Guest Articles

March 20

Hamilton McNutt

The Power of Messaging: How WhatsApp is Becoming a Not-So-Secret Weapon Among Small Enterprises in Emerging Markets

Doing business in emerging markets is often logistics-heavy work, requiring significant communication and organization. Take agriculture, for example: The people involved are geographically dispersed throughout rural areas, necessitating the management of many personnel remotely. In addition, agricultural businesses deal heavily with inventory, and they typically rely on paper forms to keep track of transactions, weight and delivery notes, goods received, etc. This documentation rarely makes its way back to the managers overseeing the business.

Digitizing agricultural value chains, especially through donor-funded efforts, has largely been approached by developing payments use cases (e.g. agri-enterprises paying farmers for their product via mobile money). But some of the most needed digital transformations, in both agriculture and other sectors, are happening not through mobile money but via communications and remote management channels like WhatsApp.

WhatsApp has become a viable replacement for email, offering both a chat function and the ability to link attachments to shared folders in the cloud. In many settings, it already operates as an informal version of Slack, with companies forming group chats that allow teams to communicate with one another, and managers to communicate with employees. And in some countries, WhatsApp is expanding on this functionality and beginning to explore the payments space as well.


Innovative Existing Uses of WhatsApp

At SIA, our work gives us the opportunity to examine the inner workings of a variety of enterprises, from the larger and more historically significant to the up-and-coming tech startups looking to disrupt the status quo. We’ve been thinking about how WhatsApp could play a role in the work these businesses are doing. So we informally polled a few friends and colleagues working in agriculture, transportation, entertainment and a variety of other sectors, to see how they are already using WhatsApp in their daily work lives. They shared a wide array of intriguing uses – here are some of our favorites:

  • Young, aspiring musicians are selling their albums by collecting a dollar and a phone number, then sending the customer the .mp3 file as an attachment.
  • Agri-enterprises are using the app for spot checking for stock in a warehouse: Employees simply take a picture of warehoused items, while holding up a card with the date to distinguish new pictures from older ones.
  • Companies are using it to send order details for goods and services, and to conduct daily/weekly warehouse reporting.
  • Businesses are digitizing invoices, payment requests and other paperwork by sending the information through WhatsApp messages.
  • Managers are conducting remote problem-solving with colleagues by sharing pictures or video chatting, and also confirming employees are where they are supposed to be through location sharing requests.
  • Car services are bypassing rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft and simply sending clients an estimated time of arrival, a picture of the car that will be picking them up, and the driver’s name and mobile number.
  • Vendors are sending digital receipts to customers as proof of purchase, and posting constant update statuses on their WhatsApp storylines as a means of advertising and brand development.

The list goes on and on. In some cases, companies would not exist if they hadn’t been experimenting with ways to go beyond using WhatsApp for social messaging. Yet all of this information stays on a platform that’s not designed for enterprise resource planning (at least not yet). As a business grows, it will likely need a way to organize the contents of disparate WhatsApp conversations in a more operationalized manner.


Making Messaging Apps Even More Useful to Business

Fortunately, WhatsApp is realizing the demand for enterprise solutions on its platform. It launched a business app for Android in 2018, as the first step in a broader strategy to generate revenue by giving companies the ability to message with their customers – a use for which over 80 percent of small businesses in India and Brazil reportedly use WhatsApp. Given the high level of comfort most mobile users have with messaging, it’s not surprising that it’s the primary way most consumers want to engage with businesses in key markets like India and the U.S., and among the top three channels globally. A Nielsen survey showed that most mobile messaging app users are more likely to spend money at a business they can message directly. Currently, WhatsApp allows businesses to create profiles that can become verified over time; customers can send messages to businesses free of charge, and businesses have 24 hours to respond without being charged (automated message options can help businesses send more messages within this time frame). Communications could include anything from promotions, to order notifications, to grievance redressal and exchanges of questions and answers.

WeChat, the enormously popular Chinese messaging, social media, news and payments platform has also layered on an enterprise product. WeChat’s offerings exceed those of WhatsApp currently, as businesses can not only set up verified profiles and communicate with customers, but can also take advantage of “mini programs”: small apps that don’t have to be installed separately, and that facilitate a range of e-commerce and payments functions. WeChat’s enterprise accounts help businesses manage internal operations and communications in a safer and more structured way than traditional account services allow.

It will be interesting to see how the use cases for WhatsApp continue to evolve over time. Agri-enterprises that manage large volumes of inventory will likely continue using WhatsApp as a port of entry for paper receipts and notes to be digitized. The question will be how these documents can be better organized as part of a broader enterprise resource planning process that provides inventory, financial and operational management solutions. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, WhatsApp messages will even be part of the package companies put together for financial audits.

Whatever the future may hold, it’s clear that messaging apps like WhatsApp are becoming more central to the work of small businesses in emerging markets. They deserve to be a bigger part of the conversation among the development organizations working to support these enterprises.


Hamilton McNutt is Vice President at Strategic Impact Advisors.


Photo courtesy of shankar s.




Technology, Telecommunications
e-commerce, telecommunications