Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are central to Vietnam’s economic growth, providing significant contributions to job creation, export promotion and poverty reduction.

However, despite accounting for some 98 percent of the country’s enterprises, 40 percent of GDP and 50 percent of employment, the performance of SMEs is still constrained by many factors, both internal and external, such as shortage of qualified human resources and limited access to technology, as well as administrative hurdles.

Despite the obstacles, the number of SMEs continues to grow, adding around 100,000 in 2016, thanks to government reforms. For this trend to continue, and to meet the goal of one million enterprises by 2020, changes are needed to smooth the entry of firms to the market and help startups to grow. Here are three steps to ensure the sustainable development of smaller firms in Vietnam:

  1. Improve access to credit

Among the detrimental external factors, lack of access to credit is considered the primary obstacle preventing the growth of SMEs. Up until now, banks providing commercial loans have allocated their resources to larger firms rather than smaller enterprises, citing higher default risks, lack of financial transparency and lack of assets as factors in the decision.

Complex banking procedures and a shortage of appropriate loan packages for SMEs compound the problem.

According to the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business 2018’ report, Vietnam ranked 68 out of 190 economies – jumping 14 places against the previous year. The country ranked 29 out of 190 economies in terms of their access to credit. In terms of both score and ranking, Vietnam measured well above the average for OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) members and East Asia-Pacific countries.

The World Bank attributed the country’s position to its legal framework regarding the expansion of collateral assets and the completion of the credit information system from 2008 to 2017. Specifically, the Civil Law 2015, which came into effect on January 1, 2017, has expanded the scope of assets to be used as mortgages, which helps improve access to credit and puts businesses and investors in a better position.

Despite the positive figures, a large number of enterprises still find it cumbersome to access bank credit and are often denied.

Therefore, one of the most important measures to support SMEs is to improve their access to loans. Diversified capital raising channels and a credit market for SMEs, with appropriate lending packages based on demand, could help to decrease the dependency on banks. In return, small firms should work on improving transparency to reduce risks.

  1. Link up to global supply chains

As of 2017, only 21 percent of Vietnamese SMEs were participating in global supply chains, much lower than neighbours like Thailand and Malaysia, sitting at 30 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Integrating further with global supply chains in terms of procurement, operations and sales will allow firms to manage competition, reduce risks and cut costs.

Slow progress in dismantling state-owned enterprises, sluggish productivity and an uncompetitive private sector result in a shortage of private medium-sized enterprises. This ‘middle segment’ needs to link up with well-managed supply chains to dominate markets, gain trust from customers and expand business strategies. Vietnamese firms have struggled to join big markets and are left out of crucial supply chains.

This situation can change. As a member of APEC, ASEAN and the WTO, Vietnam holds a critical position politically and geographically. Vietnam’s proximity to southern China, home to many production networks, also gives it a competitive edge. Taking advantage of these trade opportunities, as well as coming digital and e-commerce trends, would help to streamline the country’s supply chains and build a more dynamic private sector.

  1. Cut red tape

A survey released last year by the Vietnam Private Sector Forum showed that 44 percent of enterprises said they had missed market opportunities because of legal barriers and restrictions.

In an effort to simplify and remove barriers to businesses, Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade (MoIT) has moved to cut business and investment red tape in half. Such a move is designed to make administrative procedures easier for the private sector, and especially small and medium enterprises. The country’s business environment has been gradually changing as the government moves to develop the private sector.

This is a step in the right direction, however, the results are neither meeting the expectations of enterprises, nor government targets. Vietnam’s administrative environment has long been criticised for being too complicated and creating unnecessary barriers for businesses. Analysts often complain that the many conditions and regulations in the country do not meet international standards, such as requirements on minimum or legal capital or human resources rules.

The World Bank suggested that the country needs to do better at supporting early-stage businesses, particularly in dealing with construction permits, registering property and enforcing contracts.

These are just some of the obstacles standing in the way of Vietnam’s smaller businesses. With the Law on Support for Small- and Medium-sized Enterprises (SME Law, 04/2017/QH14) coming into force at the start of 2018, it is hoped that the challenges detailed above will be addressed. A dynamic, competitive and innovative private sector, in which SMEs play a leading role, is a solid guarantee of Vietnam’s future prosperity and growth. The government has shown a desire to help the country’s fledgling firms, now is the time to put words into action.