importance of effective and harmonised implementation of the E-Commerce FoS, said the WCO Deputy Secretary General, Mr. Ricardo Treviño Chapa, in his opening remarks. In addition to role played by e-commerce during the last decade, in providing new growth engines and in opening up global economic opportunities to micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, e-commerce proved to be a lifeline for vendors and buyers alike during the crisis brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, he added.
Opening remarks were also offered by the regional vice-chair for the WCO Americas and the Caribbean region, Mr. Werner Ovalle Ramirez, Intendant of Customs, Superintendency of Tax Administration (SAT) of Guatemala, who highlighted the importance of cross-border e-commerce for the economic development of the region and recognized the key role of the WCO in awareness raising and capacity building.
Over the four days of the regional workshop, the workshop facilitators explained the 15 standards of the WCO Framework of Standards on Cross-Border E-Commerce (E-Commerce FoS) and the tools available to support their implementation. Each workshop session benefitted from presentations by Members, partner international organizations and private sector entities. Thus, the workshop sessions provided practical examples of E-Commerce FoS implementation in areas such as use of Electronic Advance Data, data exchange with postal operators, and revenue collection including valuation, Post Clearance Audit and periodical payment issues. Other interesting topics discussed were cooperation with stakeholders such as marketplaces, fulfilment centers and free zones/warehouses, expanding the concept of Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) to e-commerce stakeholders, and the use of advanced technologies.
The participants from Member Customs administrations welcomed the opportunity to discuss how to efficiently implement the E-Commerce FoS, while the speakers from partner international organizations and the private sector were glad to contribute to this important forum.
The WTO has issued a call for proposals for this year’s Public Forum, whose theme is “Trade beyond COVID-19: Building Resilience”. Participants interested in organizing sessions at the Forum, scheduled to take place from 28 to 30 September, are invited to submit their proposals by 7 June 2021.
This year’s Public Forum will look at the effects of COVID-19 on trade and how the multilateral trading system can help build resilience to the pandemic and future crises.
Further information on this year’s theme and three sub-themes — Enhancing resilience beyond COVID-19; Strengthening the multilateral trading system; and Collective action towards sustainable trade — is available here.
Details about the format of this year’s Forum will be made available by July.
All the sessions at the Public Forum are organised by the participants. These include civil society, academia, business, governments, parliamentarians and intergovernmental organizations. Participants interested in organizing working sessions or workshops will find further details in this information note. The online application form can be accessed from the information note and should be completed no later than 7 June 2021.
The Public Forum is the WTO’s largest annual outreach event. It provides a unique platform for heads of states, parliamentarians, business people, students, academics and civil society to come together and debate a wide range of trade and development topics. See more information on previous Public Fora.
An assessment of the e-commerce ecosystem in Côte d’Ivoire will help businesses in the sector adapt to COVID-19 challenges and comply with new regulations.
UNCTAD’s eTrade readiness assessment of Côte d’Ivoire, launched on 8 April, will help the country’s e-commerce businesses better adapt to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and comply with new regulations, according to one of the country’s leading digital entrepreneurs.
Patricia Yao, founder and chief executive officer of QuickCash, a platform providing mobile payment services to rural customers, said the assessment would help policymakers and businesses better understand the impact of COVID-19 on the sector.
“The assessment will help us adapt the responses of the digital ecosystem in Côte d’Ivoire, taking into account the challenges and opportunities raised by the current crisis,” said Ms. Yao, UNCTAD’s e-Trade for Women Advocate for west Africa.
Progress and challenges
The assessment found that Côte d’Ivoire has made significant progress in recent years to improve access to the digital economy and e-commerce.
The country’s digital economy program is integrated into its national development plan and includes the digitalization of a series of financial as well as government services.
It also includes and the expansion of critical information and communications technology infrastructure, with the implementation of a national broadband network project.
Despite these important strides, and its relatively vibrant economy, Côte d’Ivoire needs to tackle the challenges hindering its e-commerce growth.
These include costly and limited internet access, inefficient physical addresses, low public awareness on online commerce and limited digital skills of micro, small- and medium-sized businesses to effectively engage in e-commerce activities.
“It’s important to take priority actions to accelerate digital transformation in Côte d’Ivoire and allow e-commerce players to seize available opportunities. This is especially important in the wake of COVID-19 and in an increasingly integrated west African region,” said UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant.
“The valuable recommendations of this report will provide an important framework for future policy action, with a view to accelerating e-commerce uptake in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the country’s trade and industry minister, Souleymane Diarrassouba.
The assessment report is a product of a consultative process that brought together representatives of the government, the private sector and development partners.
Ms. Yao said the assessment’s multi-stakeholder approach would facilitate the implementation of future regulations and policies.
“By bringing all the concerned actors around the table, it will be easier to implement new measures because they have been previously discussed and agreed upon,” she said. “In the past, when new laws were adopted, they were difficult to comply with because those affected hadn’t been involved in their formulation.”
The assessment was funded by the German government and prepared in cooperation with the Universal Postal Union, International Trade Centre and Consumers International.
UNCTAD has conducted such assessments in 27 countries, fostering coordination and dialogue between various stakeholders and helping them overcome structural barriers to make e-commerce an engine of inclusive and sustainable development.
