MSMEs Going Digital in Cambodia - Addressing Skills Demand During COVID-19

January 5, 2022


Trainee Luy Malen listens in to online lessons while at work in his shop in April 2021.

As connectivity grows, digital technologies are transforming the Indo-Pacific region. The Southeast Asia region grew from 360 million internet users in 2019 to 400 million in 2020. In Cambodia alone, the Telecommunications Regulator reported a 7% increase in mobile internet subscriptions between 2019 and early 2021 and the number of registered mobile money accounts skyrocketed from 46% in 2019 to 83% in 2020. Despite this digital boom, many of Southeast Asia’s economies have suffered tremendous economic losses since the outbreak of COVID-19, and Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) were some of the hardest hit due to lack of cash flow, diminished demand for certain non-digital services, and changes to the way they deliver goods and market services. Given these challenges, businesses rapidly adapted to use digital tools, often without specific guidance or with awareness of digital security threats. To address this knowledge gap, the USAID-funded Digital Asia Accelerator is working with partners across Southeast Asia and Mongolia to listen to MSMEs and design and deliver digital upskilling intervention that work for them. Across the region, DAA funds an innovative portfolio of partners who work directly with MSMEs to provide targeted digital upskilling and cybersecurity support so MSMEs can manage their businesses more effectively using digital tools and stay safe online.

Setting the Scene: MSMEs in Cambodia

In Cambodia, many MSMEs faced harsh choices during lockdowns — adapt and digitize or close your business and manage your debts. During the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, a survey conducted by the Cambodian Women Entrepreneurs Association (CWEA) showed that 59% of women-owned businesses were affected by the pandemic, and 17% of the businesses closed. Micro and small businesses - especially women-led MSMEs - often do most of their digital business through mobile phones and Facebook alone. There are 11+ million Facebook users in Cambodia, which accounts for almost 70% of its entire population. Many of the internet users, including MSMEs, do not have or use email addresses. Facebook is their internet and their gateway to commerce.

Our Approach to Digital Literacy & Upskilling

The Digital Asia Accelerator, part of the U.S. Government’s Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership (DCCP), works to build digital literacy and cybersecurity capacity and boost the use of safe digital tools across the region. One of DAA’s partners, regional (and Cambodia-based) innovation lab and technology organization InSTEDD iLab SEA, is a Cambodian leader in user-centered design, co-designing dozens of technology products and digital training initiatives with their target users since 2009. Under DAA, InSTEDD proposed rapid user-centered digital skills training sessions that would help individual Cambodian MSMEs get the skills they needed to grow their online businesses and thrive. Their training, coupled with a networked approach and training of trainers sessions for those networks, helps get content out to MSMEs around the country through business associations, informal networks and enterprise support organizations like the NOMI Network, Cambodian Women Entrepreneur Association (CWEA), the Young Entrepreneur Association of Cambodia (YEAC), and the Green Farmers Community.

This network-focused approach demonstrates the potential to amplify the impact of the digital skills training beyond the trainees themselves and helps USAID’s investments proliferate across the region. Moreover, the design of training materials directly responds to challenges that some associations faced which have not been well addressed by other development programs. For example, members of associations told InSTEDD they wanted support with various digital skills support services for their members, but associations did not have the adequate number of trainers needed, nor people with the right training skills to provide the hands-on support. InSTEDD iLab SEA recognized that hands-on training was key to the program’s success. By helping the MSMEs apply the skills they learned, come up with their own and strategies for execution and testing skills absorption, the program prevents trainees from forgetting theoretical approaches, and empowers them to apply lessons learned directly to their business.

Skills in Demand: Content Marketing and Digital Safety

Initial assessments with target MSMEs and networks in 2020 revealed demand for certain skills — digital marketing using Facebook, content creation, and digital safety.

