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Restarting economies – Bankers and Telcos must rethink strategies to help Ecommerce

ECONOMYNEXT – The COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated lifestyle changes for most globally, and in this new normal, more consumers are turning to e-Commerce to purchase their daily needs.

Even though shopping online has and will, for the most part, be a trend amongst high and middle-income earners at least in the foreseeable future, the curfews and lockdowns enforced in countries across the globe in the wake of the pandemic, has brought this method of purchasing daily needs, to the notice of almost everyone.

And as online shopping becomes an attractive option for consumers, Dulith Herath, Founder and Chairman of Kapruka.com states that if e-Commerce is to become more sustainable as other businesses move towards on-line trading, governments need to take a more proactive approach to boost infrastructure.

Speaking on the ‘Restart Asian Economies” series hosted by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom, (FNF) South Asia office, on “Ideas and Actions for the e-Commerce industry,’ on Monday, November 2nd, Herath listed four areas, which he said were on his wish list, that would give e-Commerce the much-needed support to enhance services.

Herath was joined on the panel by Sonam Chophel, the founder of Druksell in Bhutan to share their experiences and ideas on how COVID-19 impacted their businesses. The session was moderated by Dr Najamul Hossain, Country Representative, FNF Bangladesh.

In Sri Lanka for instance, explained Herath, Telecommunication Companies (Telcos) provide island-wide coverage, yet, if online shopping is to be a more viable option, then Telcos must be more competitive in its data pricing, making it more affordable for all. The government must ensure that telecommunication companies do not look only at their profits, but make pricing a level playing field so more consumers could take advantage of the e-Commerce option.

As well, it is important for bankers to think outside the box. Herath points out that, while bankers are happy to approve a loan for a farmer, owing to their limited knowledge or understanding of e-Commerce, they are more hesitant in supporting these new-wave tech businesses. He proposes that every Bank have on its Board of Directors at least one individual with an understanding of or expertise on e-Commerce.

One of the most interesting points Herath raised was the under-utilisation of the Post Office system. He asks why, a robust set up such as the Post, with a network that reaches all corners of the world, with the infrastructure and the human resources to support it is not transformed to being another FEDEX or UPS? Drawing inspiration from another of his ventures, Grasshoppers.lk, a courier company, Herath claims that all a government needs to do is to put money into that system and restructure it.

For both Herath and Chophel one of the most important aspects of the trade is ensuring that personal data collected from customers remains safe. In countries where privacy laws are either lacking or inadequate, it is up to the company to ensure that practices are in place to ensure customer databases are not shared, and that, says Herath must be enforced from top management down.

Unlike Kapruka, Chophel’s Druksell is a relatively young company and focuses on marketing Bhutanese creations, through partnerships with local artisans. Supporting a niche market, where large scale purchasing and foreign transactions are limited, the Bhutanese companies also encounter more challenges such as strong import regulations and the logistics of last-mile delivery, given the difficult and hilly terrain, one must traverse to get a product to a consumer.

However, even though most still do not understand the concept of e-Commerce, Chophel stated that with curfews and lockdowns, his countrymen realised that shopping online was the best way to obtain their groceries and other daily needs. More than e-Commerce, he pointed out, Bhutanese took to social commerce, using Instagram and Facebook to trade their products. The COVID pandemic, he says saw a spike in the domestic market, as social commerce picked up across the country.

Chophel, who explains that the Bhutanese government is currently drawing up an e-Commerce policy, which is expected to be implemented next year, states that the onus is on the government to put in the right infrastructure and investment and also take the lead in promoting better regional ties at both micro and macro level.

While Chophel finds selling within ASEAN easier than in SAARC countries, he emphasises, that it is time governments re-visited trade agreements and introduced reforms that would promote cross-border trading. Current regulations in countries within the region, he points out are restrictive and discourages e-Commerce entrepreneurs.

But Herath does not see much of a market within the region, which he points out, has the same products to offer, be in garments or tea. Instead, he has found a demand for Sri Lankan products in developed nations. When he found out that local teas were available in popular supermarkets in developed countries, but were not available on Amazon or eBay, Herath had shipped a small consignment of a well-known brand to the US, and had sold it on-line within three months. That was three years ago, and Kapruka is now the e-Commerce seller of local products overseas, with two warehouses in the US and netting in about a half a million dollars, last month, he said.

In Bhutan, though micro-businesses benefitted by pandemic induced closures, with customers reaching out more to this method of obtaining groceries etc., it is still too early to predict whether e-Commerce is the preferred option for consumers, explained Chopel.

