Q&A with the eTrade Alliance Secretariat: Insights in Managing a Multi-Stakeholder Initiative

January 26, 2022

The global development community are increasingly looking to Multistakeholder Initiatives (MSIs), or Alliances, to mobilize public and private partners and increase development impact.

One such USAID-funded MSI, the Alliance for eTrade Development (“eTrade Alliance”), brings together private and public sector actors to increase the number of developing country SMEs engaged in international ecommerce and improve the ability to conduct digital trade. Led by Palladium and Nextrade Group, eTrade Alliance members Asociación Mexicana de Venta Online (AMVO), Cargill, DHL, Element, Etsy, eCommerce Institute, Google, Mastercard, Paypal, Ringer One Africa Media, UPS, and Visa bring “360° ecommerce solutions” to the greatest challenges endured by developing country SMEs working to bring their business online, boost sales, access new markets, and create jobs. Specifically, the Alliance mobilizes its cadre of corporate partners to improve last mile logistics, financial services, digital skills capacity building, and closing the digital divide.

A successful MSI like the Alliance for eTrade Development requires proactive engagement and coordination with its partners, as well as tactical leveraging of USAID and partner resources. Below, the Alliance’s Communications Lead Morgan Wilsmann asks the Project Director Brett Johnson and Partnerships and Program Manager Chelsea Hamati to share some insights on ways a secretariat can manage an MSI for success.

Morgan: The Alliance has 12 partners spanning the ecommerce space – from logistics providers, to payment systems, to marketplace platforms, and more. How do you align priorities across the partner cohort and coordinate the design and implementation of common initiatives?

Brett: First and foremost, the Secretariat invests a fair amount of time building relationships with our partner counterparts to ensure we understand their priority geographies and market segments. We also work to understand any corporate initiatives relevant to the Alliance. Checking in regularly on these priorities is key, as our partners’ needs can change of over the course of the project.   

Based on these touchpoint conversations, we convene partners with common geographic and market segment interests to sketch out an activity. We brainstorm how to leverage or layer each partners’ in-country resources and corporate initiatives, how to best engage the target SME segment and any key local ecommerce ecosystem actors, and how to deploy Alliance program funds to achieve the objectives. Where appropriate, we engage partners’ country teams, as we’ve found at times that HQ and country-team priorities may not be aligned.

As a multi-partner collaboration is rolled out, the Secretariat assigns a relationship manager responsible for maintaining communications and coordination to keep the initiative running smoothly. To keep Alliance members up to date on all of the Alliance’s initiatives, we present partner collaborations in our Quarterly Governance Meetings, from which partners may choose to buy-into a collaboration if the timing and setting make sense.

Morgan: When designing initiatives, do you ever look beyond the eTrade Alliance partner cohort and collaborate with other development efforts – like with complementary USAID projects?

Chelsea: Yes, and often collaboration beyond our partner cohort is necessary to create an impactful activity. Given the scale of opportunities and challenges in expanding the number of MSMEs using ecommerce solutions, we’ve long recognized that there are limits to what the Alliance can achieve on its own. Once we’ve settled on a specific market and scope, we’ll reach out to a variety of organizations positioned within the ecommerce ecosystem to help an initiative achieve greater scale and continuity. For example, we’ve partnered with USAID-funded enterprise development and competitiveness programs in Georgia and Central Asia; we’ve collaborated with municipalities, ecommerce associations, and MSME-oriented associations in Ecuador; we are exploring collaboration with a regionally-focused foundation to leverage their women’s entrepreneurship programs across multiple countries at once; and, we are looking to engage multiple organizations operating in the Pacific Islands with innovative solutions to accelerate the digitalization of MSMEs. What’s great about engaging the greater ecommerce development community it that, sometimes, these collaborations also result in new partners that may want to formally join the Alliance.

Morgan: Can you share some details on how you deploy partner and USAID resources to achieve both business and development impact?

Chelsea: One of the most challenging aspects of working on an MSI is aligning private sector partners’ efforts, and then figuring out where USAID resources can be deployed effectively vis a vis our partners’ resources. Most of our partners have not worked with USAID before nor received USAID funds, and oftentimes are new to USAID rules and regulations. We have to think creatively on how we can divide the work. Sometimes, we distribute USAID funds to a local partner operating in-country, while an Alliance partner brings their own leverage. This is a great option for when we work with large multinationals with an existing local network. Other times, we use USAID resources to offset our partner’s costs, especially in cases when the activity is outside their typical business model. In these cases, we have employed some innovative subaward mechanisms like Renewable Fixed Amount Awards, which provides flexibility to the recipient in implementation, but requires monitoring to ensure performance metrics are being met before more funding is distributed. We also directly procure supplies or services to contribute to a wider effort, like bringing on consultants to support a training.  