After the initial assessment, InSTEDD’s all-Cambodian team of trainers, content and product designers designed three phases of training: Facebook digital marketing, digital storytelling, and digital security. In February 2021, InSTEDD was developing the coursework, initially planning on a blended learning approach of some in-person and some virtual sessions. Simultaneously, Cambodia was hit with the worst outbreak to date, and the InSTEDD team rapidly shifted to a fully online course using Zoom, phone calls, video tutorials, Google forms survey, and Telegram groups and calls.  Once the team pivoted to this approach, they validated the content with 10 MSMEs via phone calls, and then piloted the course and online training methodology (recorded videos and live video calls) with nine MSMEs.  

Reflecting on Our Approach through Trainee Feedback

Five months after InSTEDD kicked off the first training course, 85 trainees from MSMEs across the country “graduated” from the course. Overall, the trainees gave the program high marks, saying the course was very practical, especially when combined with the coaching support. Data from the pre and post self-assessments (scoring from 1 to 10) showed that their knowledge of key digital skills and confidence in using digital tools increased in every category.

The training started delivering results quickly for some participating MSMEs. Trainee Mr. Tim Den, the founder of D'Fresh Cut, a small business that sells longan fruit online said, "After the training I set a target to sell 100 kilograms of longan [fruit] on my Facebook page. Surprisingly, I sold 1,500 kilograms of longans in just three days!”

Ms. Pann Channalin Pav, who sells environmentally friendly products through her Baitong online eco-shop, told us the training was practical and helped her move her business online, saying, "I had a plan to set up a business online but I didn’t know how…and then the InSTEDD training answered the question of HOW. From my first day of the training, I applied the skills that we learned immediately to set up my Facebook page, which now has more than 400 organic Likes to date. From this training, I understand why brand identity (logo and color) are so important for businessowners to stand out and differentiate from other, and then I created my own logo and put it on my posters."

All the content was built to be shared and licensed as Creative Commons resources. If you are interested in adapting the coursework, Khmer-language course materials can be downloaded by filling in this short questionnaire.   


Trainees attended a virtual graduation ceremony at the end of the program. 

Recommendations from Our Results

Here are our top four recommendations for designing and growing your next digital literacy program. 

Recommendation #1: Don’t reinvent the wheel and learn from the existing ecosystem 

Survey what kind of training and digital skills coaching have worked in your context and ask people to identify what MSMEs do not need. For instance, InSTEDD’s curriculum was adapted from their previous digital skills training course for MSMEs, and they dropped sessions that provided guidance about Google Maps and YouTube since MSMEs surveyed identified this as a lower priority. In addition, InSTEDD introduced coaching sessions to meet MSMEs’ needs for individualized feedback and to address the gaps in the current digital skills training ecosystem. The participants’ time is valuable. Do not waste it on skills they have already learned. Explore how you can adapt existing curriculum in your community or country or learn lessons from previous courses rather than starting it all from scratch.

Recommendation #2: Design for end-users

The solution should be adapted to local cultural, social, and business norms. MSMEs surveyed told InSTEDD that previous digital skills programs for MSMEs had focused on global case studies and examples, and many MSMEs wanted more Cambodia-specific examples in future training designs. Start with user research to find out about target users' digital habits and behaviors. Build continuous rapid research into your program. How should you check to make sure you are on the right track? Validate early and often with users.

Recommendation #3: Keep it practical

Don’t forget to hire trainers that not only use digital tools, but also truly understand how to help others use them too. Test trainees’ skills and ensure trainees produce short digital marketing strategy documents or one-page digital security plans for their own organization as part of the course. This can help ensure the lessons from the training are applied.

Recommendation #4: Build in coaching to boost engagement - virtual or otherwise

InSTEDD’s trainees said the follow-up support was critical to the success and practicality of the program and it helped them push through any challenges they had applying the skills after the training. Keep users engaged by following up directly on the phone, via Telegram, or through video calls. Checking in on trainees through channels that they use regularly will help build a trusted relationship which is key to delivering a program that will impact the community and have lasting results.

About the Authors

Channé Suy Lan is the Managing Director for InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia, a Cambodia-based innovation lab that works to advance social innovation across Southeast Asia and a Digital Asia Accelerator (DAA) partner. Kate Heuisler works with the DAA, implemented by DAI Global, LLC and funded by USAID under the Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership.