The impacts of COVID-19 on the economy have deeply affected the business prospects of micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in Thailand. A March 2020 survey of young entrepreneurs across Asia-Pacific found that 88 per cent of the respondents reported experiencing reduced customer demand, one in three reported a major slowdown, and one in four had stopped operations entirely. Nine out of ten reported that COVID-19 had negatively affected their businesses. The survey was conducted by Youth Co:Lab, an initiative of UNDP and Citi Foundation.
It is estimated that, about 40 percent of all adults in Thailand are involved in entrepreneurship in some way, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Thailand, including those running micro or informal businesses.
When it comes to social entrepreneurs (SEs) in Thailand, most are still in the early stages, with little track record and experience. As founders often come from non-business backgrounds and lack the business and management skills required to run enterprises viably and sustainably, many have difficulty balancing business operations with social activism.
Apart from several incubators and accelerators that provide mentoring support, most social entrepreneurs have limited access to quality mentorship, which prevents them from developing needed skills and expertise.
All of the above and more, is why UNDP is leveraging its unique global network to support Thai social entrepreneurs by connecting them with more established counterparts abroad. One of these activities is the Impact Venture Dialogues. Through this initiative, over 100 social entrepreneurs in Asia-Pacific are getting the chance to connect, exchange knowledge, and foster collaborations.
The dialogue series sparked discussions on how disruptions to traditional economic activities, like COVID-19 can drive and create new opportunities for businesses, workers, and consumers alike. These sessions also allowed for an exchange of experiences between fellow social entrepreneurs on how to diversify, adapt and create more inclusive and resilient business models and products.
“Policymakers should give entrepreneurs the space to experiment with their innovative solutions to emerging problems,” said Sanon Wangstrangborn, a social entrepreneur based in Thailand. “This means that removing barriers to entrepreneurial activity should be at the top of the policy agenda”
Across Asia-Pacific, young social entrepreneurs have joined the fight against the pandemic, and in doing so are proving just how innovative and resilient young people can be. Many of the young social entrepreneurs in the Youth Co:Lab’s network are repurposing their operations, skills, and creativity to help their communities respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of its ongoing support to young entrepreneurs, the UNDP, especially through the Youth Co:Lab programme, has provided mentorship support to guide entrepreneurs to adjust their business model during the COVID-19 pandemic, connect them with investors for potential financial support, and provide them with alternative venues to showcase their projects.
Sarocha Tiansri, co-founder of Pa Learn, the Youth Co:Lab 2019 winner, says she’s benefited from the mentoring.
“Prior to COVID-19, we were in the stage of figuring out our target and business model. However, when the pandemic hit, we could not continue the activities as originally planned, she said. “But thanks to UNDP’s mentoring support, we were able to explore alternative options to launch our project to empower children belonging to ethnic groups.”
With UNDP’s technical support, Pa Learn changed their 2020 strategy to facilitating homeschooling in Bangkok, thus keeping children learning through the COVID-19 lockdowns.
True Incube is one of the largest corporate venture capital firms in Thailand that provides financial and business incubation support to young start-ups. Together with True Incube, UNDP opened a special pitching round for young social entrepreneurs who have been affected by COVID-19, as part of the True Startup Challenge 2020.
UNDP guided the social enterprises in the application process and coached them on how to deliver successful pitches to investors. Through this special pitching round, two social enterprises – Prism Chat, a Youth Co:Lab alumni and Jariah – were selected to join the True Startup Challenge 2020 Program, where they will receive further business incubation and grant support from True Incube.
“The pandemic has forced many LGBTQ+ teenagers to stay home in quarantine, often with unsupportive families and without a connection to understanding peers. Fortunately, our website offers a digital safe space for these teenagers to still access peer support,” said Palis Pisuttisarum, co-founder of Prism Chat. Prism was also announced the winner of the Asia Pacific Youth Exchange Online Progamme, a regional Youth Co:Lab springboard initiative.
It is critical to guide young entrepreneurs through this tough business terrain, especially during the pandemic. The key to success starts from providing entrepreneurs with enough knowledge to build their own business model and giving them access to funding. A strong ecosystem is needed to support them.
Social entrepreneurs are critical to UNDP’s response to and recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. They complement market and government actions, for instances in cases where they are serving excluded and vulnerable populations, who are most impacted by the pandemic. Unlike policymakers, entrepreneurs see these challenges as opportunities for change.