Lessons learnt from the Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund
The GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund was launched in 2016 in order to provide selected start-ups in Africa and Asia-Pacific with grant funding, technical assistance, and the opportunity to partner with mobile operators in order to scale their products and services into sustainable businesses with positive socio-economic impact.
The Ecosystem Accelerator programme has built a portfolio of 34 start-ups across Asia Pacific and Africa. Collectively, these companies have raised an additional £188 million in funding as of May 2020, representing nearly 30 times the amount the programme has disbursed to these ventures. The 34 projects have had a positive socio-economic impact on over 6.3 million citizens.
For the third round of the Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund, launched in December 2018, the Australian Government joined our founding partner DFID to provide additional funding to start-ups. The representation of diverse ecosystems demonstrates that the case for collaboration with mobile operators is not just an option for start-ups in more established ecosystems such as Indonesia, but it can also become a reality in Samoa. The range of sectors represented within the portfolio is also expanding, with new challenges such as citizen engagement being tackled by the newcomers. For lessons learnt from the second Innovation Fund, see the first blog in this series.
Promisingly, the percentage of start-ups with women co-founders who applied to this round of the Innovation Fund increased from 13 per cent in Round 1 to more than 44 per cent in Round 3. Also, 85 per cent of Round 3’s top 200 start-ups had women in their management teams, exceeding Round 2’s 71 per cent. While there has been an increased effort through our outreach strategy to encourage more women-led start-ups to apply to our Innovation Fund, this increase could also be a reflection of a positively evolving landscape in the Asia Pacific and Africa tech ecosystems.
Meet the start-ups
- Greenovator (Myanmar) – Digital marketplace for agricultural inputs and outputs (partnered with Telenor), influencing SDGs 1 and 2;
- ODoc (Sri Lanka) – Mobile-based telemedicine services for low-income earners (partnered with Telekom Mobitel), influencing SDGs 3 and 10;
- Qlue (Indonesia) – Civic engagement app for users to report or share their neighbourhood conditions with city officials or businesses (partnered with Telkomsel) influencing SDGs 11 and 16; and
- SkyEye (Samoa) – Localisation and mapping solution for transportation services (partnership with Digicel and Vodafone Samoa), influencing SDGs 8 and 11.
In this blog, we share four lessons from Round 3 of the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator Innovation Fund across Asia Pacific, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Samoa.
1. Develop a relationship with local government
Having the right partner is crucial for driving the adoption of digital solutions. Greenovator found that frequent stakeholders visits were required to fully understand customer requirements for its digital agricultural marketplace. The agritech start-up revealed it might have had better outcomes if the team had established meetings with agri-chemical companies much earlier, as these entities play an important role in supplying quality-assured agricultural inputs in Myanmar. Joining with their Department of Agriculture in several Agricultural Mobile Clinic trips strengthened their relationship with the department, as well as with input shops and farmers. This further strengthened the marketplace’s brand and user trust.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown, oDoc was optimistic that regulations would improve as the Sri Lankan government aimed to advance digitalisation of health services. The start-up hoped that this would result in quicker adoption of its telemedicine health service in cities and towns. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, oDoc has partnered with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health to provide telemedicine services to fight COVID-19 outbreak. oDoc’s platform has since been declared as the national telemedicine platform by the Ministry.
A working relationship with the Indonesian government is at the core of Qlue’s civic engagement business model. The civic technology start-up found that the user uptake is highly dependent on how quickly the government adapts to Qlue’s services. Government delays made the start-up restructure the timeline of the project to take into consideration government engagement, which is likely to take longer in most cases. An added challenge when engaging with the government is trying to maintain impartiality. The team at Qlue found it difficult to strike the right balance in working with certain political parties while remaining neutral. Achieving a political balance is critical given that their products and services are non-partisan and open to all governments, no matter their political affiliations.
SkyEye’s e-commerce app Maua partnered with Samoan government ministries to unlock value for their users. This partnership generated significant goodwill towards the brand and resulted in high user registration. Maua can enhance the government’s data on economics with more detail on informal markets which forms a significant portion of the economy, but remains unaccounted for in government statistics. Thus, convincing the local government of their digital platform’s importance to local communities helped them forge a strategic partnership that contributed to their success. Further partnerships with grassroots organisations such as the Women in Business Development Incorporation (WIBDI), NOLA (an advocacy group for people with disabilities), and media publications enabled Maua to position itself as a platform to help Samoans realise the benefits of a digital economy.
2. Educate users and foster behavioural change
It can be challenging to help rural communities understand how digital services might improve their lives. Initially, early adopters might be the only people who see the value of an app. Greenovator saw its first registered users as pioneers who could see the potential of the platform. As most traders hadn’t realised the value of transparently pricing products through the platform, Greenovator demonstrated that transparency attracts more customers, ultimately leading to higher revenues. The start-up found that educating users who were new to online payments was an enormous task. Digital and financial literacy played a critical role in onboarding rural users, so they required innovative approaches to user acquisition that focused on education. They changed their strategy, targeting young people to lead their informal digital literacy and digital farming initiatives. This is also where the role of mobile agents came into play. Most rural farmers were unable to make transactions on the app without support from a mobile agent. Therefore, the Greenovator team collaborated with mobile money companies in selecting key villages to have more agents. These strategies helped the start-up grow their number of users to 202,584.
