OPINION | South African Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana is scheduled to deliver his maiden budget speech on Wednesday, 23 February. The country’s SMME sector, which has been hard hit by the impact of COVID-19, load shedding, record high fuel prices, a lackluster economy and political unrest, will be hoping for announcements that highlight and support some of the constraints facing small businesses in the country.
South Africa’s SMME landscape is characterized by a divide between formal urban enterprises located closer to developed business and financial hubs and less formal peri-urban or peripheral enterprises located in townships, informal settlements or among rural communities. Both segments face onerous and often inappropriate regulation. Both segments experience challenges with power supply, crime, municipal, provincial, and national services, expensive transport and poor, pricey and inadequately distributed internet connectivity. Both segments struggle to attract skills.
South Africa’s peripheral small business segment, however, is particularly impacted by the legacy of spatial apartheid. Township enterprises, for example, are located far away from business activity hubs. Moreover, the lack of infrastructure in their communities fails to compensate for their geographical location away from business centres and connectivity and logistics networks. As a result, many of these small periphery businesses are isolated in disconnected, economically marginalized and poorly serviced areas where intense competition from other similar survivalist businesses contributes to low survival rates.
Implementation and coordination of limited, simpler policies for SMMEs required
An efficient and effective state sector has a big role to play in ameliorating many of the disadvantages that SMMEs and small township or periphery businesses suffer. While South Africa boasts an impressive array of policy initiatives designed to support the country’s SMME sector, coordination and implementation is required if these are to adequately address the pain points of enterprises within this sector. A game changing intervention could be the consideration of separate, limited and much more simple legislation for small businesses so that they are not held to the same commitments as large corporates.
Great municipal services and effective, coordinated government policy and implementation at provincial and national levels, for example, would compensate for the isolation of peripheral businesses while also building much more robust local economies in previously marginalized areas. Effective services and good infrastructure will also drive more SMME formation, especially in peripheral areas. Great services will also encourage developed formal businesses with better skills, capital, and networks to invest in peripheral areas. This will improve integration between South Africa’s core and marginalized business segments, drive inclusion, increase growth and expand employment amongst currently economically isolated communities.
In short, government has a critically important role to play in creating the conditions for SMMEs and especially small township and peripheral businesses to grow into larger enterprises. As they grow or partner with established businesses and larger corporations, they will contribute much more meaningfully to broader economic growth, drive much wider inclusion, and increase employment.
Development of SA’s SMME sector critical to enabling economic growth, social stability
South Africa’s SMME sector is critically important because it holds the key to growth, inclusion and long-term social stability – everything that has been eluding South Africa for so long. In most economies around the world, small businesses contribute by far the biggest chunk of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), employment and tax revenue. In South Africa, small businesses contribute only 34% of GDP and just a little over half of South Africa’s already very low jobs numbers.
A larger and more robust small business segment in South Africa will dramatically increase employment, enabling more South Africans to support themselves and their families. The result will be fewer people relying on government for welfare grants and other social services. At the same time, a more robust small enterprise sector will broaden the tax base and increase national revenue. All this will free the government to focus funding on maintaining and expanding the social and economic infrastructure to support growth, create more jobs and broaden inclusion.
In a country with a shrinking tax base and high social wage bill, the advantages of liberating millions of South Africans from state dependence is probably the strongest argument for a concerted effort across all sectors and industries to unlock the potential of South Africa’s SMME sector to re-ignite growth and make general and permanent prosperity a reality for the majority of South Africans.
SMME ecosystem must be properly understood and supported to unlock growth
Standard Bank has developed a range of solutions designed to grow SMMEs as well as bridge the gap between small and peripheral township enterprises – and the formal economy. Most of these revolve around addressing informality by, for example, assisting small emerging enterprises with formal business registration, building and gearing the right payment channels and providing access to business capabilities and skills in order to start, manage and scale their businesses. In addition, the bank has developed a range of physical, digital, and virtual tools and solutions that empower SMMEs with the advice, capital, partners and networks, devices, platforms, and systems to thrive and grow into larger businesses.
Even without starting a single new business, if Standard Bank grew every micro enterprise client into a small enterprise, every small enterprise client into a medium-sized business, every medium-sized business into a corporate client, and every corporate into a multi-national, South Africa would achieve a measurable increase in job creation, employment and GDP growth. This is the potential that Standard Bank works to unlock in every micro and small enterprise client. This is also Standard Bank’s vision for all its small business clients across Africa and how the bank works to drive Africa’s growth.
The small business support and growth ecosystem that Standard Bank has built in South Africa is working. For example, Standard Bank recently partnered with a small produce aggregator enterprise called Spinach King, deploying the bank’s ecosystem of advice, tools and solutions to grow the business into a multi-award-winning company supplying more than 150 retail stores, including Spar Group, Pick n Pay, Wellness Warehouse and various delis in the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. The bank also helped Spinach King build its own branches in Khayelitsha and Phillipi while operating its own production plants in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
This is just one small example of the very big opportunity that South Africa’s small businesses present for economic growth and inclusion if properly understood, professionally engaged with, and supported.
By Simone Cooper, Head of Business Banking at Standard Bank