Morgan: The Alliance is now in its third year. Based on your experience so far, what lessons could you share with others interested in launching or joining an MSI like the Alliance for eTrade?

Brett: Wow, where to start… First, I think it is critical that a Secretariat plays a servant-leader role. While we are tasked with helping shape and drive a vision for the Alliance, it’s so important that the vision is grounded in where Alliance members want to invest our time and resources. If the Alliance stops delivering value to our members, their engagement will diminish. Second, it’s important to be realistic in your expectations of what can be accomplished in a given timeframe. Managing multi-partner collaborations require an additional layer of communications and feedback loops. Not only do we need to coordinate with our partners, but often our partners need to coordinate and align within their organization before they can move on an initiative. This is where the relationship manager function within our multi-partner collaborations is so important to keep the trains moving.

Finally, I cannot overstate the value of a deploying an effective communications strategy. An MSI like the eTrade Alliance requires strong internal communications to keep its members engaged and up to date. Further, as an Alliance aimed at advancing the integration of MSMEs into the digital economy, a robust external communications strategy is critical for sharing lessons learned from our work so others in the ecommerce ecosystem may build upon our experience.

Chelsea: In my role, I’ve spent a lot of time working with partners that have not traditionally worked with USAID-funded initiatives. We’ve learned that you need to set aside additional time to coach and mentor non-traditional partners throughout the process – from understanding USAID compliance requirements to ensuring consistent data collection for monitoring and evaluation. Getting consistency in impact measurement across a cohort of 12 partners, each with different corporate key performance indicators (or KPIs) and internal data collection processes and then aligning them with USAID indicators involves a combination of educating, aligning, and compromising. The challenge lies in making sure you can capture data and insights we need to tell the Alliance’s story without creating an undue burden on our partners. In addition, setting and managing expectations at the outset is crucial to being able to successfully deliver an activity. As Brett has noted, I’ve found that the time investing in relationships with our partner counterparts is critical to driving activities forward, troubleshooting issues, and pivoting activities as needed.  

Morgan: To date, the Alliance has focused its partner collaboration on last mile logistics, financial services, digital skills capacity building, and closing the digital divide. Where do you see the next frontier for multi-partner collaboration in ecommerce?

Chelsea: I am really interested to see partners collaborate on incorporating technologies at scale to solve some of the digital ecosystem challenges you mentioned (last mile logistics, financial services, etc). Generally, our programming has been most successful when we approach activities from the perspectives of policy, research, and capacity building. It is relatively intuitive how you can align ecommerce partners around these areas – everyone wants to teach SMEs or promote policies that enable ecommerce. However, when it comes to implementing ecosystem changes technology, it becomes more difficult given large-scale barriers such as restrictive policies, insufficient infrastructure, limited digital skills among target customer/market segments, and other obstacles. The cool thing about technology is that it is constantly changing, and we are constantly learning. Yet oftentimes aligning on how to introduce technology into a program can take a lot of time and planning (and by then the technology may have changed). On top of that, you start getting into trickier areas of Intellectual Property, local and cross-border data regulations, the number of stakeholders involved, etc. If the Alliance can make a dent in aligning partners around pilot technologies such as decentralized and interoperable digital IDs, fintech guarantees, or logistics integration solutions, we have done more than just pilot a technology; we can contribute to a model on how to get technology partners to coalesce on development solutions. In this way, the Alliance aligns partners’ ambitions to expand their customer and userbase while expanding economic opportunity.

Brett: Currently, I’m interested in rural ecommerce and ecommerce in tourism, which are somewhat inter-related. As mobile connectivity improves in rural areas, customers are poised to benefit from access to local and regional ecommerce platforms as both buyers of consumer products and as sellers themselves. This will require an ecosystem response that involves not just the connectivity, but also advancements in first and last mile logistics and distribution changes, integration of digital payment solutions with ecommerce platforms, and the acceptance and adoption of digital payments by local retail shops and service providers. With the emergence of local, regional, and global ecommerce platforms, I see an opportunity to more intentionally build a cohort of rural entrepreneurs able to market products and services previously viewed as too hard to reach or succeed in.

The prospect of focusing more on tourism from an ecommerce services angle has come up in recent conversations. Beyond onboarding on platforms such as Expedia or TripAdvisor to assist in marketing, MSME hospitality businesses looking to join the tourism digital economy could benefit from ecommerce software solutions that enable integrated reservations, secure digital payments, customer relations management (CRM), and in a COVID age, contactless commerce. Admittedly, the Alliance would need to expand its member base to move into this area, but the opportunity excites me!

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