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UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women advocate for Eastern Europe explains her journey to e-commerce greatness, discusses the impact of COVID-19 and encourages women to take a seat at the policymaking table.
Nina Angelovska has always been a trailblazer. From the age of 21, she’s been shaking up North Macedonia’s digital economy with her startup-turned-mega company, Grouper.mk. Now she’s advocating for more seats for women at the e-commerce policymaking table.
Co-founder of the online shopping platform Grouper.mk, she’s also the president of North Macedonia’s eCommerce Association and the country’s former finance minister.
How did she become a force to be reckoned within the e-commerce space? UNCTAD explores five things to know about Ms. Angelovska that catapulted her to the top.
1. A small grant of $5,000 got Ms. Angelovska on her feet after she won the most innovative business plan award from the North Macedonian National Centre for Development of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Learning at just 21.
She started Grouper.mk with the money in 2011. She saw the potential in group buying at a time when e-commerce was non-existent in North Macedonia and blazed a trail in the new field. Grouper.mk is now recognized as the game-changer in the market. When starting up, Ms. Angelovska says they practically educated thousands of customers to make their first online transaction and encouraged hundreds of merchants to join the e-world for the first time.
2. The company she co-founded and led, Grouper.mk is now 10 years old.
Her firm has grown from strength to strength. Today, it is much more than a group-buying website, it is a platform that connects 3,550 merchants from all sectors to over 250,000 buyers, contributing to growing the country’s digital ecosystem.
3. She was her country’s first-ever female finance minister.
“The private sector is where the magic happens, while the public sector provides the enabling environment to facilitate the magic,” Angelovska said. She’s been pushing for change both on the inside and outside these spaces. After she became North Macedonia’s first-ever female finance minister in 2019, she managed public finances amid the biggest global crisis the world has ever experienced – the coronavirus pandemic. She brought her digital acumen to the role and used it to help speed up COVID-19 support to North Macedonians. Her goal: induce positive change, speed up progression to a cashless society, digitalization and de-bureaucratize many processes.
4. Her big insight on her entrepreneurial journey.
“The key in life is to solve the problem you enjoy solving. Just keep wondering and never stop learning. This is what makes you unique and truly defines who you are,” she advises all would-be entrepreneurs.
5. On the powerful potential of women entrepreneurs.
Angelovska says the growth of our economies is at stake if we don’t include more women. “There is so much potential to be unlocked if we have more women entrepreneurs, in tech, in leadership positions and in policy. The countries that do this are the ones that will enjoy faster, more sustainable and definitely more inclusive growth,” she says. Ms. Angelovska takes her digital gender advocacy seriously, amplified by her role as UNCTAD eTrade for Women Advocate. In 2019 UNCTAD appointed her as one of seven women global advocates to advance the place of women in the digital economy. Working with the United Nations is both a great opportunity and a great responsibility to advance gender equality. In her role she’s inspiring and supporting other women entrepreneurs to harness the power of technology and the digital economy to change lives, and influence policy.
What does the future hold?
Ms. Angelovska’s journey is still in its early days, she believes. Her experience at the coalface of the COVID-19 crisis, both as finance minister and president of North Macedonia’s eCommerce Association, has given her new impetus to help people, governments and businesses go digital, especially developing nations.
“I will keep pushing for change and for digital transformation. I will keep striving to inspire and motivate as many women as I can because we really need to unlock the powerful synergy of women entrepreneurship and tech,” she said.
Masterclass seeks to empower and build the skills of women digital entrepreneurs in East Africa as well as explore opportunities amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Advocates from UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women initiative are working hard to ensure women digital entrepreneurs in the developing world are building both the network and resilience they need to thrive in the digital economy now and in a post-coronavirus context.
The first virtual masterclass for East African women digital entrepreneurs, to be held from 8 to 10 July, is well timed to advance this cause.
It brings together women founders of digital businesses from Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, reflecting the dynamism and variety of the digital landscape in the region.
The women share the drive to acquire new skills, make a positive impact in their communities and help them recover better from the economic blow of COVID-19.
While the pandemic is a human health and economic tragedy, it is also an accelerator for digital transformation and e-commerce.
“We need to use this moment to ensure women, especially those in the developing world, have a seat at the table and are able to harness the digital gains,” said Shamika N. Sirimanne, UNCTAD’s technology and logistics director.
The e-commerce potential
Like much of Africa, the region has low internet penetration. According to the International Telecommunication Union, in 2019 only 28% of Africans used the internet.
Of the total African population, 34% of those using the internet are men, while only 23% are women.
Online shoppers are also relatively few. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia and South Africa are the only countries where the share of online shoppers exceeds 8%. In most other countries, it is below 5%.
Internet subscriptions and smartphones are relatively costly, contributing to the low rates of e-commerce in the region. Other factors include weak and unsupportive policy and regulatory frameworks.
However, with the coronavirus pandemic accelerating digital transformation globally, the window of opportunity offered by e-commerce is widening.
Learning to thrive in times of crisis
The three-day event targets established women digital entrepreneurs from selected East African countries and includes networking, learning and policy engagement sessions.
It will be hosted by eTrade for Women advocate for anglophone Africa, Clarisse Iribagiza from Rwanda, CEO and co-founder of HeHe Limited, in conjunction with eTrade for all partners, thanks to support from the Netherlands.
Emphasizing the role of the digital economy in promoting development, Ms. Iribagiza said small businesses need technology to level up.
