UNCTAD
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Building post-pandemic resilience through science, technology and innovation

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.

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IFC | WBG

To increase financial inclusion and support the digital transformation of financial institutions across Africa and the Middle East, IFC launched its DigiLab Finance training and support program with the aim of improving services for consumers of financial services.

DigiLab Finance is a capacity building program that equips selected financial institutions – including banks, microfinance institutions and digital financial services providers – with practical knowledge and tools to help them develop digital strategies, helping them adapt and adopt to technological trends accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic and better serve their clients.

The first cohort of four financial institutions from Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia began the six-week online DigiLab program on June 1. The program is being delivered in both English and French.

“Coronavirus has changed the way we live and work and has made digital transformation for financial institutions more important than ever,” said Riadh Naouar, IFC Financial Institutions Group Manager for Africa and the Middle East. “Banks across the region have already made good progress adapting new technologies, although implementation of full digital transformation remains a challenge. The DigiLab program will help improve on this aspect of implementation and is part of IFC’s broader strategy to support a stronger, more sustainable financial sector.”

At the end of the six-week training program, participating financial institutions present their strategies and roadmaps for implementing a digital strategy to a panel of experts that provides feedback to help them incorporate improvements to their digital finance operations.

IFC introduced DigiLab Finance in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018 and then in Europe and Central Asia in 2020.

Since its launch, DigiLab has supported 23 financial institutions to implement new business structures, launch digital products that better serve customer needs, and explore partnerships with fintechs or other tech providers.

About IFC

IFC—a member of the World Bank Group—is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets. We work in more than 100 countries, using our capital, expertise, and influence to create markets and opportunities in developing countries. In fiscal year 2020, we invested $22 billion in private companies and financial institutions in developing countries, leveraging the power of the private sector to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. For more information, visit www.ifc.org.

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ITC

Establishing the right mindset is the key to digital transformation

“The most important e-commerce challenge that women entrepreneurs are facing in Tunisia is finding the right mindset for digital transformation,” says Samia Ben Abdallah, an e-commerce advisor in Tunisia.

“The International Trade Centre’s (ITC) ecomConnect programme is raising awareness among women about the importance of going digital and planning strategically, which is key to earning stable incomes. The project is very timely”.

Samia, who is also the founder of AwA – a Tunisian company that produces beautiful handmade jewelry, is one of the consultants who has been trained by ITC’s ecomConnect team to help women-led businesses in Tunisia sell online. This project is funded by the World Bank and provided by the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) E-commerce for Women Entrepreneurs in the Middle East and North Africa regions (MENA) initiative.

Having the right mindset is essential, despite the obstacles

The project aims to use e-commerce as a way to alleviate some of the constraints faced by women entrepreneurs in the MENA region. Indeed, more than 100 SMEs are receiving in-depth training in selecting and listing in the online marketplace. Although e-commerce has already shown its potential for small businesses, it comes with its own challenges, such as: the level of shipping costs, the availability and cost of international payment solutions, the lack of streamlined customs duties and clearance procedures for low-value items, and also the lack of information and capacity regarding available platforms. In MENA, women have even more limited access to technology than in other regions, which makes e-commerce challenging.

From Samia’s experience with the programme’s beneficiaries, she highlights the additional challenge of the lack of planning and strategic vision: “most Tunisian women do not dare to take the risks that would allow them to progress well. The main issue here is not knowing the real challenges of e-commerce. For example, the women entrepreneurs I work with tend to underestimate the efforts to be made in digital marketing, therefore, they do not know how to create quality digital content.

Tackling the lack of knowledge

Hajer Aissi, a beneficiary of the programme and founder of Art Artisanat in Tunisia, sees the project as an opportunity to increase the visibility of her business and access to international markets. “The training is helping me to know the different platforms better and to understand people’s preferences and how to reach them. I am also learning how to create beautiful photos for my products and write complete and impactful descriptions in order to attract new customers.”

The project addresses this knowledge gap by building capacity and providing online tools. ITC trains advisors who, in turn, train women-owned businesses through group trainings and advise them individually through one-on-one coaching sessions.

After reviewing their market research and e-business strategy, the beneficiaries were able to apply their research findings to create content tailored to the selected target markets and sales channels. Now that the content is ready, the consultants help the companies select the most appropriate market for each of them.

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UNCDF

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.

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ITU

Financial technology, or fintech, has brought financial security within reach for previously underserved people and communities, especially in developing countries.