The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on livelihoods, businesses, and trade in least developed countries (LDCs) have been pronounced. LDCs were cut off from markets when borders closed in March 2020. They lost significant export income due to canceled orders. Their tourism industry was brought to a halt and their economic activity suffered a similar stagnation. Their business ties were severed by a lack of connectivity.
This picture of gloom has manifested more gravely for women entrepreneurs who suffered from the distortions in the trade ecosystem arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trade ecosystem under Covid-19
Business and trade rely on a vast ecosystem involving various stakeholders. For women traders and entrepreneurs in LDCs, the ecosystem will include different participants along the value chain such as suppliers of raw materials, cooperatives, transporters, warehouse managers and airlines, to mention a few. Elements such as customs procedures, banking systems, Internet connectivity are equally vital.
Following Covid-19 disruptions, women entrepreneurs had to devise means to continue doing business while navigating the complexities that arose from closed borders and lockdown orders. Traditional models of doing business involving physical movement of persons to facilitate transactions were no longer viable and e-commerce and digital trade were catapulted to the fore as the most viable means of trade.
Digital literacy remains low in LDCs, especially among women, and the general ignorance about benefits accrued from digital trade is high. Internet connectivity is very expensive. IT infrastructure are not well distributed and as such, once women return to their homes in rural areas, they are unable to continue engaging online. Studies confirm that Internet penetration rates globally are 48 per cent for women, compared to 58 per cent for men. But as more people in developing countries start using the Internet, the digital gender gap is actually growing. In LDCs, only 14 per cent of women use the Internet, compared to 24 per cent of men.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, sales via digital and online platforms were almost non-existent. Following the pandemic that grounded businesses to a halt due to restrictions on movement, a Jumia e-commerce platform and UNDP partnership was conceived to connect women vendors to online consumers.
Many of the women vendors had little formal education and limited, if any, exposure to online platforms for business transactions. However, their response to the initiative was overwhelming. The initiative started by working with vendors in five markets, but within three weeks, two more markets joined. Each market includes more than 700 women across the agricultural value chain, from producers to wholesalers, retailers and exporters. The introduction of digital platform allowed women to continue earning an income even during the hardships of lockdown.
But not all the women who could have benefited from the opportunity have a smart mobile phone. According to the 2020 Mobile Gender Gap Report, women across low- and middle-income countries are eight per cent less likely than men to own a mobile phone, which translates into 165 million fewer women than men owning a mobile phone.
Simple solutions such as ensuring that digital platforms embrace the use of local languages will provide a level of trust for women to gain interest in connectivity. Almost all women traders subscribe to an association or business membership group. The members of these groups will usually possess varying levels of exposure to information technology, with younger women more proficient compared to older groups.
Hybrid strategies combining new digital approaches with traditional approaches should be harnessed and escalated to address present day challenges, particularly for women.
Lillian Olok of Yaa Oils Uganda used the downtime to strengthen her relationship with her customers. She increased communication via WhatsApp and e-mail which kept the orders coming. She did not see a decline in demand for her cold-pressed shea butter, sold in bulk. In the past year, she gained new customers in DRC and Kenya, all via word-of-mouth from her happy customers. She currently exports to Rwanda, Kenya, DRC, Japan, UK and Canada.
The role of digitalization has become critical within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. While digitalization was embedded in many domains prior to the pandemic, the latter created what is known as ‘new normal’ conditions characterised by reduced physical contact and restricted movement. These changes rapidly increased the digitalization of transactions between and among people, pushing a new scope of tradable goods and services and fostering new areas of mutual cooperation among Southern economies, both technologically and financially. As such, this session discussed how the gradually increasing share of South-South trade, and its resilience in the face of COVID-linked disruption, can inform a thorough theoretical and empirical understanding of the nature and implications of South-South trade in building back better in a post-COVID-19 world.
It was noted that the ICT based technology and digitisation has helped southern economies to boost trade and investment. The global south-south cooperation has to be increased and multilateral cooperation in knowledge sharing and partnership brokering is needed for the overall welfare and development of the global south. New opportunities for South-South cooperation can be opened up by building regional cloud-computing infrastructure, strengthening regional broadband infrastructure and promoting regional digital payments, especially in Africa.
The panelists pointed that along with transforming the substance, patterns and possibilities of international trade, the digital revolution is also accelerating trade transactions. This revolution could unlock new efficiencies and gains for businesses and consumers. Several important challenges remain in developing countries, and particularly Africa: (1) inadequate infrastructure, such as limited broadband connectivity; (2) lack of ICT skills; (3) problematic policy and regulatory issues, which represent increasing costs to digital companies, such as onerous legal liability regimes and data privacy rules; (4) limited use and adoption by small businesses of digital technologies, such as e-commerce and online payments; (5) the traditional challenges to cross-border trade, such as complicated customs procedures and expensive logistics; and 6) national digital infrastructure and regulations that are incomplete and do not interact optimally with those of other economies. These challenges are to be jointly addressed through global south-south cooperation.
Discussions also highlighted that the battleground for achieving SDGs lies in rural Africa and rural South Asia. For realisation of SDG targets, massive investments in a range of sectors over a prolonged period of time is required. Leveraging global south-south financing and involving the private sector to achieve the SDGs at a national level in many developing countries remains to be more fully harnessed. Global south should consider a new south-south development cooperation finance architecture. The panelists said that, global south-south cooperation should be developed in Research and Development, and innovation, apart from trade. The pandemic has brought an opportunity for the countries to think and and act for sustainable solutions to build a better tomorrow.