Qlue’s civic engagement dashboard is used by several cities in Indonesia, but most of them only became interested in this service once Qlue gained their trust by demonstrating the success of their technology and business model. Their dashboard helps cities to direct efforts to precisely where it is needed, thereby bringing efficiency and cost saving for the cities’ government departments. Qlue provided bespoke schemes for small cities with subscription costs that were adjusted according to each city’s annual budget requirements. Without this customised strategy, smaller cities would not be able to afford smart city services. Smaller cities usually started with a basic dashboard and graduated to other add-ons over time. The challenge with different cities was not just about size – Qlue learnt that success in the capital city, Jakarta, did not guarantee successful replication in other metropolitan cities. Governments in other regions were found to have more bureaucratic structures to navigate, different social norms and values, as well as low levels of internet and technology penetration.
In Samoa, SkyEye discovered that vendors were hesitant to go cashless and receive payments in mobile money, as it could not immediately be used to pay their staff and daily operational costs. The team therefore worked hard to identify small businesses that would be early adopters of their digital platform. The start-up also found that low digital literacy and poor knowledge of mobile money hampered their app’s effort to attract users. Facing low digital literacy, limited bank accounts, low credit card usage and a cash-based society, it was challenging to move to digital transactions such as mobile money. TV adverts, print media, support from partner organisations, as well as offline and online promotions all supported onboarding new customers. However, for a thriving user base and consistent usage, personal hand-holding by the team was a vital step. This applied to both vendors and buyers. The goal was to create successful user models for others to emulate on the vendors side, whilst creating opportunities and incentives for buyers to buy on the app. The WIBDI Virtual market brought a fair measure of success as well as it provided all stakeholders proof of concept.
3. Encourage women to use your service
In Myanmar, Greenovator found that social norms and privacy concerns still play a big role in bringing women users online. Even though many of the app’s users are women, not many of them registered using their own names. They prefer to register under their husband’s or another male family member’s name to avoid privacy concerns, such as harassment. Therefore, while it is important to encourage women to use a mobile product, it should be done so while respecting socio-cultural norms and protecting their right to privacy.
Initially, 30 per cent of SkyEye’s Maua vendors were male; by Jan 2020, that increased to 48 per cent. To increase uptake by women, they partnered with women’s village committees and appointed Maua Ambassadors to encourage more women to restructure their routine to produce pre-ordered products and sell from home. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Maua has provided users with a viable platform where they can source paying customers at no charge. SkyEye has invested more resources in training women to develop and fine-tune their product offering, encouraging women to check their app regularly to not miss out on economic opportunities. Female users reported using the increased income from Maua to pay for essential costs such as electricity and school fees.
4. Cultivate your MNO partnership
Finally, while it takes time and effort to obtain and manage a relationship with an MNO, it can reap many benefits. At the beginning of their project, Greenovator signed a partnership agreement with Telenor’s Wave Money and subsequently integrated the MNO’s payment option into their platform. Greenovator leveraged Telenor’s connectivity to provide a Wi-Fi box at retail locations for farmers to download and use their app. In addition, they integrated with Telenor’s SMS API to support the user registration process. By partnering with mobile operators, the team was able to expand their geographical coverage and enable rural farmers to transact via electronic payment channels.
In Sri Lanka, oDoc deepened their relationship with Mobitel to open carrier billing and integrate with Mobitel’s e-Channelling app for users to access oDoc health services. They managed to build a strong partnership with the MNO which allowed them to use the Mobitel platform for upselling oDoc services. Similarly, oDoc created a strong partnership with Dialog which helped oDoc users to pay for their consultation fee using Dialog airtime.
Qlue has forged partnerships with MDI Ventures (a venture capital initiative by Telkom Indonesia), as well as with Telkomsel and Indosat Ooredoo. These alliances have helped Qlue to grow its brand image and legitimacy by associating itself with stronger Indonesian brands such as Telkomsel. However, they believe that aligning with the overall strategy of MNOs from the beginning of the relationship would have helped to strengthen the partnership. A strategic collaboration with mobile operators, BlueSky and Digicel, meant that the Maua app was promoted through text messages to network subscribers in Samoa. By partnering with MNOs, SkyEye became the first case of e-commerce integration to their mobile money platformand it enabled them to leverage on their user base and marketing channels. SkyEye also learnt that their offering was the first case of e-commerce integration with their mobile money platform and it allowed them to leverage on their user base and marketing channels.
The Ecosystem Accelerator programme is supported by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the Australian Government, the GSMA and its members.