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Expanding customer base a key training priority for Grab merchants in Southeast Asia

The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly accelerated the digitization of economies across the world. As people navigated periods of lockdown and restricted movement, online ride-hailing and delivery platforms, such as Grab, became more central to people’s lives, providing vital access to food and other essentials. Some small businesses, such as restaurants and grocery stores, came to rely on these platforms to continue serving their customers through on-demand deliveries.

However, not all small businesses managed to make this shift to digital. Lack of digital skills, business management know-how, and financial management knowledge left some micro-enterprises unable to compete as the markets in which they participate became more digitized — almost overnight.

Micro- and small enterprises play a vital role in the economies of Southeast Asia — they account for 97% of all businesses in the region and employ 67% of the working population. Therefore, the survival and success of these businesses is vital for propelling inclusive growth in the region.

With this in mind, Grab and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth have teamed up to upskill Grab merchant partners and support them to adapt to an increasingly digital world. This training was designed to address the specific needs of Grab merchants across the six markets in which the company operates: Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. These needs were uncovered through quantitative research with 600 Grab merchants (100 from each market) to understand more about their business profiles, use of digital tools, training priorities, and preferences as well as through in-depth qualitative interviews with more than 80 small merchants in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Most merchants consider platforms, smartphones, and social media as essential to their business.

Generally, the merchants had well-established businesses, with a median business age of 2.7 years and an average of four employees. Most merchants were business owners, and their average age was 36 years. Nearly all merchants surveyed use a smartphone for running their businesses. Additionally, merchants identified commerce platforms, hardware devices, and social media as essential for their businesses.

Compared to other digital tools, a greater proportion of merchants considered software unessential or inconsequential to their businesses, and they reported relatively low uptake of software and apps for business operations. For example, aside from the Grab app, 42% of merchants surveyed rely solely on pen and paper to manage the day-to-day aspects of their businesses. There was some variance between countries. Merchants in the Philippines were more likely to use Excel and Word, while merchants in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand were less likely to use these tools. Across all six countries, the majority of merchants did not use any software or apps to support financial management, inventory management, human resources, website creation, or graphic design (see below).

Most merchants want training on how to reach more customers.

Merchants were asked which business topics they’d like to learn about; marketing, communications, and customer service was the most preferred topic (37%), followed by financial management (21%) and business operations and logistics (13%). Within each of these topic areas, merchants were most interested in expanding their customer base through digital marketing, setting prices and improving profits, and expanding their businesses (see below).

The qualitative in-depth interviews with merchants highlighted similar preferences to the quantitative results. For example, merchants were interested in digital marketing to grow their customer base, financial management and bookkeeping, and business expansion and diversification, among others:

“I have a hard time selling online because I have no knowledge in online marketing and advertising.” — Spices seller (41), Philippines

“I want to learn how to improve my bookkeeping. At this point, I do not know how much profit or loss my business actually achieves. I want to know how to set good prices and also how to make my small restaurant can be listed on online food ordering apps” — Warteg (35–44), Indonesia

“I want to know how to expand my business by opening a new branch.”— Traditional vegetables rice and Uduk seller (34), Indonesia

Merchants rely on peers for business information and prefer learning from live discussions and videos.

In addition to preferred training topics, merchants were asked about their learning preferences and where they currently obtain business knowledge and information. Across all six countries, the most important sources of business information were peers and business people they knew. For example, merchants in the Philippines and Thailand identified networking groups on Facebook and WhatsApp as their most important source of business knowledge. For merchants in Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam, talking to business people they knew, including friends and family, was the most important source of information. Peers can support fellow small business owners by sharing business practices, facilitating new connections, and offering tailored advice.

In the quantitative survey, merchants identified live events and discussions with experts and peer business owners as their preferred formats for learning. Video-based advice from experts and peer business owners was the second most preferred format for learning. Findings from the qualitative in-depth interviews echoed these results, with merchants also preferring a mix of videos and live events and learning from peers. There were also two time periods in the day which were preferred for training: afternoon and late evening (see below).

Designing a training tool kit to meet the needs of small businesses in Southeast Asia

Understanding the training needs and preferences of small businesses is critical for ensuring that any capacity-building program offers guidance and solutions for real-life challenges, knowledge gaps, and priorities that merchants identify. In Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, Strive Community has partnered with three implementation partners — Tumbu Accelerator, Bayan Academy and WISE Vietnam — to develop a small business training tool kit that leverages micro-learning videos, complemented by live webinars and mentoring for engaged learners. Following this needs assessment, our implementation partners recommended a menu of videos covering topics that the merchants as well as ride-hailing and delivery drivers identified. The videos are short and offered in local languages. Using a combination of expert and peer voices, the videos cover topics including digital bookkeeping, cash flow management, and budgeting; setting prices and making a profit; online sales and promotion; digital marketing; customer service; and pivoting and diversifying.

If you’re interested in learning more about the micro-learning videos for merchants in Southeast Asia, or would like to use them to upskill merchants in your network, take a look at what we have available and please get in touch.

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Strive Community is a global philanthropic initiative launched by Caribou Digital and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. The program will equip 5 million small business owners with innovative digital solutions that unleash their potential as catalysts of inclusive growth

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Janet Shulist

Janet Shulist


Insights Manager for Strive Community program, which will empower five million small businesses to survive and grow by going digital.