On the panel were Ms. Bineswaree Bolaky, Economic Affairs Officer, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA; Dr. George Kararach, Lead Economist, African Development Bank (AfDB); Myriam Ramzy & Professor Chahir Zaki, Cairo University. Dr. Hany Besada, Senior Research/Programme Advisor, UNOSSC, moderated the session. Dr. Adel Abdellatif, Director a.i., UNOSSC gave the opening remarks while Dr. Xiaojun Grace Wang, Deputy Director for Programme and Operations, UNOSSC, gave the closing remarks.
Despite COVID-19 hurdles, online businesses in Zambia are clinging to their big dreams while the government strengthens the nation’s e-commerce ecosystem.
Zambia’s coronavirus lockdown shut down some more traditional businesses, but for e-commerce firms this was their chance to scale up operations.
AfriDelivery, a food delivery service with big dreams of becoming a business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce platform, recorded 100% growth in annual terms in 2020.
Afshon Wallace, the company’s founder and CEO, said it grew on two fronts – in business partners and customers – during the pandemic.
“We managed to keep delivering, from shops, restaurants, supermarkets and pharmacies while also finding more businesses to partner with. It’s been a powerful period for us, even though the growth was related to the pandemic,” Mr. Wallace said.
Meanwhile, as the tourism industry demand collapsed, another company, Voyagers Zambia – a travel agency and part of a group that offers travel, safari, insurance brokerage and car rental services – developed an online platform to distribute travel products efficiently.
The company’s director, Grant Gatchell, said tourism relief measures were limited for travel agencies, forcing the group to pivot towards car rental and transport including new products and services.
“In a way the pandemic made us reassess our offering and expand it,” Mr. Gatchell said.
Despite the opportunities, the pandemic also brought many challenges and unforeseen costs for e-commerce firms. Operational costs also increased due to measures taken to protect staff.
For Afri-Delivery, exchange rate fluctuations exacerbated the situation by driving up the price of imported motorbikes, the primary delivery vehicle in Zambia, Mr. Wallace said.
Other challenges cited by e-commerce firms include poor access to the internet and electricity, and the high cost of broadband services.
Tax breaks would go a long way to support the nation’s e-commerce firms, some owners say. They also encouraged the government to enter into more double-tax treaties to reduce the cost of imported technology goods and services.
The owners also say they receive limited government support and lack appropriate forums to exchange meaningfully with policymakers, as confirmed by a recent UNCTAD survey on COVID-19 and e-commerce.
“The pandemic has compelled businesses to accelerate digital transformation processes and reinvent their business models,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.
“However, stronger government action and close public-private cooperation are needed to improve Zambia’s e-commerce readiness,” she said.
Turning recommendations into action
UNCTAD’s e-Trade Readiness Assessment for Zambia, conducted in 2018, recommended measures across seven key policy areas.
An UNCTAD review found that by mid-2020, Zambia had implemented about 50% of the recommendations, a huge advance for the country.
The southern African nation also saw an improvement of its ranking in UNCTAD’s B2C E-Commerce Index 2020 from 125 to 120.
The Zambian government is currently developing an e-commerce strategy using a robust, multi-stakeholder approach, and reviewing its national ICT policy.
Other noteworthy advances include:
- In the area of ICT infrastructure and services, Zambia’s continued emphasis on setting up communication towers across the country has boosted mobile network coverage to reach nearly 92% of the population.
- It revised the national energy policy in 2019 to facilitate more open access regimes, increase private sector participation, promote alternative sources of energy and cost-reflective tariffs in the pricing of services.
- On the trade facilitation and logistics front, it’s developing a national addressing system to enhance trade logistics and last mile delivery, as well as a national postal policy.
- Zambia is a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement. It uses ASYCUDA as the Customs Management System (CMS), and uses the ASYCUDA platform to build a single window environment serving importers, exporters or customs brokers.. This reduces the transit time of goods at the border and enhances trade. Recently, the country ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement.
- In terms of legal and regulatory frameworks, the government is reviewing regulations to address issues dealing with e-transaction and data protection. It has also submitted a bill on cyber security to the parliament. Zambia is also reviewing its consumer and competition laws to protect consumers in electronic transactions.
- On the payments side, the Bank of Zambia has developed a switch to support interoperability among banks and other financial services. In response to the pandemic, it took several measures to encourage the use of digital financial services and reduce processing fees for money transfer.
- ICT skills education has become compulsory in schools to develop technological capacity among the youth.
Helping beyond Zambia
Besides Zambia, UNCTAD is helping other nations in which it has conducted eTrade readiness assessments – 27 to date – to turn recommendations into action.
In January and February this year, UNCTAD and its partners brought together over 270 public and private sector stakeholders from more than 20 countries to discuss how best to fast-track the implementation of the recommendations.
The participants, who included eTrade for all partners, shared experiences and explored opportunities to foster collaboration.
Supported financially by Germany and the Netherlands, UNCTAD is working with the eTrade for all partners and UN resident coordinators to ensure e-commerce is mainstreamed into national development plans and development partners’ cooperation frameworks.
In years to come, we will look back at 2020 as the moment that changed everything. Nowhere else has unprecedented and unforeseen growth occurred as in the digital and e-commerce sectors, which have boomed amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Amid slowing economic activity, COVID-19 has led to a surge in e-commerce and accelerated digital transformation.
