Digital Prosperity Award Winner Connects Unbanked Craftsmen to Opportunity
Entrepreneur Hai Nguyen was stunned to hear the stories from his hometown in southern Viet Nam. Local artisans, renowned for their skills in making wooden furniture and crafts, a tradition that stretched back hundreds of years, were struggling to make ends meet.
Not only were they unable to secure loans from banks and other traditional financial institutions, they were unsure of how to find customers in a digital age.
Freshly returned from living in Chile, and having studied in the United States and Singapore, Hai was determined to use his skills to help the artisans grow their businesses, by building a digital platform to enable them to trade across borders.
“I used to believe that finance was the only stumbling block for local artisans, but then I found out there are other obstacles,” Mr Nguyen said. “I believe innovative technology can empower these artisans, help them to access more opportunities to showcase their talents.”
He enlisted his friends—a talented software developer, a machine-learning researcher, and a product designer in London—to build a digital platform called AirLala that matches international tourists and other customers with the right artisans and products in Viet Nam.
“From this, artisans can focus on what they do best: designing and crafting products, while our platform can take care of marketing and selling,” he said. “Most importantly, our platform will help the local artisans build credit history, which will enable to access private capital or traditional financial institutions.”
The platform won this year’s APEC Digital Prosperity Award for helping micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) demystify the process of using the Internet and digital mobile technology to export. Mr Nguyen was presented with the award during APEC Economic Leaders’ Week held in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang.
“I hope that this Initiative will encourage more young talents to contribute to fostering our shared community,” said Tran Tu Anh, Viet Nam’s Minister of Industry and Trade, addressing the APEC Annual Ministerial Meeting, held during Leaders’ Week. “In the future, I hope to see more innovative and practical approaches adopted in APEC to better reach out to the businesses, especially MSMEs.”
The award reinforces two of APEC’s priorities for this year in enhancing inclusive growth and strengthening small businesses through innovation.
Hai Nguyen’s company, Airlala, is a digital matchmaker for customers and products.
MSMEs account for some 97 per cent of all enterprises in APEC and provide more than half of the region’s jobs. The internet is providing new opportunities for them to integrate with global value chains and grow their businesses in ways that create more jobs and stimulate local economies. However many still face significant challenges gaining access to new markets due to limited knowledge, partner networks, and access to finance.
Indonesia’s small and medium enterprises, for example, contribute nearly 60 percent of GDP and represent 97 per cent of total employment, but their share of total exports is only 16 per cent. By comparison, Indonesia’s large firms employ less than 3 per cent of the population, yet produce 84 per cent of total exports.
“We should be focussing more on is small business, which is what most business is around the region. MSMEs must continue to be afforded an environment that enables them to thrive,” said APEC Executive Director Alan Bollard. “We’re pleased to celebrate AirLala, who came up with a very interesting digital application which does exactly that—helping artisan-level buyers and sellers in the region do business online.”
The award comes after APEC held a successful App Challenge earlier this year for digital developers across the region. Eleven teams of developers from nine economies were required to spend two days producing an app or mobile site to help MSMEs overcome one of the many complex and overlapping challenges facing their development.
The challenges identified were understanding and complying with domestic and international standards and regulations, accessing financial services, managing logistics and supply chains, and building partner networks (such as customers and suppliers) and gaining market intelligence.
The teams, including Mr Nguyen’s Airlala, then presented their innovative solutions to judges who chose three winners for cash prizes and assistance in setting them up. The competition was an initiative of The Asia Foundation, the APEC Secretariat, the Ministry of Industry and Trade of Viet Nam and Google.
Mr Nguyen said he was committed to nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship in Viet Nam, partly because of a childhood spent helping his mother sell fresh fruits and encountering so many people “struggling to make ends meet”. He said this background motivates so many young Vietnamese to “study, work hard and dare to start their own business”.
Mr Nguyen also runs a financial services start-up that connects the unbanked to individual investors who provide funds for education, medical expenses or starting a micro business or entrepreneurship. The social-lending platform, called LoanVi, helps the unbanked gain safe and secure funding for their enterprises, and avoid having to approach unscrupulous loan sharks.
“Financing is a huge issue for MSMEs especially in frontier markets like Vietnam,” he said, adding that there were millions of such businesses in his country alone.