Brunei once had a reputation as one of Southeast Asia’s key trading hubs. It can become that again, say the makers of Brunei’s first e-business portal.

For over 500 years, Padians were river traders who sold their goods from boats in Brunei’s Kampong Ayer (water villages). Their contribution to the local economy, and Brunei’s reputation in the wider area as a trading port, became invaluable as they brought necessary items directly to residents from shops, farmers and other traders further away.

That’s the kind of entrepreneurial spirit Rushdi Ibrahim and Shafique Hussain want to reinvigorate with Padian.com, a complete e-business hub created by AMIR Consortium Sdn Bhd* and designed to connect Brunei’s small and medium enterprise (SME) operators with local and overseas clients, customers and government tenders.

Padian.com logo

Padian.com's river trader logo

“We wanted people know know: we are here,” says Rushdi, Operations Director and one of the project’s owners. The portal is at the forefront of Brunei’s efforts to restore its historic reputation as a trading center, after decades of watching larger neighbors like Singapore grab the spotlight. Their success will depend on attracting users not just in Brunei, but across ASEAN and the rest of the world. Padian.com is an active participant in trade shows around the world — the two have spent the past week in Tokyo drumming up new business and meeting local entrepreneurs, many of whom remain unaware of Japan’s appeal and marketability in other parts of Asia.

“Our initial focus was to help Brunei SMEs,” says Shafique, Padian.com’s Head of Marketing. “They had good products but not marketing and IT knowledge. We wanted to give them the opportunity to sell their products and image online easily, so they can just focus on producing products.”

“We wanted to make it very Bruneian,” he adds, referring not only to local produce but the country’s image as a place to make deals. “We wanted to help businesses grow, to reach out to others and build a bridge between all countries in the region.”

Padian.com screenshot

Padian.com's landing page

Comparisons to much-larger alibaba.com are warranted, since Padian.com sees itself as a more nimble competitor aimed at the smaller business space, for starters anyway.  “We wanted to make it affordable,” says Shafique, “with no minimum order requirements but with complete online transaction services, designed to make things as easy as possible for smaller business owners.”

A ‘Gold’ subscription, which entitles users to an online base with promotion space and product trackers, as well as access to government tenders, costs businesses about US$80 a month.

Indeed Padian.com’s web interface is simple and easy to navigate, and the team has kept user-friendliness front of mind when adding new features. The four main user categories: Tenders, Directory, Buying and Selling, are prominent at the top of the page. There’s an extensive list of business and product categories down the left side with everything from primary produce and resources to pharmaceuticals and household goods. Members can appear in the Featured Members and Featured Products sections, with links back to more detailed information pages, and Gold subscribers are able to put out their own tenders alongside the government’s. The site is easy to search for both buyers and sellers, with drop down menus narrowing down by industry and country.

Users access a personalized Account page with a full summary of their products and sales. Though Padian.com currently links entrepreneurs only to other businesses, in future it will develop direct B2C (business to consumer) services and online transaction facilities, allowing buyers and sellers to trade without leaving the site.

Padian.com team

L-R: Shafique Hussain and Rushdi Dato Ibrahim promote Padian.com in Tokyo

The development team has a firm grip on the internet’s marketing potential. Padian.com updates its activities regularly on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. The potential is there for mobile apps for iPhone and Android users to do business without needed to sit in front of a computer.

For the time being, Padian.com is English-only but that will change soon as its reach extends beyond Brunei. Over the next six months there are plans to add Japanese, Chinese, Malay and Arabic support with others to follow if demand is there.

Padian.com has three levels of user access*: ‘Buyer’ is a free, more limited subscriber account which allows users to shop for other products without posting their own. ’Gold’ subscribers can post products, buy and sell leads, and access tenders. This level is aimed at SMEs from manufacturers and producers (eg: handcrafts, clothing, food and agriculture) to bigger companies in insurance, construction, information & communications technology (ICT), travel and restaurants. A higher-end ‘Platinum’ subscription is available for large scale businesses and multinationals such as those involved in oil and gas, banking and aviation.

Ask most people what Brunei is famous for, and they’ll say petroleum. What could the country be promoting to the outside world at the smaller, more entrepreneurial end of the scale? The first things that spring to Rushdi and Shafique’s minds are the country’s exotic gaharu wood (agarwood in English and jinkoh in Japanese), Brunei’s unique weaved fabric tenunan, and laila rice as potential exports. As for what other countries can do for Brunei, they say they’ve met with Japanese businesspeople looking to sell mainly quality manufactured goods to an untapped Southeast Asian market, from boats and machinery to sports equipment and apparel.

“We want to cater to the small fish and the big fish as well,” says Shafique. If Padian.com can build a substantial userbase including businesses from their own country and forging links between other players in the region, it might well fulfill its creators’ dream of restoring Brunei’s commercial image and shifting Southeast Asia’s attention a little further east.

 

*AMIR Consortium Sdn Bhd is a collaboration of four companies: Alif Terchnologies, Mimit e-Technology, ISDS, and RITS, and were awarded a tender from the Brunei Economic Development Board (BEDB) to develop the portal.

* Post edited 3/4/2011 to provide more detail on subscription levels.


by Jon Southurst, Tokyo