As lockdowns became the new normal, businesses and consumers increasingly “went digital”, providing and purchasing more goods and services online, raising e-commerce’s share of global retail trade from 14% in 2019 to about 17% in 2020.
These and other findings are showcased in a new report, COVID-19 and E-Commerce: A Global Review, by UNCTAD and eTrade for all partners, reflecting on the powerful global and regional industry transformations recorded throughout 2020.
At an event to release the report, UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir said the trend towards e-commerce is likely to continue throughout the recovery from COVID-19.
“We need to recognize the challenges and take steps to support governments and citizens as they continue to embrace new ways of working,” he said.
UNCTAD Acting Secretary-General Isabelle Durant said: “Businesses and consumers that were able to ‘go digital’ have helped mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.”
“But they have also sped up a digital transition that will have lasting impacts on our societies and daily lives – for which not everyone is prepared,” she said, adding: “Developing countries should not only be consumers but also active players and thus producers of the digital economy.”
Some benefit, others fall behind
The findings show the strong uptake of e-commerce across regions, with consumers in emerging economies making the greatest shift to online shopping.
Latin America’s online marketplace Mercado Libre, for example, sold twice as many items per day in the second quarter of 2020 compared with the same period the previous year. And African e-commerce platform Jumia reported a 50% jump in transactions during the first six months of 2020.
China’s online share of retail sales rose from 19.4% to 24.6% between August 2019 and August 2020. In Kazakhstan, the online share of retail sales increased from 5% in 2019 to 9.4% in 2020.
Thailand saw downloads of shopping apps jump 60% in just one week during March 2020.
The trend towards e-commerce uptake seen in 2020 is likely to be sustained during recovery, the report says.
But in many of the world’s least developed countries, consumers and businesses haven’t capitalized on pandemic-induced e-commerce opportunities due to persistent barriers.
These include costly broadband services, overreliance on cash, lack of consumers’ trust, poor digital skills among the population and governments’ limited attention to e-commerce.
“Countries that harness the potential of e-commerce will be better placed to benefit from global markets for their goods and services in this digitalizing economy, while those that fail to do so risk falling behind even further,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.
One of the challenges, the report says, is that the pandemic has mostly benefited the world’s leading digital platforms.
Many solutions being used for e-commerce, teleworking and cloud computing are provided by a relatively small number of large companies, based mainly in China and the United States.
Smaller players may have gained a deeper foothold, but their market presence is still dwarfed by the digital giants, which could entrench their predominant role during the pandemic.
“The risk is that the huge digital divides that already existed between and within countries will only worsen in the wake of the pandemic,” said Torbjörn Fredriksson, UNCTAD’s digital economy head.
“The result will be even deeper inequalities that would threaten to derail progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” he added.
Most governments prioritized short-term responses to the pandemic, but some have also begun to address longer-term strategic requirements for recovery. Several governments in developing countries have intervened to protect businesses and individual incomes.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, Costa Rica’s government initiated a platform for businesses without an online presence, and a smartphone app and texting service to facilitate trade among producers of agricultural, meat and fish products.
In Africa, Senegal ran an information, education and awareness campaign on the benefits of e-commerce across all segments of the population.
In Asia, Indonesia launched a capacity-building programme to expedite digitization and digitalization among micro, small, and medium enterprises.
Action points for inclusive e-commerce
The report maps out actions that should be taken by three stakeholder groups to ensure more inclusive benefits from e-commerce.
It says governments need to prioritize national digital readiness so that more local businesses can become producers in the digital economy, not just consumers.
According to the report, building an enabling e-commerce ecosystem requires changes in public policy and business practices to improve the digital and trading infrastructure, facilitate digital payments and establish appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for online transactions and security.
“The approach must be holistic. Policies should not be made in silos,” said Ms. Sirimanne.
Then, to capture value from digital trade, digital entrepreneurship must become a central focus.
This requires faster digitalization for smaller businesses and more attention to digital entrepreneurship, including reskilling, especially of women.
Countries also need better capabilities to capture and harness data, and stronger regulatory frameworks for creating and capturing value in the digital economy, the report says.
Lastly, the international community needs to find new, bold and smart ways to work with governments and the private sector to leverage these opportunities.
“The digital divide, which was real long before COVID-19, is a challenge which can be removed through our collective efforts and international support,” Mr. Bozkir added. “E-commerce offers immense potential across the SDGs. Efforts, therefore, must be made to harness this rapidly emerging tool.”
To support UN-wide work on the topic, Mr. Bozkir announced a one-day high-level thematic debate on digital cooperation and connectivity on 27 April 2021.
This will provide a platform for high-level political statements of intent and support, and frank exchanges among UN entities, technology leaders, constituents and stakeholders, to build momentum and mobilize the international community to strengthen existing multi-stakeholder initiatives and partnerships, and support the creation of additional partnerships to accelerate implementation..
Charting the future of e-commerce
Better dialogue and collaboration are needed to identify new pathways for the digital economy.
The UNCTAD-led eTrade for all initiative, currently funded by the Netherlands, Germany and Estonia, is one such platform for doing so.
Over the past four years, the initiative has served as a global helpdesk for developing countries to bridge the knowledge gap on e-commerce information and resources, and catalyse partnership among its partners.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, more than 30 eTrade for all partners have worked together to raise awareness on the e-commerce opportunities and risks emerging during the crisis.