But the benefits brought by companies providing software, services, and products for digital financial services are accompanied by new, often unfamiliar risks.

While many fintech firms have experienced rapid growth during the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers and regulators alike need to know both the upsides and the downsides of new business models emerging in digital finance.

Mobile-friendly information

Among these fast-growing new digital financial services, digital microcredits enable quick approval and access for small, short-term loans via mobile phone.

However, their pricing can appear vague, while the mobile format can impede readability for microcredit users.

“When you translate summarized disclosure statements and key facts to a small screen, it becomes even harder to ensure that the consumer is receiving the information they need to understand risks and choose an appropriate product,” observed Jennifer Chien, Senior Financial Sector Specialist at the World Bank Group, during a recent session of the Financial Inclusion Global Initiative (FIGI) Symposium.

Another challenge relates to timing, she explained.

“You may receive information about the pricing for a credit product only after you have finalized a transaction, which makes it too late to use that information effectively.”

Making algorithms accountable

Fintech products are sometimes marketed unscrupulously, such as with certain practices emerging in unsolicited offers of microcredit sent to consumers’ phones. In unbanked markets, such practices can result in unnecessary loans and subsequent repayment struggles.

“Some are marketed in a way that encourages the consumer to take out the maximum loan possible,” said Chien. “The remote nature of the digital channel and rapid transaction speeds increase consumer vulnerability to aggressive marketing practices.”

At every level, fintech’s benefits and drawbacks seem mixed. For example, while automated credit scoring can expand access to financial services, poor algorithm design and non-representative data can produce biased results that are ” systematically worse for certain groups and perpetuate social inequalities,” warned Chien.

Creating algorithmic accountability through regulatory and technical safeguards and controls is a work in progress for many countries and researchers.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, for instance, has told digital microcredit providers to ensure that existing rules on fair treatment and anti-discrimination apply to the use of algorithms.

Protection from lending risks

Risks of unfair lending with high annualized rates also persist in digital microcredit products. Loans are sometimes marketed aggressively without assessing the consumer’s need or ability to repay. So-called “lend to learn” models extend access to finance for consumers without a formal credit history to learn their creditworthiness. But risk-blind models can result in loans being taken out by consumers who can’t afford them.

Consumer warning labels, or equivalent notifications, may have to be attached to certain fintech products and services, Chien said.

Testing in Kenya, for example, indicated improved consumer comprehension after brief summaries of terms and conditions were shown on mobile phones earlier in the transaction process. In Paraguay, consumers are offered a final option to accept or reject terms before concluding a digital transaction contract. In such cases, the dynamic interactive nature of mobile channels aids the consumer.

Evolving risks, evolving regulation

Fintech also enables access to credit via peer-to-peer lending platforms. But most such operators remain unregulated, depriving consumers of protection, said Gian Boeddu, another Senior Financial Sector Specialist at the World Bank Group. The UK and Mexico have tried to address this by developing new definitions of activities subject to financial regulation.

In the digital context, low barriers to entry for accessing credit and reliance on technology expose consumers to risks. As a safeguard, policies that apply to traditional financial service providers are now being extended to providers of new digital financial services and related third parties with additional requirements for digital literacy and consumer competence.

Investment-based crowdfunding, which allows small companies to issue debt or equity securities to the public, shows how fintech innovation can prompt regulators to rethink certain rules.

This form of crowdfunding cannot develop within regulatory frameworks for capital markets, opined Ivor Istuk, Senior Financial Sector Specialist at the World Bank Group. “Established rules for offering securities and providing investment intermediary services tend to be too costly for small businesses and start-ups. Companies that would find this market lucrative would also need to register themselves, increasing operational costs.”

Concerns around fraud and platform failure also apply to investment-based crowdfunding. Risks are exacerbated by inexperienced investors, risky issuers, opaque information, and illiquid and complex securities, explained Istuk.

To address gaps in Fintech regulation, experts highlight the value of a step-by-step approach based on the development of an in-depth understanding of the fast-evolving fintech market and experiences of consumers and industry players.

FIGI is an open framework for collaboration led by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Bank Group, and the Committee on Payments and Market Infrastructures (CPMI), with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Check out the 2021 symposium’s video playlist. 

Financial technology, or fintech, has brought financial security within reach for previously underserved people and communities, especially in developing countries.

But the benefits brought by companies providing software, services, and products for digital financial services are...

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