Kapruka had a similar experience according to Herath, who stated that when the lockdown was imposed in early March this year, their daily orders which ranged from 5000 to 8000 a day, had suddenly spiked to 80,000. Despite limitations such as human resources and supply chain issues, his company had continued to take orders, Herath said, adding that in hindsight they realise that was a mistake. Ninety percent of the new customers were first time on-line shoppers, and Kapruka failed to meet their expectations. Refunding customers too had been a nightmare, because the mechanism is not set up to handle thousands of refunds a day. They have, however, retained their loyal customers, many of them expatriates.

“With COVID, we initially believed the industry would expand from one to ten, but later realised that was an artificial surge. It only doubled.’ Along with supply chain issues, the company also had to ensure all their delivery staff who visit twenty to thirty buildings a day, were safe from the virus.

Druksell also considers support from the government as vital in reaching consumers in hard to reach areas of the country. Similarly, Kapruka too focusses on delivering to second and third-tier cities which, unlike major cities have limited to access to other markets. Cash on delivery is an attractive option for consumers, who have nothing to lose if an order does not turn up.

In spite of the convenience of online shopping, one of the biggest accusations against e-Commerce is the large scale waste involving packaging. Hossain noted that of the 1.3 million tonnes of e-Commerce generated cardboard in the US in 2018, only 35% was recyclable.

Both Druksell and Kapruka, the panellists explained are concerned about the environment. In fact, Bhutan itself has very strict policies to protect the environment with its National Environment Commission making regular checks on businesses to ensure adherence to the policy. Recycled papers, encouraging consumers to order more than one product at a time to reduce packaging waste and contributing to the country’s annual tree-planting campaign are some of Druksell’s initiatives. As well, the company encourages its customers to have a stake in the well-being of Bhutan’s environment, by contributing towards their programme.

In the case of Kapruka, Herath explained that they have been successful in persuading at least one manufacturer to discontinue the use of plastic packaging. That move, and the online campaign that went with it, he said, had increased sale of the product by 40%. The company itself has invested in seeded paper for their packaging, which means that if a customer throws away the box, the seeds would grow into plants.

Chophel and Herath caution customers from purchasing goods from little known entities as the probability of fraud could be higher. As well, be wary of those who offer discounts, they say, as, in the business of e-Commerce, trust and reliability are key. Discounted products could well be nearing expiry date.

Even a small business, using Facebook as a marketing tool, should be registered with the Consumer Protection Authority to ensure legitimacy. Herath also proposes that e-Commerce be treated like just any other retail trade instead of as a lone type of business. Being considered as one group will strengthen all businesses.

One of the negative aspects of e-Commerce, they say is dealing with returns, especially the logistics involved for cross borders purchasers. Both companies have built-in pricing to deal with such situations. Herath suggests setting up a Regional returns logistics centre, preferably in Sri Lanka, while Chophel would like to see a well-regulated method to handle refunds and returns.

Both panellists see a role for FNF in the e-Commerce business; FNF, says Chophel could bring policymakers across the region together and provide capacity building training and exposure to local entrepreneurs, while Herath believes that FNF could provide small businesses training in online marketing tactics. (Colombo, November 6, 2020)

Reported by Kshama Ranawana

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Central banks expect to increase gold reserves after buying 1,037 tonnes in 2023: Survey

ECONOMYNEXT – About 29 percent of central banks in the world intended to increase their gold reserves in 2023, up from 24 percent in 2023 and just 8 percent in 2019, a survey by the World Gold Council showed.

“The planned purchases are chiefly motivated by a desire to rebalance to a more preferred strategic level of gold holdings, domestic gold production, and financial market concerns including higher crisis risks and rising inflation,” the WGC said.

About 81 percent of 70 central banks that responded to the survey expected global central bank holdings of gold to go up, from 71 percent in 2023.

While in prior years, gold’s “historical position” was the top reason for central banks to hold gold, this factor dropped significantly to number five this year.

This year, the top reason for central banks to hold gold is “long-term store of value / inflation hedge” (88%), followed by “performance during times of crisis” (82%), “effective portfolio diversifier” (75%) and “no default risk” (72%).

Concerns about sanctions were listed as by 23 percent of emerging market central banks (0 advanced).

De-dollarization as a reason to hold gold gained ground, but was not among the main reasons.

About 13 percent of emerging market central banks listed de-dollarization as one of the reasons to buy gold up from 11 percent last year and 6 advanced nations said the same from zero last year.