They have also identified ways in which businesses in developing and least developed countries could overcome the challenges.
Members continued discussions on the role of intellectual property amid a pandemic and how the WTO and other stakeholders can engage to ensure secure and rapid access to vaccines and other medical products needed to combat COVID-19. At a meeting of the Council for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) on 10-11 March 2021, members also considered the continued exemption of least-developed countries (LDCs) from TRIPS obligations and broadened their debate on the relation between IP and innovation to cover small business and green technologies.
Continuing their discussions held since October 2020, WTO members addressed the proposal (IP/C/W/669) submitted by South Africa and India calling for a waiver for all members of certain provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in relation to the “prevention, containment or treatment” of COVID-19. According to proponents, the objective is to avoid barriers to the timely access to affordable medical products, including vaccines and medicines, and to the scaling-up of manufacturing and supply of essential medical products.
The waiver would cover obligations in four sections of the TRIPS Agreement — Section 1 on copyright and related rights, Section 4 on industrial designs, Section 5 on patents and Section 7 on the protection of undisclosed information. It would last for a specific number of years, to be agreed by the General Council, and until widespread vaccination is in place globally and the majority of the world’s population is immune. Members would review the waiver annually until termination.
Since its submission, the proposal has been co-sponsored by Kenya, Eswatini, Mozambique, Pakistan, Bolivia, Venezuela, Mongolia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, the African Group and the LDCs Group.
At the previous meeting of the Council on 23 February, members agreed on an oral status report to the General Council reflecting the state of discussions and lack of consensus on the waiver request. The report indicated that the TRIPS Council had not yet completed its consideration of the waiver request and would therefore continue discussions and report back to the General Council.
Members reiterated their common goal of providing timely and secure access to high-quality, safe, efficacious and affordable vaccines and medicines for all, but continued to diverge on what role IP played in achieving that goal. Proponents argued that existing vaccine manufacturing capacities in the developing world remained unutilized because of IP barriers, and hence insufficient amounts of vaccines were being produced to end the pandemic. In their view, the waiver proposal represents an open and expedited global solution to allow uninterrupted collaboration in the production and supply of health products and technologies required for an effective COVID-19 response.
Citing the role of IP as an incentive for innovation to fight the current and future pandemics, and as underpinning the licensing, manufacturing, procurement and distribution of COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, other delegations welcomed further engagement on the questions they had raised with regards to the proposal. They urged an evidence-based discussion on any concrete examples where IP would pose a barrier to manufacturing and access to vaccines that could not be addressed by existing TRIPS flexibilities.
The outgoing chair of the TRIPS Council, Ambassador Xolelwa Mlumbi-Peter of South Africa, said swift action is urgently required to help scale up COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution. She called on members to shift gears and move towards a solution-oriented discussion.
The next regular TRIPS Council meeting is scheduled for 8-9 June, but members agreed to consider additional meetings in April in order to assess potential progress on the IP waiver discussion.
LDC transition period
Members also discussed a request by the LDCs Group (IP/C/W/668) to once again extend the transition period for LDC members under Article 66.1 of the TRIPS Agreement. Under this provision, LDCs are given an extended transition period to apply provisions of the TRIPS Agreement in recognition of their special requirements, their economic, financial and administrative constraints, and their need for flexibility in order to create a viable technological base. The transition period has been extended twice and is currently set to expire on 1 July 2021.
Delegations were in principle favourable to the extension. Some members expressed full support for the extension as requested (for as long as the member remains in the category of LDCs and for a period of 12 years from the date of entry into force of a decision by the United Nations General Assembly to exclude the member from that category). Other members expressed a preference for extending the period for a limited number of years, while others had additional questions on how the request for a transition period for countries that have graduated from LDC status related to Article 66.1.
MSMEs and green technologies
Continuing the theme of IP and innovation regularly featuring on the TRIPS Council agenda since 2012, the Friends of IP and Innovation (Australia, Canada, Chile, the European Union, Japan, Singapore, Switzerland, Chinese Taipei, the United Kingdom and the United States) proposed to discuss the topic of “Making MSMEs competitive in green tech” (IP/C/W/675).
The submission presents intellectual property rights (IPR) approaches for making micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) competitive in green technologies and makes the case for MSMEs playing a pivotal role in ongoing technology change towards greater sustainability. Co-sponsors underlined that MSMEs account for more than 50 per cent of employment and can constitute core engines of innovation and growth. Therefore, the role of IPRs to enhance their competitiveness should be looked at closely.
There are various ways in which MSMEs can make use of the IP system to become more competitive in the field of green technologies. These range from taking advantage of international and regional IP application and registration mechanisms and using international platforms for sharing information and opportunities for partnership and collaboration to national solutions such as fast-track patenting or even on-demand support facilitated by IP offices. Through these efforts, progress towards more sustainable technologies can be accelerated, in turn fostering innovation and providing opportunities for cooperation in the green technology sector, proponents said.
LDCs and developing countries agreed on the importance of discussing this issue as access to green technology would contribute to boosting their competitiveness while respecting environmental imperatives. However, they highlighted the lack of a viable technological base, particularly in LDCs, and stressed the need to benefit from more effective technology transfer. This would not only serve to increase their levels of production but also to provide them with technology that enables the sustainable and environmentally friendly development of new products, they said.
