In a world of widespread economic uncertainty throughout most of 2023, small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are looking for new technological solutions to accelerate their businesses in a volatile period following the sudden impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A senior executive at China’s Ant Group expected digitalization driven by innovative technologies to become a key factor during the post-pandemic recovery, especially the prosperity of SMEs, while also reducing financial exclusion and enhancing data security. 

Speaking during a panel discussion at this year’s INCLUSION·Conference on the Bund in Shanghai, Yang Peng, President of the International Business Group at Ant Group, said that digital transformation could help deepen SME merchants’ ties to consumers, and drive commerce with more growth tools. He also called for more collaborations among organizations to unleash the full potential of the digital economy.

Credit: INCLUSION Conference

Fragmented payment landscape

As the pandemic fueled a surge in online shopping and digital payments worldwide, almost all economies of the world have adopted payment innovations, significantly accelerating the development of e-wallets, bank apps, and super apps with a pay button.

However, technologies and support systems behind payment methods are not coordinated. In some countries, there are dozens of payment logos covering up a tiny cashier space. Because of this fragmented landscape, businesses, especially SMEs, face an incredibly complicated payment management situation. 

“SMEs do need a helping hand on the payment side,” said Yang. “They should primarily focus on their businesses and services to serve their customers without spending too much resources on payment.

In 2016, Ant Group initiated efforts to develop Alipay+, a suite of cross-border digital payment and marketing solutions. According to Yang, today Alipay+ connects over 20 payment apps from Thailand to Italy, allowing consumers to use their familiar e-wallets wherever they go. This also allows merchants to focus on improving their products and fine-tuning their services, without the need to handle the maze of payment routes.

SMEs go digital

Payment is the end of a positive consumer journey but also could be the beginning of many new ones. According to Yang, digitalization solutions derived from digital payment can do more to help businesses and the economy, and “many SMEs are hungry for growth and want to harvest the benefit from digitalization”. 

Ant Group is expanding SMEs’ access to more digital technologies, which reduces the barriers to market entry and enables them to operate more efficiently, saving them both time and resources. In November 2022, the Chinese fintech giant further strengthened these efforts with the launch of its Alipay+ D-store solution, enabling SMEs to build their all-in-one store across platforms and connect with different payment channels in just a few minutes using a suite of toolkits.

In Southeast Asia, with a large infrastructure deficit, there is still very limited access to digital and financial services for SMEs. Still, the demand is booming. According to Timothy Utama, Information Technology Director at Bank Mandiri, Indonesia’s state-controlled lender, Indonesia is not as big as China, but there is a lot of water in between which becomes a demographic challenge for financial services.

“We have 3.6 million SMEs in Thailand, which accounts for roughly 44% of the country’s GDP. This can really be a contributing factor if you can make a change,” echoed Monsinee Nakapanant, Co-President of Thailand’s online payment provider Ascend Money.

Privacy computing is a key

The wider adoption of digital technologies brings an increasing demand for data collaborations, which is, however, hindered by concerns such as data security, privacy, and confidentiality.

“We believe privacy-preserving computing (PPC) is a very powerful solution to address that issue of trust and efficiency,” said Yang, “PPC processes privacy data by encryption processing, multi-party computing, and other techniques. With PPC, Company A can share insights generated from its big data with Company B, without the need to provide the raw data to Company B. In other words, data becomes available for use but not visible, which mitigates the data privacy concern and meets regulatory requirements.” 

Yang also sees the urgent need for increased collaboration among various stakeholders to promote the technology and build an ecosystem as it extends beyond the technology itself. He envisions a more connected digital economy in which each party can fully harness the potential of data in the next decade. 

“In this new technological era, collaboration is the new way to compete,” said Utama at Bank Mandiri. “People usually say data is the new ore, but I would say show me the way to extract the ore. This is difficult to monetize. We learn from our partners, work with them, and move forward together as a win-win.”

The comments come a year after Ant Group announced the open source of its privacy-preserving computing framework last July, a project that would enable data analysis for different use cases without the need for decryption of original individual data. The company released an updated version in July this year to further address the pain points in data collaborations among parties. 

Credit: INCLUSION Conference

Ensuring security with AI

The Asian tech and finance industry is also ramping up efforts to address some of the most pressing issues with new technologies, such as biometrics and artificial intelligence, as online fraud evolves in the region.

Ascend Money has been using biometrics and AI to detect suspicious transactions and prevent hackers’ invasions with the help of Ant Group. Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy posted losses of $1 billion from online fraud and digital attacks last year, according to Nakapanant of Ascend Money

Meanwhile, American Express enjoys the lowest fraud rates in the industry, as the world’s fourth largest credit card network rebuilt its platform entirely on an end-to-end, closed-loop, modern architecture. “That’s something you probably see as well on the Ant Group side,” Mohammed Badi, President of Global Network Services at American Express, said in the same panel discussion. 

Ant Group reported last December that it sends over 500,000 alerts to users on average each day via its transaction fraud detection system, which can identify potential fraud in seconds and has been deployed on its Alipay app and partners’ platforms. 

“You can’t have true innovation at scale if the platform is insecure and if you’re not compliant with the laws and regulations of the land,” Badi added.

This article was supported by Ant Group. We believe in transparency in our publishing and monetization model. Read more here.