Around 49 percent of central banks expected gold reserves to be moderately lower five year from now in the 2024 survey, against 49 percent in 2023 and 38 percent in 2022.

About 13 percent of central banks surveyed said US dollar reserves would be significantly lower in the 2024 survey, up from 5 percent in 2023 and 4 percent in 2022. (Colombo/June18/2024)

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Sri Lanka rupee closes weaker at 304.75/305.40 to US dollar

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s rupee closed weaker at 304.75/305.40 to the US dollar Tuesday, down from 304.15 to the US dollar Friday, dealer said, while some bond yields edged up.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has weakened amid unsterilized excess liquidity from earlier dollar purchases.

Excess liquidity fell from as high as 200 billion rupees, helped by some sales of maturing bills and also allowing some term contracts to run out.

However the central bank has started to inject liquidity again below its policy rate to suppress interest rates.

On Tuesday 30 billion rupees was printed overnight at an average yield of only 8.73 percent.

Separately another 25 billion rupees was printed till June 25 at 8.09 percent to 9.05 percent, which was still below overnight the policy rate of 9.5 percent.

Nobody has so far taken the central bank to court for printing money beyond overnight at rates lower than the overnight rate.

Sri Lanka operates an ad hoc exchange rate regime called ‘flexible exchange rate’ which triggers panic among market participants, as the central bank stays away when spikes in credit either creates import demand or unsterilized credit is used up.

“If large volumes of unsterilized liquidity is left, the exchange rate has to be closely defended to prevent speculation involving early covering of import bills and late selling of exports proceeds,” EN’s economic columnist Bellwether says.

“Just as an appreciating or stable exchange rate leads to late covering of import bills, a falling rates leads to immediate covering of import bills.

“Keeping exchange rates stable is a relatively simple exercise but it is difficult to do so if short term rates are also closely targeted with printed money, as liquidity runs out, as if the country had a free float and no reserve target.”

“When there is a large volume of excess liquidity remaining (except those voluntary deposited for long periods by risk averse banks) the the interest rates structure is under-stated compared to the reported reserves.

“Interest rates would be a little higher than seen in the market if the liquidity was mopped up and domestic credit and imports were blocked to prevent the reserves from being used up.”

In East Asia there is greater knowledge of central bank operational frameworks, though International Monetary Fund driven flawed doctrine are also threatening the monetary stability of those countries, critics say.

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Sri Lanka’s rupee started to collapse steeply after the IMF’s Second Amendment in 1978 along with many other countries as flawed operational frameworks gained ground without a credible anchor.

A bond maturing on 15.12.2026 closed at 10.10/30 percent up from 10.05/30 percent Friday.

A bond maturing on 15.10.2027 closed at 10.60/57 flat from 10.60/80 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.07.2028 closed at 11.15/35 percent, up from 11.05/20 percent.

A bond maturing on 15.09.2029 closed at 11.80/90 percent unchanged.

A bond maturing on 15.10.2030 closed at 11.90/12.00 percent.

A maturing on 10.12.2031 closed at 11.95/12.10 percent.

A bond maturing on 01.10.2032 closed at down at 11.95/12.10 percent, down from 12.00/10 percent. (Colombo/Jun14/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Chamber links up with Gujarat Chamber

ECONOMYNEXT – The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce has signed an agreement with the Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SGCCI) to increase trade cooperation between India and Sri Lanka.

The MOU was signed by CCC CEO Buwanekabahu Perera, SGCCI President Ramesh Vaghasia, in the presence of Dr Valsan Vethody, Consul General for Sri Lanka in Mumbai, India.

“With the signing of the MoU, … the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and SGCCI aim to facilitate trade between the two countries via initiatives such as trade fairs and delegations, business networking events, training programmes,” the Ceylon Chamber said in a statement.

“This partnership will open doors for Sri Lankan businesses to explore opportunities in Surat’s dynamic market and enable the sharing of expertise and resources between the two regions.”

Established in 1940, SGCCI engages with over 12,000 members and indirect ties with more than 2,00,000 members via 150 associations. It promotes trade, commerce, and industry in South Gujarat.

The region’s commercial and economic centre Surat has risen to prominence as the global epicenter for diamond cutting and as India’s textile hub, and is ranked the world’s 4th fastest growing city with a GDP growth rate of 11.5%

Surat’s economic landscape is vibrant and diverse. As India’s 8th largest and Gujarat’s 2nd largest city, it boasts the highest average annual household income in the country.

The nearby Hazira Industrial Area hosts major corporations like Reliance, ESSAR, SHELL, and L&T. (Colombo/Jun18/2024)

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