From micro entrepreneurs, could digital industries grow?

  • Over one-third of 270,000 participants have reported higher sales
  • Course helps micro entrepreneurs overcome mental roadblock


From micro entrepreneurs, could digital industries grow?

WHEN participants at the recent graduation ceremony for 50 micro entrepreneurs (pic, above) taking part in MDEC’s Level Up eUsahawan programme were asked, “Do you want more?”, the answer was a resounding “YES!!!” that reverberated through the room.

Maybe it’s because the coaching and mentoring course was able to help these 50 eUsahawans generate US$2.63 million (RM11 million) in total sales over the previous six months.

Maybe it’s because many of them overcame the mental roadblock that they were too small to succeed. It also didn’t hurt that this round of participants were getting their training for practically free.

From micro entrepreneurs, could digital industries grow?“Over time, as people start to gain confidence in the programme, there could be commercial value in it,” admitted MDEC vice-president for Talent Development and Digital Entrepreneurship Sumitra Nair (pic, right). “But for now we still see there is a need for a public sector project to fund this.”

Nevertheless, Sumitra understands that this is untenable in the long term. “For me it was always about how to build a sustainable scalable model,” she said. “Next year we may be looking at for them to be partially self-funded.”

It must be noted that the Level Up programme was for a select few outstanding eUsahawans who showed promise. But when the participants took to the stage, they spoke less about the successes they had garnered, and more about the difficulties they had to overcome – and the need to share their new-found life lessons with the next batch of entrepreneurs, who may not even know what they could be capable of.

“Many of these guys if they were not given that small nudge, they would not do it,” agreed Sumitra.

Micro entrepreneurs, big plans

‘Small’ is also an apt descriptor of micro entrepreneurs. Defined as companies whose sales turnover is less than US$72,705 (RM300,000), or employ fewer than five people, they represent over 70% of SMEs in Malaysia. But according to Sumitra, things were much more modest in the beginning.

"I can't say there was a huge vision," she explained. "We saw a white space and we saw an opportunity when we started this in 2015."

The decision was made to focus on institutes of Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) because, in Sumitra’s words, “not very many corporate or government agencies were paying attention to TVET colleges back then."

At first they started with 40 colleges. The focus would be on digital marketing. “We've developed modules that cover social commerce, e-commerce and cross-border commerce.”

Implementation has meant having to think on their feet. “MDEC has tried to become a little bit more like a startup culture,” she said, explaining it is now less about working backwards from “fancy blueprints”, and more about piloting things quickly . “Let's do this agile, let's do this iterative, let's do this proof-of-concept.”

After the team had an opportunity to update Mustapa Mohamed, then the Minister of International Trade and Industry, things began to ramp up. "He asked us can you do something like this for my constituency?", recalled Sumitra with a smile.

That pilot in Jeli was successful enough to then scale up nationwide. Up to December 2018, over 270,000 participants have undergone the eUsahawan programme. Over 96,000 of them reported increased sales as a result, totaling US$126.42 million (RM528.91 million). Many began exporting their products overseas, to far-flung lands such as the UK, Japan, China, Vietnam and Kazakhstan.

Although the programme doesn’t guarantee success (note that almost two thirds of participants don’t report an increase in sales), Sumitra says that for some, the course can be literally life-changing.

“A lot of them come in desperation,” she pointed out, citing problems like debts and personal issues. “One guy came up to me and said, ‘You know I was on the brink of suicide’”. Fortunately, he managed to pull through.

Forwards, unto digitisation

When it’s pointed out to Sumitra that what these micro entrepreneurs are doing is really just marketing themselves better, and a very small part of what is labelled Industry 4.0, she agrees.

“Because we're MDEC, ultimately we want them to get onto digital," she concurred, “But we have to (start at the) lowest common denominator that they understand, and is compelling to them.

“Once they see the power of it to change their lives, then they start to explore more things,” she continued, including the Level-Up coaching and mentoring programme for a selected 100 outstanding participants. The plan is to eventually channel these entrepreneurs into other programmes. “Start looking at data analytics, maybe start to look at some level of automation, CRM.”

“If any agency out there wants to come and you know, fill in this space, get this micro entrepreneur in Tawau (or) Kuala Bala onto the digital bandwagon... MDEC is more than happy to work with them!”.


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