The meeting of the TRIPS Council was attended by a group of capital-based experts and delegates from LDC members and observers who participated in the Workshop on the Implementation of Article 66.2 of the TRIPS Agreement on 2, 4 and 5 March organized by the WTO Secretariat. Article 66.2 calls on developed countries to provide incentives to enterprises and institutions in their territories for the purpose of promoting and encouraging technology transfer to LDCs in order to enable them to create a sound and viable technological base.
On the initiation of non-violation and situation complaints under the TRIPS Agreement, and following the General Council decision of 10 December 2019 to extend the related moratorium until the 12th Ministerial Conference (MC12), members discussed whether elements of agreement could be identified in order to advance discussion towards a concrete outcome. This question concerns the longstanding discussion of whether — and under what circumstances — members should have the right to bring disputes to the WTO if they consider that another member’s action or a particular situation has deprived them of an expected benefit under the TRIPS Agreement, even if no specific TRIPS obligation has been violated.
The chair noted that there are now only eight months left before the Council is due to report again on this issue and called for discussions to focus on concrete suggestions for the Council’s recommendation to MC12, scheduled to take place the week of 29 November 2021 in Geneva.
The chair reported that, since the last TRIPS Council regular meeting in October 2020, the Gambia had deposited on 20 October 2020 its instrument of acceptance for the protocol amending the TRIPS Agreement. Also, on 1 January 2021, the United Kingdom confirmed its continued acceptance of the protocol.
To date, 132 members have accepted the TRIPS Amendment, which entered into force on 23 January 2017, securing for developing countries a legal pathway to access affordable medicines under WTO rules. The chair encouraged the remaining 32 members to expedite action in good time before the current deadline for acceptance, which was extended until 31 December 2021.
Members elected Dagfinn Sørli, Ambassador of Norway, as TRIPS Council chair for the coming year.
Displaced people face many challenges when integrating into the labor market in their host communities. They are also more likely than the host population to be employed in sectors that are highly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as manufacturing, accommodation, and food services. And they are mostly employed informally, and thus have no job security or access to social safety nets during the COVID-19 related economic downturn.
So what can be done to help displaced people during this difficult time?
One solution is turning to digital technology. Digital technology can support labor market integration of the displaced during the pandemic, while taking into account the lessons learned on how jobs interventions need to be adapted for that population. Here are three examples.
1. Digital cash transfers and virtual public work programs
Due to the often unplanned nature of their flight, many displaced people lose access to their assets such as land and livestock without being able to sell them beforehand. They must also pay for their journey to safety, and have no income for a prolonged period. The pandemic puts them at additional risk of further depleting any remaining assets, which can hamper self-employment and entrepreneurship. Liquidity constraints can also prevent the displaced from searching for (better) jobs and force them to work under hazardous conditions.
Cash transfers, labor-intensive public works, or cash for work can help. To allow for implementation during lockdowns and social distancing, digital financial transfers like mobile money can be used to transfer the money to beneficiaries. In addition, compared to handing out cash, this has the added value of increasing financial inclusion. The work undertaken for cash for work or public work programs can be adapted to COVID-19 not only by taking social distancing into account within existing activities but also by developing virtual activities (such as digitization of physical assets or printed documents). Remote work offers opportunities for displaced people also beyond public works.
2. Virtual training and psychosocial support
Displaced people — for example farmers forced to move to urban areas — often lack skills or certifications required in the new labor market. Training can help them acquire the skills needed in the host labor market.
During the pandemic, training interventions can be implemented virtually if infrastructure allows. The content of the training should be adapted to actual economic opportunities where displaced people live and the sectors they are allowed to work in. Training should also be combined with further support to address the multiple obstacles the displaced face. Early evidence confirms that IT and language training (adapted to different levels and geared toward labor market entry) are particularly promising.
In addition, some of the displaced may benefit from psychosocial support to increase their employability and overall well-being. Different forms of therapy have had significant positive effects on the mental well-being of displaced populations, and they can be implemented in environments with few professional counsellors and psychotherapists, for example through lay counsellors with limited training. Emerging evidence shows that web-based psychosocial interventions can be effective, facilitating their implementation during the pandemic and beyond.
3. Digital platforms for networking
Displaced populations often lack social networks in host countries that could help them integrate into the labor market. Also, interaction and exchange between host and displaced population are particularly important to foster social cohesion and reduce social tensions. Restrictions due to the pandemic make it even more difficult to maintain and build up such networks and interactions. Virtual formats and platforms can be explored for community meetings, mutual support, and joint social activities to promote exchange and help displaced people build up networks during these times. Establishing contacts as well as joint groups between the displaced and their hosts on social messenger services and social media can promote joint flow of information and communication.
Providing access to digital infrastructure is key
To be able to implement these digital solutions, the displaced and their hosts need access to the internet. There are several barriers, including availability of the digital infrastructure, affordability of services, and access to electricity to charge devices. Plus, refugees often lack the identity documents needed to access mobile services, including mobile money. While most displaced people in urban areas have the opportunity to access mobile coverage, those living in rural (often camp) settings are more likely to have no connectivity. Notably elderly and illiterate populations might also need additional support when using digital tools for the first time.
When COVID-19 shut primary schools throughout Pakistan early in 2020, entrepreneur Maheen Adamjee knew she had to act quickly to save her business.
