The survival skills of Mexicans never seek to amaze me. There is no unemployment insurance here, so when the going gets tough, you had better figure out a plan fast. Happily for many, the thriving digital economy has offered a way to harness much of the entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes Mexico’s socioeconomic culture.
While there is no doubt that the pandemic led to the shuttering of many businesses – 20.8 percent, according to Mexico’s national statistics agency (INEGI) – it also saw the birth of 619,000 new ones. The tech startup ecosystem saw an influx of venture capital, which actually quintupled during 2020, according to Mexican Association of Private Equity and Venture Capital Funds (AMEXCAP). Further, the pandemic phenomena of the “nenis”, female microentrepreneurs selling their wares on social media, has been celebrated as an example of commercial resilience. Without the capacity to sell goods and services online, this simply would not have been possible. Given the importance of digitalization, then, it is more important than ever that everyone in Mexico has access to the basic tools of the new economy and there is still much to do.
The smartphone has become central to almost everything we do and is for all intents and purposes an additional limb that connects us to the digital economy. According to the 2020 Ministry of Communication and Transportation survey, 88.2 million Mexicans have a cellular phone, which represents 75 percent of the population over six years of age, and 9 out of 10 use smartphones. These nearly ubiquitous handheld devices are critical to powering the instant-message-driven economy in which menus are sent, questions are answered, documents are reviewed, negotiations take place and financial transactions are completed.
What stands in the way of ensuring that more people have access to the tools and knowledge required to enter the digital economy? While today the phenomenon in Mexico is almost entirely organic and driven by the market, the government does have a role to play in both providing education and key infrastructure, and currently, these elements are woefully lacking and the government is almost entirely absent from the discussion. The official National Digital Strategy was published in the Mexican federal registry on September 6th of this year with little fanfare or relevance, which is hardly surprising given that it reads more like a politburo brief than a realistic strategy to ensure that all Mexicans have access to what today should be considered a public good: unlimited internet access. In short, the national digital strategy exists only on paper, fitting.
And what can the private sector that thrives from the digital economy do? As a non-techy, I will highlight items that are mentioned less frequently. Companies that make a living off of providing the infrastructure and tools of the digital economy can continue to promote broader access from their corner. It is important to make sure that everyone feels invited to the tech party by explaining in normal language – Spanish, not Spanglish – how the average Mexican can use these tools to further their commercial or business objectives. A start would be to make the vocabulary surrounding the digital economy more accessible and less Silicon-Valley mysterious. You do not need to be young, speak English or be cool to enter the digital economy; the door is open, step in with a click.
And, of course, you don’t have to be a man either. Unfortunately, we still need to think creatively about ways to ensure that women enjoy the same access to the tools and information that will allow them to participate with equal measure.
A 2018 OECD study entitled “Bridging the Digital Divide: Include, upskill, innovate” provides some important guidance with respect to eliminating the gender gap and highlights that while women face disadvantages with respect to digital access, they also stand to gain exponentially by leapfrogging over traditional economic barriers. The report points out that globally, women use fewer online services than men and are less confident in using the Internet. Further, it is less common for women to use mobile money accounts, which shows that there is also a link between financial inclusion and digital inclusion that needs to be addressed. The concept of “upskilling” can include measures as simple as video tutorials to help optimize the use of digital tools or information campaigns focused on the particularities of female preferences.
The present is digital and is offering tremendous economic opportunities across the board. What we need to do is make sure that the economy of the future does not repeat the deficiencies of the past, and to do so we need to focus on inclusion in every sense of the word.
* Amy Glover is president of Agil(e) and an external advisor for El Gran Bajío project. Twitter: @chilangagringa