A long way to go for Samoa to become e-commerce hub

It seems that while Samoans can boast one of the highest levels of mobile phone coverage in the Pacific, we still have a long way to go in terms of benefitting from e-commerce.

In 2013, 99887 Samoans had mobile phones. This leapt to a staggering 134,619 in 2016 according to the telecommunications research site Budde.

However according to a recent assessment by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (U.N.C.T.A.D.) which deals with trade, investment and development issues we have a raft of challenges up ahead that are impeding our growth in the area of e-commerce.

E-commerce for the uninitiated, is transacting or facilitating business on the Internet.

Some of the challenges are difficult to address – our isolation for example, while others will be a slow process such as changing people’s attitudes and habits. Then there are still others where the Government will need to step up and step in. 

The assessment by U.N.C.T.A.D. is a valuable document by a group with no particular axe to grind making it difficult for Government to dispute their findings. 

There is no doubt that many changes and initiatives will need to come from Government.     

Expensive air transport, better port facilities and increased transportation options were three areas that need addressing, according to the report.

Then there are the unreliable and expensive internet connections despite the claims suggesting the contrary is also an issue coupled with the minimum wage structure which keeps two thirds of the country offline. 

We have also been subjected to extravagant claims from the government which hopes that the arrival of the 1,3000-kilometre submarine cable connecting Samoa to Fiji’s Southern Cross Cable will boost connectivity and affordability. 

The U.N.C.T.A.D. assessment has shown that improved infrastructure alone will not make the island nation e-commerce-ready. 

Meanwhile, many Samoans while accepting of the boosted connectivity claims,  prefer to adopt a more cautious “wait and see” approach to the lowered costs claims.

Then there is the fact that the majority of our people do not have bank accounts or credit cards.    

“Samoans remain largely unbanked,” the report says, adding that only around half the adult population has a bank account or access to other formal services such as credit unions and microfinance.

And it seems that the mistrust many Samoans have about mobile payments may be well placed.

One of the reasons Samoans seem reluctant to trust online payments, the report says, is an incomplete and at times outdated legal framework. The top concern, according to the assessment, is consumer protection online, particularly data protection and privacy, for which Samoa has no legislation.

The assessment calls for a thorough review of Samoa’s legal framework.

Another specific challenge is the contradicting and overlapping regulations adopted by different ministries and government agencies, the report says.

And then it seems there is a gender barrier where more e-commerce facilities are more accessible by well-established male-owned businesses.

“The ability to make trade more inclusive and offer opportunities to women and youth -- two segments of the population often left out -- is what makes e-commerce a game changer, says Mere Falemaka, Permanent Representative of the Pacific Islands Forum to the World Trade Organization. 

So while there is a lot further to go than just the new cable, the report does end on an optimistic note.

“The government of Samoa is committed to take advantage of e-commerce. And with the right vision and concerted efforts to remove persistent bottlenecks, Samoa could become an e-commerce hub for the region.”

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