“Small businesses create lots of jobs and help solve local problems,” she said. “But they face many challenges such as high cost of production, lack of access to energy and poor infrastructure. Technology can help reduce their costs and enable them to operate more efficiently.”
Ms. Iribagiza said the masterclass would help women digital entrepreneurs better harness the benefits of the digital transformation of their economies and societies.
Tackling urgent business needs
The masterclass will tackle the entrepreneurs’ most urgent business needs, from designing a value proposition canvas to rebooting business post-COVID-19 and going from local to regional markets, offering them practical solutions for their businesses.
Experienced trainers will lead sessions tailored to help the entrepreneurs thrive in the digital economy while operating more resilient businesses in times of crisis.
In addition, the event is a unique opportunity to examine gender-related challenges and foster more inclusive policymaking.
It includes a high-level policy dialogue on creating a vibrant digital economy in times of COVID-19, which will feature case studies and best practices from some East African countries.
The masterclass is one of the ways that UNCTAD is helping build communities of female digital entrepreneurs in developing countries, while advocating for an environment conducive to more inclusive digital policymaking.
The eTrade for Women initiative is supported by the Netherlands and Sweden in cooperation with eTrade for all partners.
Youma Dieng Fall, co-founder of PayDunya and member of UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women community, shares how the business has adapted to the coronavirus crisis, bouncing back stronger from the shock
“My first thought was, ‘How will we survive?’” says Youma Dieng Fall, co-founder of PayDunya, an e-payment solution company based in Dakar, Senegal.
The date was 23 March and the country’s president, Macky Sall, had just declared a nationwide state of emergency to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus in the west African country.
Within a week, 70% of the company’s clients had ceased their business activities.
“As a startup in a fast-moving, competitive market, we had overcome many challenges,” she says, “but nothing prepares you for something like this.”
Since opening in 2016, PayDunya had enjoyed steady growth. The company’s employees increased from zero to more than 50 in less than four years, and its portfolio of clients spread beyond Senegal’s borders, into Benin and Côte d’Ivoire.
But many clients were in the tourism industry – one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic – and no longer required the company’s web and mobile payment solutions.
Ms. Fall at the UNCTAD masterclass in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
“I had never imagined such a scenario,” she says. “It was like watching a movie. I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
New doors open
Just as some doors closed, others began to open as social distancing and heightened concerns over hygiene restricted cash transactions and pushed more business operations online.
“We started receiving phone calls from businesses desperately in need of digital payment solutions,” she says. Many were from new sectors, such as agribusinesses and pharmacies. Others had been wary before.
In recent weeks, the company has picked up a record number of new clients. Ms. Fall and her team are helping west African businesses limit financial loss from the crisis and advance financial inclusion in a region where more people have mobile money accounts than bank accounts.
“Our goal is to simplify the digitalization of sales, payments and management for all African companies regardless of size or field of activity,” she says, “knowing that they are all operating on a continent were more than 60% of the population is unbanked.”
The company has not only faced major business challenges but has also had to overcome the difficulties of confinement and telecommuting – a new way of working for most employees.
“Working from home isn’t common in Dakar or other areas where we operate,” she says, adding that the company is providing internet credit on employees’ work phones to help ensure they have a reliable connection outside the office.
Lessons from the crisis
PayDunya’s experience offers lessons that could help businesses in the region mitigate the adverse effects of the pandemic, which could cost Africa about 20 million jobs, according to a study by the African Union.
“The crisis is creating many challenges but also opportunities for those who can work digitally,” Ms. Fall says.
When the crisis hit, PayDunya quickly put in place measures to ensure business continuity and staff safety.
- Strengthen hygiene measures
- Prioritize teleworking
- Be a compassionate leader
- Step up client support
Besides applying the hygiene measures recommended by the World Health Organization, the company limited exposure at work by having all employees shift to teleworking and stopped face-to-face sales meetings, unless absolutely necessary.
“We also prescribed for all employees a number of health measures to observe while working at home or for when they absolutely must meet with clients in person,” Ms. Fall says.
Importantly, she says, the management team took such decisions proactively, before the government’s measures, allowing PayDunya time to test teleworking before the country was put in partial lockdown.
Ms. Fall adds that in a remote working scenario, discipline and leadership become even more essential as team members juggle work with new responsibilities at home and cope with isolation.
“There’s now no one around to see what you’re doing,” she says. “And managers can’t rely on spontaneous discussions or office visits to check on their team.”
She recommends holding daily calls and debriefs to make sure everyone understands the priorities and tasks a hand, and to quickly identify potential setbacks.
It also helps keep team morale up and allows managers to make sure staff are adjusting, professionally and personally.
Ms. Fall says PayDunya knows it must take care of its employees if they are going to in turn watch after the clients during these difficult times.
“We strive for our clients, especially in times of crisis,” she says. “We’ve established a financial and logistical support plan for those most affected.”
eTrade for Women community
Ms. Fall is part of UNCTAD’s eTrade for Women community in Francophone Africa.
She participated in the masterclass held in Abidjan in February, which allowed her to build new business relationships with other women digital entrepreneurs across the region, such as Elodie Atekossode from Benin, whose software development company has since agreed on a revenue sharing arrangement with PayDunya.
The UNCTAD eTrade for Women initiative aims to harness the promise of digital technologies and the power of female entrepreneurship to accelerate wealth creation and poverty reduction in developing countries. It’s part of the eTrade for All initiative and supported by the Netherlands.