Dot & Line provided in-home tutoring to Pakistani schoolchildren with a network of women micro-franchisees who used their homes as teaching centers.
A national lockdown to contain the disease halted all in-person tutoring sessions. So in just two weeks, Dot & Line rewrote its business plan, created digital tools, and launched training classes to help its teachers shift to online tutoring sessions. The firm transformed itself into a digital company nearly overnight.
One year later, Dot & Line has expanded into several countries and is growing briskly, driven by demand from the Pakistan diaspora. The company’s new challenge: adding enough teachers to keep up with all the new students.
Adamjee is a great example of a start-up businesswoman responding to COVID-19 with agility, creativity, and resilience. #OneSouthAsia Conversation, a series of online events on regional issues.Adamjee and two other women entrepreneurs described their experiences and offered practical tips at a recent
Even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions
Women entrepreneurs often pioneer new products and services that expand opportunities for others. But even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions. Legal, cultural, and financial barriers discourage women from starting a business.
“Within South Asia, trading is very difficult because of nontrade barriers and rules that change overnight. People prefer to trade outside the region than in it,” said Ayanthi Gurusinghe, a woman entrepreneur in Sri Lanka.
She founded a company, Cord360.com, a B2B platform that connects small buyers and sellers for products ranging from dried fruits to pharmaceuticals. Cord360.com offers training to help women entrepreneurs learn about international markets. It has been especially active in encouraging women to trade products across borders in Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.
“In terms of the demographics, a lot of the culture and habits are the same when you look at India, or Bangladesh, or Afghanistan,” Adamjee said. “The internet blurs those borders and allows for professional relationships that could not take place previously.”
Watch the panel discussion: Celebrating the Champions for Change in South Asia: Gender Equality in Leadership:
Sairee Chahal, founded her company, SHEROES, in 2014 as an online community for women. It now has 22 million members in India, Bangladesh, and other countries – up from nearly 16 million before the pandemic. The site offers career tips, job leads, training, legal advice, and a free counseling helpline. It also is an online platform helping microentrepreneurs sell their goods.
In India alone, Chahal said. Many will use digital platforms or e-commerce. “That would not be possible if 300 million [Indian] women hadn’t adopted the internet in the past three or four years,” she said.
However,. More women entrepreneurs could “have a huge impact on GDP” but they aren’t getting the kind of policy support needed, Chahal said.
The pandemic has propelled women entrepreneurs into the digital economy, allowing them to reach across national boundaries to establish partnerships and target new customers
Our discussion identified several actions to support women-led businesses:
- Targeted government support for women businesses, including reforming discriminatory laws and policies, boosting the creation of e-commerce platforms, and encouraging training and mentoring. Policymakers should monitor and measure the impact.
- Women entrepreneurs organize regionally.
- Women’s participation in government.
- Target lines of credit and other forms of finance to women-owned businesses.
- School textbooks showing women in a variety of roles.
International patent applications via WIPO in 2020 continued to grow amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s vast human and economic toll, with leading users China and the U.S. each marking annual growth in filings.
International patent applications filed via WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which is one of the widely used metrics for measuring innovative activity, grew by 4% in 2020 to reach 275,900 applications – the highest number ever, despite an estimated drop in global GDP of 3.5%.
China (68,720 applications, +16.1% year-on-year growth) remained the largest user of WIPO’s PCT System, followed by the U.S. (59,230 applications, +3%), Japan (50,520 applications, -4.1%), the Republic of Korea (20,060 applications, +5.2%) and Germany (18,643 applications, -3.7%)
(Annex 1 ).
Beyond the top 10, other countries that saw strong growth include Saudi Arabia (956 applications, +73.2%), Malaysia (255 applications, +26.2%), Chile (262 applications, +17.0%), Singapore (1,278 applications, +14.9%) and Brazil (697 applications, +8.4%). Longer term trends point to the globalization of innovation, with Asia accounting for 53.7% percent of all PCT filing activity, versus 35.7% 10 years ago.
Use of the international trademark system dipped, but only slightly. This was expected given that trademarks tend to represent the introduction of new goods and services – both of which slowed as a result of the global pandemic. International trademark applications via WIPO’s Madrid System for the International Registration of Marks decreased by 0.6% to 63,800 in 2020 – the first decline since the global financial crisis of 2008-2009.
Press conference: Video on YouTube
The economic fallout from the pandemic hit demand for the protection of industrial designs via the Hague System for the International Registration of Industrial Designs. Demand fell by 15% in 2020 to 18,580 designs – the first decline since 2006.
Worldwide demand for IP rights, which help innovators and enterprises take their ideas to the market, has historically and broadly tracked global economic performance. However, growth over the past decade in the use of WIPO’s global IP services, most notably the PCT, has outperformed global GDP growth.
Charts with the latest key international IP data.
International patent system (Patent Cooperation Treaty – PCT)
Top PCT filers
For the fourth consecutive year, China-based telecoms giant Huawei Technologies, with 5,464 published PCT applications, was the top filer in 2020. It was followed by Samsung Electronics of the Republic of Korea (3,093), Mitsubishi Electric Corp. of Japan (2,810), LG Electronics Inc. of the Republic of Korea (2,759) and Qualcomm Inc. of the U.S. (2,173) (Annex 2 ). Among the top 10 filers, LG Electronics reported the fastest growth (+67.6%) in the number of published applications in 2020 and as a result it moved up from 10th position in 2019 to 4th position in 2020.
