MSMEs Critical for a Greener Future in Southeast Asia

This article examines the importance of involving Micro, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (MSMEs) in our green transition, and how technology companies in Southeast Asia can contribute to the region’s sustainable digital transformation.

By Ming Tan and Ethan Ng

The COVID-19 pandemic catalysed rapid digital transformation across business, government, and society in Southeast Asia, with approximately 10% of the 400 million active internet users based in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Vietnam (SEA-6 countries) only starting to use the internet during the pandemic. Furthermore, half of these users have now adopted mobile internet and digital payments.

These trends indicate the urgency of digital transformation for micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) that form the backbone of the Southeast Asian economy. Data from the Asian Development Bank shows that the estimated 71 million MSMEs in Southeast Asia likely account for at least 97% of all businesses in the region, employing 67% of the working population. While many companies began or accelerated their digital journeys during the pandemic, only one in five MSMEs are currently serving customers on online-to-offline platforms.

At the same time, the push for reducing the environmental footprint of the digital economy is more urgent than ever. Southeast Asia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with citizens and MSMEs bearing the brunt of both fast-onset climate-induced disasters and the longer-term impact of global warming. As the digital economy accounts for its environmental impact, large technology companies are actively looking to lower their carbon footprint. While these efforts are necessary, they are not sufficient in Southeast Asia. MSMEs are a key factor if the region is to successfully navigate this transition.


As with the process of digitalisation, pivoting towards greener business models is challenging for MSMEs.

This is not for the want of trying. A survey published in 2020 by the Carbon Trust showed that almost 90% of MSMEs were aware of the fact that there is an ongoing climate emergency and were in support of efforts to stem it. Yet the same study found that there remains formidable barriers to MSMEs doing more, stymieing progress.

Firstly, for many of these MSMEs access to finance remains a key concern, with small firms facing difficulties funding investments to reduce their footprints, especially if they do not explicitly contribute to the financial sustainability of their core business. In fact, lack of access to financing in general remains an obstacle – 60% of Southeast Asian MSMEs surveyed in the Tech for Good Institute’s 2021 Platform Economy report were unable to obtain the needed loans from traditional financial institutions

Furthermore, these MSMEs often face a capacity and expertise gap – many struggle with sustainability efforts due to the fact that they lack training or advice from local experts on how to do so, and are unable to undertake or invest in large scale upskilling due to lack of time or manpower. The new U-Energy initiative by Singapore’s United Overseas Bank seeks to address this gap by providing a platform for MSMEs to connect with partner energy service companies that are interested in supporting energy efficiency projects, though much more work remains to be done for MSMEs across the region to easily access similar opportunities.

Finally, governments can emphasise the positive cost-benefit calculus that MSMEs face in switching towards greener alternatives. For instance, whilst abatement costs incurred from switching to more energy or water efficient equipment may appear high in the short term, lower utility bills are likely to provide significant savings in the long run. The European Union-supported METABUILD project serves as testament to this fact, creating aggregated annual savings of €2.9 million through increased resource and energy efficiency via the implementation of Resource Efficient Cleaner Production (RECP) measures in 403 metal product industries across Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.

The potential role of platform companies 

Opportunities and potential partners to help MSMEs pivot towards more sustainable models also exist elsewhere. In Southeast Asia especially, digital platform companies in the form of information platforms like Google or Facebook, or online to offline platforms like Tokopedia, Grab, Lazada, and Shopee, provide many MSMEs their first foray into e-commerce and digital trade. These platforms simplified a digitalisation process that was once perceived as unfathomable, providing end-to-end support in marketing, fulfilment and logistics, customer support, and business optimisation with big data.

Notably, these platform businesses typically only facilitate exchange and connection without exerting control over the entire value or supply chain. Hence, their environmental impact — positive or negative — is largely realised through their networks of consumers, merchants, drivers, and other partners that they serve. 

On the other hand, they retain uniquely influential relationships with MSMEs and can help MSMEs build awareness of environmental issues and reduce the financial or information barriers to action.

For example, the leading players in the ride-hailing space, Gojek and Grab, have both started piloting initiatives to advance the sustainable transport agenda, partnering with Gogoro and Pertamina respectively to offer battery swap stations that make it easier and cheaper for individual drivers to switch to electric options. Grab and Hyundai have also rolled out customised maintenance packages to support drivers renting Hyundai electric vehicles, reducing financial barriers and facilitating shifts to cleaner fleets.

