ITU’s SME community is growing and going global

SME digital transformation SME digital transformation

COVID-19 has severely impacted small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) around the world. Engaging with these businesses to help them innovate, build resilience and expand into new markets is more important than ever before.

SMEs comprise more than 90 per cent of businesses worldwide, providing more than 50 per cent of employment. Their efforts directly contribute to the growth of the global economy and progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This is why supporting SMEs to continue their innovations, connectivity and digitization processes is crucial to build back effectively and efficiently.

By engaging SMEs in international standards development and working towards interoperability of new tech solutions, ITU is supporting SMEs and start-ups in their work to form new partnerships, achieve scale and reach global markets.

Around 10 per cent of ITU’s industry members are SMEs.

And to encourage more SME participation – especially from start-ups and smaller SMEs – ITU introduced reduced membership fees in January 2020.

To become a part of ITU's innovative SME network, write to

A growing community at ITU and beyond

SMEs and start-ups are engines for innovation in information and communication technologies (ICTs). Participating in ITU's work, they are bringing ideas and solutions in important areas such as health, finance, transportation, education and smart cities, leveraging solutions in AI and machine learning, small satellites, blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), service quality assessment, quantum information technology, and more.

"SMEs play a vital role in bringing the benefits of the digital economy to everyone, everywhere. They are able to adapt quickly and work nimbly to meet the needs of developing countries and are a big driver of the global economy as a source of new ideas and innovative thinking," said ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao.

At ITU, SMEs are an important, growing part of the community, with Resolution 209 passed at the last Plenipotentiary Conference in Dubai, 2018 encouraging their involvement in the work of the Union.

SMEs can participate either as Sector Members or Associates in any of the three ITU sectors: Radiocommunication (ITU-R), Telecommunication Standardization (ITU-T) and Telecommunication Development (ITU-D).

Start-ups and SMEs can join the ITU membership to work together with 193 ITU Member States and about 900 companies, universities, and international and regional organizations. Opportunities are available to partner with recognized global business players and network with over 20,000 leaders and experts in telecommunications, satellites, broadcasting, computing and more

To strengthen collaborations with SMEs, ITU has also signed memoranda of understanding with global ICT coalition the World Information Technology and Services Alliance (WITSA) and Argentina-based SME association CABASE.

Incubating local solutions for global impact

Studies by the OECD and the International Trade Centre have found that SMEs struggling due to COVID-19 need support for resilience, advice on business continuity and help with digital transformation.

The ITU Smart Incubator supports technology-oriented entrepreneurs and start-ups in their early development stages. As small businesses innovate in fields such as AI, blockchain and IoT, the incubator will connect these businesses with new partners in the ITU community to test new solutions, drive their development and help these businesses to grow.

The Accelerator will pick projects which support economic recovery, healthcare systems, SMEs and citizens in overcoming the effects of COVID-19. There will be an exchange of projects between the Accelerator and the ITU Smart Incubator, said Alexey Shadrin, CEO of Evercity. ITU will assist in the assessment and structuring of pilot projects, with Evercity providing expertise in climate change and impact investment, as well as in blockchain and IoT.

ITU Smart Incubator is looking for Knowledge and Implementation Partners (KIPs) to grow its initiative for greater impact. To become a KIP, contact

Boosting digital skills in SMEs

ITU also provides a platform for SMEs to improve their leadership and digital skills and make their solutions more viable.

The Digital Transformation Centres, a global network of centres set up by ITU and Cisco in 2019, trains citizens in basic and intermediate digital skills that will enable them to participate in the digital economy. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, their trainers will conduct remote learning sessions.

ITU is also a founding partner of the EQUALS initiative, which among other activities and programmes, provides skills and training for women entrepreneurs to bridge the increasing gender digital divide. With COVID-19 increasing our reliance on digital services globally, it's important for girls and women to have equal access to information and skill-building opportunities.

Recognizing SME efforts

As the world recovers from the pandemic, it is important to rethink the value chains of the digital economy. Without an environment that enables digital innovators, the use of ICTs will fail to create economic growth or provide sustainable livelihoods.

Some of these solutions come from small and medium-sized businesses who work closely with communities. The 2020 ITU Innovation Challenges was one such platform for innovators and ecosystem builders to present projects that make their communities a thriving digital society.

The winners of this competition offered a range of ideas, from creating a mobile content aggregation and advertising platform for a post-pandemic world and enabling smallholder farmers to reduce waste to providing talent development platforms and addressing the gender gap in cybersecurity.

The ITU Digital World SME Virtual Awards ceremony, to be held from 30 November to 7 December 2020, will acknowledge start-ups and SMEs creating innovative tech solutions for connectivity, smart cities, e-health and digital finance.

Ghana-based SME Vokacom, whose business model won a prize during the ITU Telecom World 2019 Awards, said: "Our main reason for coming to ITU Telecom World was to make the most of the opportunity to tell our innovative solution story to the world through exposure to the event’s global platform, so we can attract a lot more countries to use our universal digital addressing solution, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. This will in turn connect us to buyers, investors, partners and sponsors."

Aside from mentorship opportunities, participants in these events can also benefit from pitching sessions and masterclasses.

Open to all, interested readers are encouraged to sign up for online masterclasses as part of the ITU Digital World SME Virtual Awards 2020 here.