How bridging the ‘digital gap’ can usher in a brighter economy

Isabel Salvosa
Why it’s everyone’s business to bridge the gap and embrace digital

MANILA, Philippines – Recently, analyst firm IDC announced key trends for the Philippine ICT industry for 2017 and beyond. In the statement, IDC said that it sees digital transformation (DX) achieving large scale over the next three or four years, ushering the age of what is called the “DX Economy.”

While technology has evolved by leaps and bounds in recent years, it has yet to become truly inclusive, especially in emerging markets like the Philippines.

For a country touted as one the fastest-growing markets for mobile phones, only 30% of Filipinos own smartphones. Among those who own devices, 54% don’t have Internet access on a regular basis, according to WeAreSocial.

How do these factors affect the nation?

Lack of access hinders the learning process for students. Applicants who aren’t digital-savvy are considered less qualified by companies. Businesses that don’t have adequate digital presence can be left behind quickly in an increasingly global economy. 

There is a digital divide – not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to all the opportunities technology offers, or aware as to how to maximize its full potential.

Much needs to be done on the key areas and basic drivers of the digital economy such as Internet access, digital commerce, and digital financial services.

The digital gap  it’s complicated

Locating the gap in digital access is more complex than looking at the haves and the have-nots.

It manifests easily at the bottom of the economic pyramid – among Filipinos who are focused on making enough money to feed their brood, leaving little room for spending on other expenses, including technology.

But the digital divide is also felt by the middle to upper classes – the digital-savvy millennials, BPO workers, urban professionals, and blue-collar workers

They need digital services and to varying degrees are already familiar with and willing to pay for it. They may have better access to technology, but because of various circumstances, are unable to maximize it.

Even small- to medium-sized businesses have a lot of catching up to do to fully maximize the power of digital.

According to Google Philippines, 90% of small, medium, and large enterprises have no digital presence at all. Without personalized marketing, they cannot tap into the needs of potential customers, some of whom aren’t smartphone users.

Add to this the fact that only a fraction of the population owns a credit card – the principal means of unlocking services such as online shopping, transportation and travel apps, subscriptions, premium information, and entertainment on demand.

The small base of credit card owners isn’t good for e-commerce – a lot of online shops don’t accept cash on delivery.

It also doesn’t help that 86% of Filipinos don’t even have bank accounts, based on available figures from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Without access to things as loans and retail credit, potential business owners can’t acquire capital or invest on advanced education.

Technology is supposed to cater to all, connect people, and bridge gaps for an empowered economy, but it can’t do so until it addresses the market’s needs.

The goal is to harness it to have each Filipino feel the benefits of the country’s economic advancements.

Inclusive tech for a brighter future

The government, along with the private sector, is in the process of implementing programs and initiatives for a more connected country.

Free Wi-Fi in public areas is in the works, courtesy of the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). They also plan to decentralize ICT growth from Metro Manila by setting up operations in other parts of the Philippines. With the Philippine Startup Challenge, students are encouraged to found their own start-ups and businesses.

The private sector can do its part by making digital resources more inclusive. It’s the key to making Filipinos, as well as Filipino-run business, more globally competitive.

“It all starts with solving pain points and how technology-powered solutions can enable the unserved and underserved to participate in the mainstream economy and society,” says Orlando Vea, President and CEO of Voyager Innovations and PayMaya Philippines.

PayMaya allows anyone with a Philippine mobile number to have an instant virtual Visa or Mastercard which can immediately be used for online purchases. Voyager is the digital innovations arm of PLDT and Smart.

With its suite of apps, Voyager envisions a mobile and digital economy where everyone can participate.

Take Freenet which enables those without Internet access to browse online for free, and Powerapp which allows telcos to dispense bite-sized data packages that give on-demand access to those previously unable to afford it.

The company also aims to make the country more financially inclusive through quick and easy-to-use financial technology platforms. One can apply for loans via text through Mobile Loan Saver and PeraAgad or check out loans offered by banks and other financial institutions via Lendr.

Both the government and NGOs can also make use of apps to provide better service to their constituents and beneficiaries. For example, PayMaya Philippines teamed up with Oxfam, an international organization which aims to eradicate global poverty. Their collaborative program aims to educate typhoon victims in Tacloban about financial literacy and the benefits of using mobile money, with the hope of making them self-reliant and financially stable in the future.

And then there is Smart Padala which powers a very important lifeline for Filipinos – money remittances.

To reach a wider audience, businesses can set up their e-commerce presence through online store builder Tackthis!, online marketplace Takatack, and the Voyager E-Commerce Marketplace which lends itself to white-labeling by larger multi-merchant stores.

Entrepreneurs can further up their game by improving their digital marketing efforts.

Voyager also houses Hatch, an adtech unit that enables businesses to reach a wide demographic, regardless of their mobile device. Meanwhile “growth hackers” at VYGR push advanced digital marketing solutions for businesses of any scale. 

“The power of digital in the Philippines and beyond can only be truly harnessed if everyone has equal access to opportunities,” Vea concluded. – Rappler.com

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