Will you partner with us to help small businesses survive the pandemic, thrive in the aftermath, and build self-reliance?

By Clive Allison, Global Sustainability Director, Unilever

While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought an unparalleled threat to the survival of small and start-up businesses, it has also brought opportunities for growth and scale. The Transform Survive & Thrive initiative is helping businesses build resilience and self-reliance. They are looking for partners – does your organisation have skills that could help?

In late November 2020, a mother, and low-income garment worker in Bangladesh, called the Maya helpline. Her nine-month-old baby had severe stomach pains and she didn’t know the cause or what to do. Amidst the pandemic, the Maya team gave expert medical advice via a free telephone consultation, judged the severity of the issue, and provided emotional support to ensure the well-being of the mother too.

The mother was able to access this health support because of our partnership – TRANSFORM – that helps scale businesses tackling social issues.

When the COVID-19 pandemic reached Bangladesh, there was an urgent need to provide access to expert medical advice but unfortunately few organisations had the scale or reach to do this effectively. TRANSFORM worked with Maya, a business that hosts a digital health assistant, to improve their marketing and reach in order to drive down the price of their service, making it more affordable and therefore more accessible to low-income users. In five months, Maya’s users went from 105,000 to 417,000 and their consultations increased by 150%.

Over the last five years, Unilever, the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and EY, established TRANSFORM, an initiative to accelerate support to enterprises that deliver solutions to some of the world’s biggest development challenges. In East Africa, for example, we supported Kasha – an online shop and community for women’s health and well-being – with funding and business support to expand their business from Rwanda to Kenya and serve women from low-income households.

Delivering the Sustainable Development Goals offers the world the business opportunity of a lifetime, and through TRANSFORM we are working with innovative social enterprises and other like-minded organisations to scale business solutions to create a low-carbon, inclusive, and healthier world. TRANSFORM provides grant funding, and crucially, its partners’ expertise in marketing, distribution, digital technology, and business resilience to deliver solutions to improve lives and create wealth. So far, the initiative has supported businesses in 13 countries across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In 2020, when the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt by the businesses TRANSFORM supports, we sought to understand their challenges and concerns so we could offer support tailored to the evolving context. As members of the World Economic Forum’s COVID-19 Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs, we explored business needs based on the different enterprise profiles in the COVID-19 crisis. A ‘struggler’ is defined as an enterprise that has been badly hit by the pandemic and requires support to keep their business going, and a ‘thriver’ is an enterprise with significant business growth opportunities and requires support to scale-up rapidly.

We found that the pandemic had brought an unparalleled threat to the survival of a generation of small and start-up businesses – enterprises that are already forced to balance their books carefully in their first years. These findings were echoed by leading organisations who have estimated that the pandemic’s economic impact will take decades to build back from, with the World Economic Forum saying that “in the wake of the pandemic, small businesses in least developed countries are seeing revenues plummet and are struggling to access financing.”

However, we also found that the pandemic brought opportunities for business growth and scale. We know through our work with TRANSFORM that start-ups in particular can pivot and adapt quickly – they are by their very nature, nimble. And, many did adapt in order to meet new needs for goods and services borne out of the crisis. We have also seen an increase in entrepreneurial activity during the pandemic fueled by demand, and necessity, with people losing their jobs and livelihoods.

“The pandemic has brought opportunities for business growth and scale… We have seen an increase in entrepreneurial activity during the pandemic fueled by demand and necessity.”

Now, more than ever, these businesses need our support to succeed. So, in December 2020 we launched TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive, a collaborative platform to help support and scale business models that will build resilience. Through our online platform we offer a suite of tools, resources and insights, as well as a space where enterprises can connect with partners to solve challenges they are facing.

For businesses of all sizes, the COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point for many reasons and the way entrepreneurial business models and approaches are affected will have an impact on how entrepreneurship is perceived as a job choice in the future. For those in lower-income countries, entrepreneurship could offer a speedier path towards greater economic self-reliance and social impact.

Local social enterprises must therefore be supported, not least because they are one of the most effective and sustainable routes to creating widespread change in developing countries. With the shrinking of the global GDP, development financing already having been reduced and private finance inflows projected to decrease at a greater level than the 2008 global financial crisis, new areas of innovation and support are crucial, and the role of digitisation will be a key component in not just overcoming COVID-19 but for self-reliance.

“Local social enterprises are one of the most effective and sustainable routes to creating widespread change in developing countries.”

The enterprises using the TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive platform are from a range of sectors with varying needs, and we are looking for actors from the private sector and civil society to join the platform and contribute their complementary skills, tools, resources and support to help at-risk businesses succeed.

We are particularly seeking partners who can offer human resources, legal or financial support, or guidance on how to pivot business models and strategies. Could you or your team members bring your skills to work with an impact enterprise on a business challenge they are facing? There are currently 19 projects in the Collaboration Hub on the TRANSFORM Survive & Thrive platform and more being added.

“We are looking for actors from the private sector and civil society to join the platform and contribute their tools, resources and support.”

With our world more interconnected than ever, driving system-level changes requires all of us to unite across traditional divides. The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that no institution or individual alone can address the challenges of our world.

The social enterprises we work with have the local know-how, presence, and are focused on addressing low-income needs in their countries. They are key to ensuring that vulnerable communities emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with hope. But right now, they need our help to survive, and thrive.


If you’d like to enquire about partnership opportunities directly, please email su*****@tr*******.global.

Follow TRANSFORM on Twitter @TRANSFORM_SDGs and LinkedIn

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