Over the last few months, we’ve seen many small-medium business owners navigating this unique crisis with strength and creativity, especially those in underserved communities. It’s truly inspiring, but additional support and resources can unlock even more opportunities for them. As part of our economic recovery efforts, Google.org granted US$5.8 million to Youth Business International (YBI) and The Asia Foundation to equip 300,000 small and medium business owners in Asia Pacific with relevant digital skills and training so they can find new ways to engage their customers and pivot their business models.
In recognition of Women Entrepreneurship Day, we wanted to share the stories of four amazing women entrepreneurs, supported by these grants, who are keeping their businesses running through this challenging time.
Lakela, farmer and entrepreneur in Chiang Mai
Like her mum and dad, Lakela became a fruit farmer in her home village of Chiang Mai and grows organic avocados. Despite her business being impacted by COVID-19, Lakela was motivated to pivot her business model and find new ways to sell her produce.
Through the Go Digital ASEAN, The Asia Foundation’s digital skilling program supported by Google.org, Lakela now knows how to find how-to videos on YouTube, where she learns how to grow other fruits and grafting techniques. “Besides rice and avocados, I now grow peaches, mangos, plums, guavas, custard apples, star apples and I’m planning to grow rambutans.”
In addition to using the internet to access new knowledge, she is also exploring the power of brand and storytelling. During her ASEAN training program, she was encouraged to think about naming her avocados to make it more attractive to potential customers. Through this process, her avocados were renamed as the Ping River avocado because her land is located at the beginning of the Ping River. Lakela proudly shared, “there is nowhere else that would have Ping River avocados like mine.”
Morgan Schaafsma, Owner of Open Hands Creative
Morgan comes from a low-income household in Perth and started Open Hands Creative to inspire others to be creative through art workshops. Her business had only been open for 11 months when she was forced to close overnight because of the pandemic. With support from YBI, Morgan was introduced to a business coach from Many Rivers. “My business coach proof-read my proposals and reassured me that I was on the right track. It was uncharted territory, and I needed a bit of guidance and reassurance that I am reacting to a global crisis correctly.”
Together, they developed a structured, online 30-day art challenge that covered basic skills and more complex drawing exercises. They encouraged participants to “pay what you want” instead of charging a flat fee for taking part. To her surprise, this model enabled Morgan to sustain the income she would have earned by doing in-person workshops.
“I feel very positive and excited about the future of my business because there are so many different paths now. I’m now able to employ another employee straight after COVID-19. We’re looking to grow further, and I’ll be hiring more people during 2021.”
Ei Poe Phyu, CEO of Shwe Zee Kwat Food Manufacturing Company
Based in Yangon, Myanmar, Ei Poe Phyu runs Shwe Zee Kwat Food Manufacturing Company, working closely with local farmers to procure quality raw materials to produce organic juices like Aloe Vera and Lemon Honey. Her products have gained popularity in Yangon but Ei Poe Phyu saw how quickly and significantly her income dropped when COVID-19 hit home. “It was hard to sell our products anywhere as we used to participate in physical events and fairs. Even though we sell our products on social media channels, it was not enough.”
Undeterred, Ei Poe Phyu joined The Asia Foundation’s Go Digital ASEAN program to broaden her digital skills to explore new online avenues and find ways to reach new customers. “Technology is important for all businesses. Today, the market we are in has become quite competitive and we cannot move forward with a traditional approach. To operate on an international scale, digital literacy and skills play a vital role.”
In just a few months, Ei Poe Phyu shared how meaningful the ASEAN digital training sessions have been for her and her team. “Small businesses like us have limited knowledge of digital literacy and limited ability to apply technology in our work as we focus our attention on producing goods. But the training through the Asia Foundation has been really beneficial, and we’ve been able to apply some of these learnings in online advertising.” Now, Ei Poe Phyu has set her eyes on exporting and selling her products to regional markets. She sees challenges brought by COVID as opportunities and right time to transform her business with available digital tools. “I’ll be launching my official website and I am currently looking to sell my products in Singapore!”
Maria Korina Bertulfo, Founder of FHMoms
Maria was a struggling mom herself when she decided to launch Filipina Home-based Moms (FHMoms) which helps moms to pursue their passion for entrepreneurship through an online platform that provides training, job opportunities, and other support needed in their journey.
Due to COVID-19, many FHMoms members lost their jobs or clients, and started turning to FHMoms for additional support. While Maria saw a surge in demand for their training services, being a relatively new organization, she felt the pressure to quickly find other solutions to help her community adapt during this trying time. Through YBI and in partnership with QBO Innovation Hub, Maria started attending monthly consultations which gave her a fresh perspective to rethink about her business model and strategy. This led Maria to launch Computer Rent-to-Own Program — an initiative for aspiring freelancers and entrepreneurs to easily rent a computer while making it affordable through installment payments.
When asked what keeps her going, “When you’re working close to your heart, it is a different commitment, perseverance, and dedication you give to it. It is a lot of work, yes. You have to have guts. Always remember that nothing is temporary and if you work hard enough, you will prosper.”