Ma Té Sai means “where is it from?” in the Lao language. Based in Luang Prabang, the social enterprise, Ma Té Sai, brings handmade products from across Laos to the online marketplace, connecting the traditions and culture of local villages to the rest of the world. 

The enterprise’s founder, Emi Weir, aims to empower women in rural Laos while supporting the vibrant and diverse Lao weaving industry that has existed for hundreds of years. 

A Digital Road Map

A combination of brick-and-mortar sales, alongside e-commerce transactions, has allowed the business to reach customers around the world through exports and tourism. 

After years of maintaining a strong customer base in Singapore, in 2018, Weir opened up a retail stand in-country. 

“During the beginning of COVID, we realized there was not going to be any income here in Luang Prabang. I sell in Singapore, so I was able to get access to a lot of information from organizations in Singapore information. Last year, I was in a Zoom meeting with an organization of social enterprises in Singapore and they emphasized the need for digital roadmaps. So I made one for Ma Té Sai,” shared Wei.

With a digital strategy in hand, Weir was able to quickly pivot and adapt to the sudden loss of tourism. However, the next hurdle was the digital skills gap.

The Impact of the Digital Divide

The pandemic has exacerbated the already prominent divide in ASEAN’s growing global digital economy. The last year has fast-tracked digital transformations everywhere but threatens to leave behind already vulnerable communities if steps are not taken to expand crucial access to digital skills and tools. Weir witnessed this first-hand. 

“When I was ready to pivot, with my digital plan, I realized that my staff could not,” she explained. ”Even when we start to train them, it’s very difficult because we have to start from the beginning to establish a basic knowledge of computers.”

This experience inspired Weir to create digital training materials in Laotian. “For e-commerce, there is tons of stuff for us who speak English perfectly on the web. But for Lao people, there’s very little in their own language and so we develop it,” Weir said. 

Weir developed a Lao digital training program with two streams; staff training and management training. Still, she has found it difficult to convince some communities to take interest in learning more about e-commerce and digital skills. “It is especially difficult outside of Luang Prabang and the capital Vientiane, where there are traditionally agricultural communities with less formal education,” Weir emphasized. 

e-Commerce: A Safety Net & A New Way of Businesses

Despite initial obstacles, Ma Té Sai has firmly taken advantage of the opportunities that flow from cross-border e-commerce. Since September of 2020, the social enterprise has established a pattern of digital marketing campaigns with the help of a corporate mentor. 

“Our online promotions have gotten us some big orders and even wholesale orders,” Weir shared. “Sure, that doesn’t replace the sales we did a year before this, with the money from a busy tourist season, but it’s income that we wouldn’t have had.”

“Even with how hard it’s been, there’s an incredible amount of opportunities that are starting to come up. This has given us the time to get things done,” she reflected. From production to skills trainings to updating digital platforms and strategies, the team at Ma Té Sai used the past year to grow a stronger, more resilient business.  

A Word to Policymakers

For Wei, one of the biggest struggles as a small business is the confusion they experience as they try to get packages across borders and to customers around the globe. In some countries, the team knows exactly how to pack a box to make sure the shipping and cost of the product are under the specified limit, to avoid additional costs. 

However, Weir states that most countries are not as simple. “In most Asian countries, the customs regulations are not as obvious. And I think that they should definitely set up a basic system so that we’re not sitting there in fear of Customs agents and fines.”

“The system needs to be something simple and it needs to be more unified so that small businesses can move products quickly and easily,” she emphasized. 

After years of weaving through the intricacies of trade facilitation, Weir is frustrated for her own business and concerned about the impact on aspiring small businesses and Lao exports as a whole.

“If the government wants investments, they can’t only look at the big guys, they need to look to small businesses like us. They’ve got to think about nurturing smaller companies because we can grow the capacity and introduce the international markets.” Weir observed. 

“We’re here to grow our people and grow our exports.”