Empowering Entrepreneurs in Emerging Economies
In my work as a business development services (BDS) provider I’ve seen thing or two. I wish I could unsee the fact that we’re doing a lousy job of supporting entrepreneurs in low income countries.
If the road to hell is lined with good intentions, we’ve certainly paved the way. We offer up seed money, loan guarantees, small grants, and microloans, for which most don’t qualify. We provide technical support and market development. We try to create business-enabling environments and increase exports. These are certainly not bad things; in fact, we need all of them. But if startups and small enterprises don’t know how to manage their businesses, what good is all the other stuff?
And we do training. Lots of business skills training. While helpful in some cases, isolated workshops and training sessions don’t generally produce meaningful business outcomes because constructive business support isn’t a one-time intervention. In my experience, a few weeks or months in-country trying to serve too many entrepreneurs in too short a time has little effect, other than meeting self-serving organizational metrics that care more about numbers than true impact.
What microenterprises in emerging economies really need is ongoing management support and real-world learning in the context of their own businesses. It must be personalized. It should be gentle, patient, and simple. Handing them a business plan and leaving the country doesn’t cut it.
A Profusion of Problems
I just read a job listing for an SME project that is virtually identical to one I worked on, in the same country, nearly 20 years ago. I can only hope they get it right this time.
There are, of course, many implementation challenges. Small business development is often an add-on or a tiny component of broader aid projects. Insufficient resources are allocated for it. The criticality of business management skills is not recognized or fully understood. Donors want scale so they can “show” that they reached many businesses. Private sector business expertise in execution is missing or underutilized. Working with individual entrepreneurs is effective but time intensive, and often not feasible. Such is the reality of MSME support in development contexts.
Finding a New Way: ESchool
With internet access spreading rapidly across the developing world, a new and more potent method of SME support is possible. It doesn’t involve AI or fancy algorithms; it’s simple, practical, cost effective, and innovative.
We’ve developed a web-based business support methodology that features personalized entrepreneur coaching. It’s called EFour ESchool. Think B-School -- for entrepreneurs.
We coach microenterprises remotely via an online platform. That means we can support businesses over the course of weeks or months, whatever timeframe is appropriate. Weekly hourlong sessions in small groups of four business owners provides face-to-face interaction with the coach, as well as peer-to-peer learning. It also means that entrepreneurs can easily fit the program into their busy lives without taking them away from their businesses.
The course is structured is to provide an assignment each week. Participants do the homework at their conveneince, and then we review/discuss completed work on the live sessions. Entrepreneurs get direct feedback and advice on their work from the coach, but all participants can benefit. Sessions are recorded in case they are missed or if further review of course material is desired.
ESchool programs concentrate on the areas that most entrepreneurs struggle with: financials, marketing, and business plans. Custom programs are available upon request to expand on topics and meet specific project parameters.
Putting Technology to Work
In addition to personal coaching, we utilize technical tools to make it easy for MSMEs. Our entry-level ECoaching program employs easy-to-follow worksheets and a financial spreadsheet that automatically calculates cash flow, the bugaboo for almost all entrepreneurs. For more advanced businesses, our proprietary cloud-based Lean Projections software is used in our EFinancials and EPlan business plan programs. Lean Projections makes easy work of financial record keeping, automatically generating cash flow statements, balance sheets, and income statements from simple bookkeeping entries.
What’s in it for Donors and Implementing Organizations?
The International Development industry has been calling for innovation and creative use of technology in SME support and other areas. ESchool offers both.
The methodology saves both costs and time. No travel, travel costs, or per diems for coaches, project supervisors, or entrepreneurs. Big savings right there. Additionally, working in groups of four allows for bespoke entrepreneurial support at a fraction of the price of one-on-one coaching. Entrepreneurs also get access to the senior-level international business expertise of our coaches. The cost savings can be used to support additional entrepreneurs or for other purposes.
We understand that some circumstances require in-person, on-the-ground contact. We’ve been there and we get it; sometimes there’s no substitute for site visits, personal or group meetings, etc. We’re available for in-country work and initial visits, either to kick off remote programs or deliver the work the traditional way.
Remember when business video conferencing was introduced? Many poo-pooed it as no substitute for a handshake or a lunch meeting. Perhaps. But how many remote meetings, webinars, trainings, and online summits have taken place around the globe since then? The internet makes live contact possible when in-person meetings aren’t feasible or cost effective. We meet each other on screen, and it’s a pretty good alternative.
Does remote coaching really work? In a word, yes. Of course, success depends on the skills of the coaches and the selection of serious, diligent, ambitious entrepreneurs. In our testing, entrepreneurs appreciated the simplicity and effectiveness of our tools, the handholding through difficult business concepts, the personalized feedback on their business situations, and the responsiveness to their questions. They feel proud when they complete the courses.
Is your organization ready to do things differently? Check out efourenterprises.com for more info, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call/message WhatsApp +1 973 801 4582.