Digital Trade Dialogues: Bolivia
 
eTrade Alliance Bolivia Policy Dialogue

Click here for the recording of the Dialogue

By Maria Redini

 

The Bolivian eCommerce Association (ABCe), eCommerce Institute and USAID’s Alliance for eTrade Development II (“eTrade Alliance”) held their first Bolivian Digital Trade Dialogue on February 18th, 2022, to discuss ongoing efforts to enable Bolivian business to engage in digital trade, and develop potential pilot ideas to advance ecommerce development. Panels discussed 1) proposals to advance MSMEs digital inclusion, 2) emerging best practices to develop MSMEs’ ecommerce capabilities for the promotion of sales and exports, with a focus on Women-owned SMEs (WSMEs) and rural enterprises, 3) Secure and interoperable digital payments for ecommerce and MSMEs, and 4) Local, regional and global best practices for the development of laws and policies that enable MSME ecommerce.

 

Steve Hendrix, USAID Senior Advisor, South American Affairs at the US Embassy La Paz, delivered the opening remarks. He underscored that this dialogue focused on exploring domestic and international solutions to support MSMEs in their digital journeys is very timely, given that we are seeing exponential growth in ecommerce exports since 2020, which are expected to reach $3 billion by 2025. He expressed his particular interest in catalyzing fintech, and promoting an open, secure and interoperable internet.

 

Following Mr. Hendrix’s remarks, Dennis Velasco, ABCe’s President, expressed his interest in the exchange of views and ideas on how to improve the Bolivian ecosystem and enabling environment for ecommerce, increase the country’s skills and services to cater to international clientele. He was followed by Marcos Pueyrredon, President of the eCommerce Institute, who emphasized that the dialogue convenes voices from different sectors to find solutions, improve human talent, share best practices and create economic and social impact. He compelled the audience to use everything in their power to help MSMEs access new markets and digital opportunities, particularly drawing from experiences in the Latin America region, as MSMEs are a huge share of the economy and the key to creating economic and social impact.

 

Kati Suominen, the Founder and CEO of Nextrade Group and the Technical Director of the eTrade Alliance, presented the eTrade Alliance’s role as a public-private partnership aimed to enable developing country MSMEs to engage in trade, and discussed the state of MSME ecommerce in Bolivia and Latin America.

 

Pablo Figueroa, ABCe’s Director of Digital Commerce underscored that Bolivia’s advancement is very slow -marketplaces have not been successful in Bolivia, there isn’t open access data that would enable data-driven decision-making, and private sector has not come to terms with the reality that digital transformation is the ‘new normal’ rather than a fashion or a trend. He proposed as priorities: 1) making data accessible and 2) working with companies that can invest, and with actors – like the eCommerce Institute and the eTrade Alliance – that can educate.

 

Panel 1: Proposals to advance MSMEs digital inclusion

 

Panel one, moderated by Suominen, explored best practice proposals to advance MSME digital inclusion. The panel outlined policies and solutions to help MSMEs narrow down well-known gaps such as logistics, capacities to trade electronically, and access to the internet, that are curtailing the inclusion of women and rural SMEs in global markets.

 

Mariano Cabrera Lanfranconi, Co-founder & CMO Grupo Hemisferico, presented tllave.com, a turnkey solution that allows a MSME to rent an online low-cost store, enabled with epayment and a logistics platform. This solution is looking for investments to bring the solution to scale. Alvaro Guzman, Connaxis’ CEO, presented the digital portal that Connaxis built in Paraguay; he proposed a decentralized model of payments and simplified invoicing, to enabling MSMEs that work in decentralized economies (i.e. economies with high degrees of informality), to participate in ecommerce.

 

Paola Monasterio, from Manos Obreras, highlighted how devastating the pandemic was for the handcrafting sector, as quarantines and travel restrictions greatly impacted their traditional offline retail channels. Manos Obreras is an online handicrafts store, active in national and international markets; it offers a solution for ‘bottom of the pyramid’ producers, who do not possess the resources to develop their own websites. The two most prominent challenges that Manos Obreras has faced are high transaction costs of foreign e-payments and high international shipment costs.

 

Carlos Corominas from Visa shared insights about VISA’s free financial and business education platforms -designed in short modules that entrepreneurs can easily fit into their schedules. He concluded that the pandemic incentivized transformations, and lowered costs of tools; there has been progress, but there is a long road ahead.

 

Panel 2: Developing MSMEs’ ecommerce capabilities, and promotion of sales and exports: Emerging best practices, especially to promote ecommerce by women-led MSMEs and rural enterprises

 

Sofia Perez, the Vice President of the Bolivian E-Commerce Association (ABCe) moderated the panel, underscoring that MSME ecommerce relies on multiple competencies, and that the challenge for Bolivia MSMEs is to become more collaborative, and strengthen relationships to offer better service clients. There is no one actor that can do it all, this is why actors support alliances that benefit MSME growth.

 

Maria Luisa Boyce, Vice President at UPS, gave an overview of UPS’s Program for Women Exporters -a program that aims to enable women’s participation in international commerce by offering training on access to markets and regulations.

 

Marlene Salinas Duran, the President of the Bolivian Chamber of Businesswomen and Female Entrepreneurs in Chuquisaca, and President of Chuquisaca’s Chamber of Information and Communication Technology, underscored that the chamber serves a very vulnerable group – women who created an enterprise out of need. The Chamber underwent a digital transformation in the last year, that looked to be empowering and support a digital culture. To advance further, Salinas Duran called for a law that makes technological infrastructure more democratic; more resources for entrepreneurs, so that they can better use the tools available to them, such as WhatsApp. She highlighted that IADB is proposing to launch a marketplace that will generate information to help businesses find partners. She called for three public policies to promote MSME ecommerce: 1) eCommerce Law; 2) incubation of women-led tech-based entrepreneurs; 3) creation of complex scenarios – digital marketplaces for MSMEs connected with national and international consumers.