The University of California with 559 published applications continues to head the list of top applicants among educational institutions in 2020. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (269) ranked second, followed by Shenzhen University (252), Tsinghua University (231) and Zhejiang University (209) (Annex 3 ). The top 10-university list comprises five universities from China, four from the U.S., and one from Japan.
Among fields of technology, computer technology (9.2% of total) accounted for the largest share of published PCT applications, followed by digital communication (8.3%), medical technology (6.6%), electrical machinery (6.6%), and measurement (4.8%) (Annex 4 ).
Six of the top 10 technologies recorded double-digit growth in 2020, with audio-visual technology reporting the fastest rate of growth – +29.5%, compared to 8.7% the previous year – followed by digital communication (+15.8%), computer technology (+13.2%), measurement (+10.9%) semiconductors (+10.1%) and pharmaceuticals (+10%).
International trademark system (Madrid System)
U.S.-based applicants (10,005) filed the largest number of international trademark applications using WIPO’s Madrid System in 2020, followed by those located in Germany (7,334), China (7,075), France (3,716) and the U.K. (3,679) (Annex 5 ).
Among the top ten origins, China (+16.4%) is the only country to record double-digit growth in 2020. The U.K. (+5.1%) and Italy (+3.6%) also reported notable growth. Outside the top ten origins, the Republic of Korea (+13.4%), Canada (+94.4%), and Denmark (11.5%) saw the strongest growth. In contrast, France (-16.3%) and Turkey (-15.4%) saw sharp declines.
Top Madrid filers
Novartis AG of Switzerland with 233 Madrid applications heads the list of top filers in 2020. WIPO received 104 more applications from Novartis in 2020 than in 2019, elevating it from 3rd position to the top spot. Novartis AG was followed by Huawei Technologies of China (197), Shiseido Company of Japan (130), ADP Gauselmann of Germany (123) and L’Oréal of France (115). L’Oréal – the top filer in 2019 – moved down to 5th position as it filed 78 fewer applications in 2020 (Annex 6 ).
The most-specified class in international applications received by WIPO was Class 9 (computer hardware and software and other electrical or electronic apparatus, etc.) that accounted for 10.6% of the 2020 total. It was followed by Class 35 (services for business; 8.1%) and Class 42 (technological services; 7.1%). Among the top 10 classes, Class 10 (surgical, medical, dental and veterinary apparatus, etc.; +21.1%) and Class 5 (pharmaceuticals and other preparations for medical purposes; +9.2%) saw the fastest growth.
International design system (Hague System)
Despite a substantial decrease, Germany remained the largest user of the international design system, with 3,666 designs (Annex 7 ). The U.S. (2,211 designs) moved up from 6th position to become the second largest user of the Hague System in 2020. Switzerland (1,944 designs), the Republic of Korea (1,669) and Italy (1,231) are ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively. Among the top ten origins, the U.S. (+62.7%), Turkey (+34.7%) and China (+22.7%) are the only three countries to record growth in 2020.
Top Hague filers
For the fourth consecutive year, Samsung Electronics of the Republic of Korea with 859 designs in published applications headed the list of top filers, followed by Procter & Gamble of the U.S. (623), Fonkel Meubelmarketing of the Netherlands (569), Volkswagen of Germany (524) and Beijing Xiaomi Mobile Software of China (516). For the first time a company from China is among the top five applicants. Lampenwelt GMBH of Germany –ranked tenth with 276 designs – is a new user of the Hague System (Annex 8 ).
Designs related to means of transport (10.1%) accounted for the largest share of total designs in 2020; followed by recording and communication equipment (8.8%); packages and containers (8.4%); furnishing (7.4%); and lighting apparatus (6.9%). Among the top 10 classes, pharmaceutical and cosmetic products (+42.6%) saw sizeable growth in 2020.
Domain name disputes
Trademark owners in 2020 filed a record 4,204 cases under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) with WIPO’s Arbitration and Mediation Center, moving past the 50,000 mark since the start of this WIPO service (Annex 9 ). It was also a record year for WIPO Mediation and Arbitration cases involving patents, trademarks, digital copyright, and other types of disputes involving technology.
With a greater number of people spending more time online during the COVID-19 pandemic, trademark owners are taking up this WIPO service not only to reinforce their online presence, but also to offer authentic content and trusted sales outlets to Internet users across varied business areas (Annex 10 ). Representing 75% of WIPO’s generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) caseload, .COM demonstrated its continuing primacy.
WIPO UDRP cases in 2020 involved parties from 127 countries, up from 122 in 2019. The U.S., with 1,359 cases filed, France (786), the U.K. (411), Switzerland (256) and Germany (235) were the top five filing countries (Annex 11 ).
WIPO also offers dispute resolution services for over 75 country code Top-Level Domains, such as .CN (China), .EU (European Union) and .MX (Mexico).
Outside the area of domain name disputes, the WIPO Center in 2020 received 77 mediation and arbitration cases in different areas of IP, up 24% from the previous year’s caseload (Annex 12 ). These WIPO procedures allow parties from around the world to resolve their cases without having to go to court. Patent-related disputes remained the most common in WIPO’s caseload, followed by trademark, information and communications technology (ICT), and copyright disputes
(Annex 13 ).