In the food delivery space, Foodpanda’s cutlery opt-out toggle has prompted collective action by consumers to save over 160 million pieces of single-use cutlery in the 3 years since its launch in late-2017.

Not only can digital platforms enable a green agenda through their own strategies, policies, and practices, the nature of their business model holds the potential to drive sustainability across entire economies as they increasingly digitalise.

Working with MSMEs to solve everyday problems in a sustainable manner

While traditional businesses seek to transform their existing businesses, innovative digital-native companies are increasingly also working with MSMEs to solve Southeast Asia’s everyday problems in a sustainable manner. One area that has seen significant innovation is in the agritech sector, solving the everyday problems of smallholder farms.

MimosaTEK, a Vietnamese startup, employs an internet-connected system to help smallholder farmers farm more effectively and sustainably. By placing moisture, temperature, precipitation, and wind sensors on these farms, MimosaTEK is able to generate irrigation recommendations in real time, sending these updates to farmers via a smartphone app. This process has not only improved crop health but also reduced water wastage. As of 2022, MimosaTEK has reached over 180 farming households, working towards a more sustainable future whilst also saving time and money.

Indonesia’s eFishery startup focusing on aquaculture intelligence has also helped improve smallholder productivity and sustainability. Traditionally underserved due to lack of scale, over 30,000 MSME farmers have now benefited from eFishery’s affordable vibration-based smart feeders that help farmers detect when fish are hungry, automating and optimising the feeding process. This helps reduce time, labour, and most significantly feed costs (which comprise up to 90% of all costs), whilst also minimising water pollution caused by the nitrogen generated from excess feed. Given its success, eFishery closed a US$90 million Series C funding round led by Temasek, SoftBank, and Sequoia in 2022.

The path forward

MSMEs are embedded within the communities they serve across Southeast Asia. They are the first and last mile of the economy. As such, more concerted support for MSMEs to chart a greener way forward is needed, from governments, platform companies and new digital solutions providers. In this way, the impact of technology and the digital economy can collectively be realised for a low-carbon, inclusive future for the region. 

Ming Tan is Founding Executive Director of Tech for Good Institute, which was founded by Grab to leverage the promise of technology to advance inclusive, equitable and sustainable growth for Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore.

Photo by Alex Hudson on Unsplash

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Mouna Aouri

Programme Fellow

Mouna Aouri is an Institute Fellow at the Tech For Good Institute. As a social entrepreneur, impact investor, and engineer, her experience spans over two decades in the MENA region, South East Asia, and Japan. She is founder of Woomentum, a Singapore-based platform dedicated to supporting women entrepreneurs in APAC through skill development and access to growth capital through strategic collaborations with corporate entities, investors and government partners.

Dr Ming Tan

Founding Executive Director

Dr Ming Tan is founding Executive Director for the Tech for Good Institute, a non-profit founded to catalyse research and collaboration on social, economic and policy trends accelerated by the digital economy in Southeast Asia. She is concurrently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Governance and Sustainability at the National University of Singapore and Advisor to the Founder of the COMO Group, a Singaporean portfolio of lifestyle companies operating in 15 countries worldwide.  Her research interests lie at the intersection of technology, business and society, including sustainability and innovation.


Ming was previously Managing Director of IPOS International, part of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, which supports Singapore’s future growth as a global innovation hub for intellectual property creation, commercialisation and management. Prior to joining the public sector, she was Head of Stewardship of the COMO Group and the founding Executive Director of COMO Foundation, a grantmaker focused on gender equity that has served over 47 million women and girls since 2003.


As a company director, she lends brand and strategic guidance to several companies within the COMO Group. Ming also serves as a Council Member of the Council for Board Diversity, on the boards of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC), and on the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


In the non-profit, educational and government spheres, Ming is a director of COMO Foundation and Singapore Network Information Centre (SGNIC) and chairs the Asia Advisory board for Swiss hospitality business and management school EHL. She also serves on  the Council for Board Diversity and the Digital and Technology Advisory Panel for Esplanade–Theatres on the Bay, Singapore’s national performing arts centre.


Ming was educated in Singapore, the United States, and England. She obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford University and her doctorate from Oxford.