 

Erica Libertelli described the eCommerce Institute's efforts to take a gender approach. She shared best practices for the design of MSME training offerings -i.e. segmenting training by MSME maturity and sectors; allowing learning and application simultaneously; combining ecommerce to access to finance education. Partnering with private sector to generate opportunities for female leadership in digital ecommerce, particularly in decision-making roles, is also an important strategy. In closing, she invited participants to the eCommerce Day Bolivia, scheduled on July 20.

 

Lorenzo Catala, Manager of Strategic Planning and Finance, Bolivia’s National Chamber of Commerce (CNC – Bolivia) and Manager of National ECommerce Company highlighted the chamber’s MSME digitization plan, launched at the end of 2020, that led to the launch of 10,500 pages for MSMEs. He shared several success stories including a jeans manufacturer now exporting jeans to the Netherlands; a restaurant that was able to dramatically reduce operational costs, and expand the business using a franchise business model by processing sales online; and a flower shop that transformed its development model by creating a website. These stories illustrate that there are opportunities ahead, but in all instances logistics has remained a persistent bottleneck.

 

Panel 3: Secure and Interoperable Digital Payments for ecommerce and MSMEs

 

Denis Velasco moderated this panel. Jorge Kuljis, Sintesis SA made the case for regulatory simplification to lower the costs and simplify epayments in Bolivia; he argued that the regimen of certificates were designed for the non-rural and formal environment and it is too expensive to sellers processing multiple low value payments. Evelin Mercado, Linkser’s Regional Manager, focused on user experience, and underscored that platforms should be more transparent about their policies (governing returns, complaints, etc.).

 

Mariela Baldivieso, National Congresswoman and Representative, offered insights about her efforts to revise Res 069/2021 to enable global payment gateways to enter Bolivia. She is working with the UNDP and the US Embassy to encourage PayPal to open operations in Bolivia. The Chilean case – that highlights the increase in exports associated with ecommerce- has helped her make the case for more flexible regulations. While having a market of Bolivian payment gateways is important, there is still a need for international gateways to be able to access global and international markets (i.e. there are TikTok and Youtube entrepreneurs).

 

Felipe Rincon, Mastercard Vice President for Latin American Public Affairs expressed optimism about the opportunities to level up Bolivia payment standards. To accelerate e-payment options in Bolivia he recommended approaching e-payment systems from a competitive standpoint that elevates consumer preferences; this will enable creative solutions and innovations that are tailored to improve the end user experience. He also recommended looking at Bolivian payment regulations.

 

Panel 4: Digital Policies and Laws for MSMES – Local, Regional, and Global Best Practices

 

Marcos Pueyrredon, President of the eCommerce Institute, moderated the fourth panel. He highlighted that today’s lively debate shows the diversity of viewpoints in our ecosystem, and the necessity of having dialogues like today’s. He posited that the pandemic presents an opportunity to experiment with strategies to use ecommerce as a business resilience strategy, making ecommerce more accessible.

 

Suominen highlighted the rapid expansion of ecommerce regulation; the mapping that the eTrade Alliance has done in 52 countries, including Bolivia, shows that Brazil, Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia are regional leaders; she observed two trends among successful countries – public private partnerships and multi-agency processes to promote ecommerce – and highlighted Ecommerce Plans in Costa Rica and Panama, that Nextrade facilitated and could be a good example to follow in Bolivia; they hosted working groups of 10 people that addressed different pillars of ecommerce; worked with Ministers of ITC, MSME agencies, private partners, etc.

 

The draft National Plan to ecommerce was refined through workshops and a virtual voting process. The resulting plan included strategies, goals for each area, actions, actors and KPIs. Ian Miranda, CAINCO’s Chief of Sectoral Research highlighted that CAINCO hosted a “Junta Empresarial” of twenty business leaders that advocate for ecommerce. These leaders’ chief concern is that there isn’t an Ecommerce Law; the Bolivian Law, according to the UNDP, does not address key ecommerce topics, such as data flows and localization; does not define data and security crimes/IT; and lacks regulation and standards recognized by Mercosur and other bodies. 

 

In closing the panel, Mauricio Torrelio from the Bolivian Chamber of Commerce, expressed his agreement with other panelists. He outlined a series of burdensome regulations including inflexible invoicing (same rules apply to large and small businesses), excessive labor regulations, finance regulations introduced by law in 2008 that have been hard to operationalize, product regulations, and a number of other regulations have turned ecommerce into an obscure minefield. Much of the responsibility falls on the MSME, to comply with regulations that are hard to understand, which disincentivizes and increases the cost of going online.

Closing Remarks:

 

Suominen expressed hope that the dialogue contributes to strengthening policies and that more public-private collaboration stems from this initial interaction, as we have seen in other countries. Her number one wish for the region’s future in ecommerce is a more robust ecommerce and technology talent pipeline.

 

Pueyrredon highlighted that co-creation of solutions is key; he will circulate the document with participants to move this collaboration forward; we have great examples in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico; and in spite of all the challenges we face, if there is public-private dialogue and we continue to build the talent base, the challenges ahead are surmountable.

 

Velasco called for the creation of an Ecommerce Law; the creation of government incentives to support MSMEs engagement in ecommerce; the development of ecommerce skills; and a need to accelerate MSMEs access to banking services.