Scaling for success: SMEs, tech innovations and the ITU Telecom World Awards 2019, in association with The European Sting

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(credit: ITU)

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A citizens’ engagement tool from South Africa. An Indonesian micro-financing platform for SMEs. A Nairobi-based firm providing innovative connectivity solutions to tracking vehicles at airports or connect students in off-grid schools. And a new Japanese technology to regenerate lead-acid batteries, increasing the availability of low-cost power whilst reducing environmental waste.

They’re all small or medium enterprises (SMEs) using technology innovatively to address real-world problems and make a positive social impact. They are all home-grown technology companies focused on a local issue – but with much bigger aims and global ambitions. And they’re all ITU Telecom World Award winners.

Open to all exhibiting or sponsoring small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and large companies at ITU Telecom World, the leading UN tech event for governments, corporates and SMEs,  the ITU Telecom World Awards recognize ICT applications, products and solutions meeting developmental challenges, whether on a local, smaller scale or through global outreach.

All SMEs taking part in the ITU Telecom World Awards can also access the event’s SME Programme, a full four days of activities focused on supporting the growth of small businesses in the ICT sector around the world. The Programme includes skills development and capacity-building workshops, interactive debates with government and industry experts, pitching sessions, and targeted matchmaking with peers, mentors and potential investors. It provides powerful access to ministers, regulators and influential business leaders, opening up partnership opportunities and boosting growth.

The Awards, and the SME Programme, are part of ITU’s commitment to fostering tech entrepreneurship, in recognition of the critical importance of SMEs in driving industry growth, creating jobs and accelerating social and economic development. Indeed, tech SMEs are essential to the digital ecosystem, making up more than 95% of all businesses worldwide and representing a path out of poverty for many developing countries.

An opportunity to encounter, engage with and celebrate the best in innovative tech solutions changing the world for the better, the Awards platform offers participants a unique mixture of UN credibility, international visibility and networking, investment potential and partnerships. It’s a launching pad which has proved highly valuable since the programme began in 2015 – as some of the winners from past events confirm.

Take Tuse Applications, an SME based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, making use of Industry 4.0 technologies, such as IoT, Artificial Intelligence and predictive data analytics to bring the benefits of connectivity to agricultural and domestic settings. Tuse entered the ITU Telecom World Awards last year to launch their products, and gain access to markets, finance and skilled staff.

From networking with like-minded entrepreneurs, policy-makers and big tech industry players to exhibiting on the international showfloor, speaking in a roundtable debate on SME Growth Opportunities and Challenges and taking part in the SME Programme – Tuse’s experience was “phenomenal,” in the words of co-founder and CEO, Sabelo Sibanda.

“It’s truly been a game changer for our business,” he continued. “The SME programme gave us unparalleled exposure, access to markets, finance and new opportunities. And winning the Award has given us all of that on an exponential scale.”

The result: within weeks of winning, Tuse had increased its business to such an extent that the company had to move to bigger premises and recruit 67% more staff  – an important step on the way to becoming what Sibanda calls  “the most impactful African unicorn.”

Or Modalku, a micro-financing platform for SMEs from Indonesia and a 2017 award winner of the Global SME Excellence Award, who were able to develop new networks and friendships at the event, and benefit from exposure to technological innovations from around the world at the same time. The concrete impact of winning has been clear, too. As Modalku’s CEO Iwan Kurniawan tells it: “The Global SME Awards was uplifting for our brand, enhancing our credibility with the Indonesian public as well as investors, existing and new. We more than doubled our business within 6 months of winning, raised a US$25M Series B funding and have hired many more great people into our team”.

And this is another award-winning SME with ambitious goals – “to stay focused and expand our business further, to help more small and medium enterprises in Southeast Asia.”

For Erik Hersman, CEO of BRCK, a Kenyan SME offering innovative connectivity solutions to connect people locally at low cost, the advantage of small companies addressing local issues in a local context should not be underestimated: “Home-grown technology companies provide some of the best solutions to local problems.”

BRCK won the ITU Telecom World Global SME in 2016 – and has seen a hugely positive impact on its business in terms of exposure, media coverage and key leads. The company has now deployed in over 15 countries, is talking to governments about major roll outs, and is working hard to make internet connectivity available to the more than 800 million unconnected in Africa.

The downside to an SME’s insider knowledge of local markets and local needs – as well as its speed, flexibility and adaptability – is the difficulty in finding the right partners, mentors or investors to take good ideas to scale. Here’s where taking part in an event like ITU Telecom World, with its influential audience from government and industry throughout the world, is so invaluable.

According to Hiroshi Tominaga, General Manager, Japan Battery Regeneration, and Award participant: “A small company like us doesn’t usually have the opportunity to come to this event, but by participating we can meet the right people, announce and advertise our technologies, which is very helpful for the growth of our business.”

And directly following their exposure as an ITU Telecom World Award winner, Japan Battery Regeneration went on to close a major deal with a global transportation company, significantly accelerating their progress in both domestic and international business.

Taking part in the Awards is beneficial for the expert jury of venture capitalists, industry specialists, and SME mentors, too, proving both exposure to innovative ideas in social tech and projects with real investment potential.

As Stephen Ibaraki, Chairman, Managing General Partner REDDS Capital, 14x Microsoft MVP awardee, and Founder ITU of AI for Good notes: “In terms of venture capital and growing new start-ups, the ITU Telecom World Global SME Awards represent the finest entrepreneurs in the world with the added benefit of supporting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. I highly recommend entrepreneurs globally to engage in the Global SME Awards – as well as investors who are looking to gain high returns on investments plus actionable SDG impact.”

Many of the best smart solutions, applications and products are produced in response to local needs, in a local context directly relevant to the target end users. Many of the best innovative solutions to developmental needs start out as the ideas of tech entrepreneurs or SMEs.

Combine ITU Telecom World’s international platform for SMEs with the commitment of the government of host country Hungary to tech innovation and entrepreneurship hubs, and you have a rich source of inspiration, business opportunities and partnerships for small tech companies from Europe and beyond

It’s an opportunity to showcase tech innovation for good on a truly global stage, with all the visibility, partnership and investment potential it brings with it. It’s an opportunity not to be missed.

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