How Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of digitalisation

Increased connectivity amid the pandemic has created new business opportunities for entrepreneurs

Five young people running their coding startup company. Working from the house like business incubator. Sitting and collaborating. Using their laptops for coding. Selective focus to young man with glasses talking to his coworker. Shot with Canon EOS 5Ds. Getty Images
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We are at the threshold of an exciting era for entrepreneurs. In a way, it reminds me of the feeling I had many years ago as a 100 meter sprinter; one knee down; fingers behind the line; feet in the starting blocks – anticipating the sound of that gunshot that marked the start of a race. The acceleration of digital technologies due to Covid-19 has also initiated a great race towards new opportunities that entrepreneurs are busy scoping out right now– their feet are in the starting blocks. We need to help them succeed but they must also help themselves.

The old adage “Go West young man” has been replaced by “Go Digital young lady". The pandemic has allowed the internet to invade all aspects of our lives including shopping, schooling and working – even our concerts have gone virtual now. The digital bug has followed the same path as the virus – it’s everywhere. It doesn’t make you cough but it has changed our consumption habits. We no longer need to fill up our shopping cart with heaps of toilet paper rolls and our Grandmas have stopped dragging heavy bags of potatoes or laundry detergent to their homes. It’s all delivered to the doorstep – so why go back?

Those that were already e-commerce businesses gained an unquestionable advantage during the pandemic. They had foresight.  Others had to 'pivot' to survive and rapidly put in place an online presence and strategy. They had agility. Some have been caught off guard. They are in trouble.

These laggards have no choice but to fast track their digital plans, according to Linda Rottenberg, founder of Endeavor, an organisation that has helped 2,000 entrepreneurs around the world since 1987. Fadi Ghandour, founder of Aramex and Wamda Capital, echoes Ms Rottenberg's sentiment as he remarked at a recent World Government Summit webinar that “the fourth industrial revolution everybody talks about is suddenly sitting in our laps because of Covid-19".

The pandemic has also increased the relevance of the digital doctor in our lives. Altibbi in Jordan and Vezeeta in Egypt have built robust digital health platforms that serve as a gateway to health information for millions in the Arab world. Altibbi’s Covid-19 hotline connected 250,000 callers to 116 participating doctors (often working 20 hours a day) who answered questions and cleared doubts about the virus.

This shows us that social engagement is not the preserve of large multinationals but has also become a “must do” for entrepreneurs. Stay close to your stakeholders and help them navigate through these difficult times and you will grow a loyal base of customers who will not forget you when the recovery comes.

And what about governments? There is no question that they must take pole position in nurturing entrepreneurial ecosystems in these difficult times. There are many steps that the governments can take including providing direct salary support, rent and tax reductions and anything that can help preserve cash flow for businesses. Doing this is not a cost, but as Fadi Ghandour says, “It’s an investment in strengthening the economic fabric of our societies”, and the payback will be massive, notably in terms of employment.

Meanwhile, long global supply chains will be shortened due to the Covid-19 bug, providing entrepreneurs and SMEs with new market opportunities within their national and regional boundaries. The economic activity and employment that this can generate is worthy of government support - eyes closed.

It is well known that SMEs and entrepreneurs create more jobs than governments or large businesses. Recent research suggests that there are 600 million entrepreneurs in the world, meaning that one in 13 people are running their own business. Entrepreneurs are everywhere around us. We buy their services and goods several times a day, from getting a haircut to repairing our iPhone screens.

Scientists are warning us, quite properly, that we are only at “the end of the beginning” of living with Covid-19. There is still much uncertainty ahead and many difficult times we will need to overcome. After the Second World War, the international community came together to usher in a new era of growth and progress. Today, we seem to be lacking the spirit of cooperation needed to grease the wheels of our global humanity and put us onto the right path.

But the good news is that there is a global community of entrepreneurial minds and souls embarking on a race to help us built a better future. That is a positive force we need today more than ever. Let’s all help them succeed.

Frederic Sicre is Executive Advisor, Prime Minister Office & Former Managing Director of the World Economic Forum.