Building Bridges Digitally

Challenges and Chances of e-Commerce in South Asia
Challenges and Chances of e-Commerce in South Asia

Promoting e-Commerce is a central theme of the programs of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) in South Asia. “Building Bridges Digitally – e-Commerce and its potentials in South Asia” was the title of a two days conference in Colombo organized by our partners SAARC Chambers of Commerce and Industry (SCCI).

“We wish to explore the potential of overcoming the hurdles for doing business in South Asia that exist in the analogue world in the world of online transactions”, said Dr. Ronald Meinardus, FNF’s Regional Director at the opening.

e-Commerce entrepreneurs and experts from the SAARC countries gave an overview of the state of online business in their respective nations and discussed the chances and challenges of e-Commerce in South Asia.

While brands like Flipkart, Snapdeal and Ola symbolize the booming digital economy of India, the state of e-Commerce in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and the Maldives is far less reported. Also there, the discussions in Colombo showed, more and more business is moving online seeking markets and opportunities also beyond the borders.

Surge of Startups

“There is a surge of startups in Pakistan and many of them are operating online”, said Shahid Mir from Islamabad.  “We can learn a lot from giants like Amazon, but we should also learn from our own success stories in South Asia”, said Nawaz Rajabdeen from Afghanistan.

In the end, the participants set up a working group tasked to coordinate future initiatives aimed at establishing a platform to discuss intra-regional e-Commerce in the SAARC region.

Many of the participants of the SCCI event had arrived in Colombo a day earlier to join a workshop organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) that dealt with a regional study on e-Commerce. This was the second phase of a multi-year project supported by the Regional Office (FNF) that aims at documenting the state of e-Commerce in all the SAARC member countries and developing a policy framework for promoting online trade in the region.

Specialists presented country reports and outlined the readiness for e-Commerce of their respective economies. They highlighted regulatory and policy gaps and presented recommendations to bridge these gaps. The synergistic relationship between the SCCI and CII events lent a unique flavour to the three days through which entrepreneurs gained a deeper understanding of the macro challenges that exist and policy makers got an insight into the grassroots issues.

“SAARC is the least-integrated region in the world with only five percent of the regional trade happening within the region”, said Shiran Fernando, Chief Economist of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. e-Commerce should and could change that state of affairs, he suggested.

Comments and anecdotes by e-Commerce entrepreneurs added a special flavour to the academic nature of the report presentations. “This contextualizes the findings of the report to the real-world challenges faced by entrepreneurs in daily business”, said FNF Program Manager Digital Transformation Rajat Kumar.

Some of the common challenges highlighted include the lack of adequate skills, the absence of an accepted payment system, cybercrimes and consumer protection as well as taxation issues to name but the most important.

With a better understanding of the challenges faced by their neighbours, the report writers and entrepreneurs left Colombo with a positive outlook to overcome the physical and political borders in the region through e-Commerce.