Thursday, March 17, 2011

How many SMEs?

Everyone would like to know exactly how many SMEs there are. Do you include micro enterprises in this question? In South Africa the numbers bandied about vary from 1,000,000 to 3,000,000. There is no definitive answer however. The Cipro data is badly skewed due to political interference, with numerous dormant cooperatives, closed corporations and companies. No one knows how many sole proprietorships exist in the formal sector, and even less idea of informal sector "businesses". Many cities and towns have discontinued licencing of businesses, and so no one can do a census. From a research and economic development perspective it is a nightmare. The only realistic assessment of the number of economically active businesses possibly lies at SARS, the tax man for the uninitiated. However, they have steadfastly refused to divulge this information or provide access to researchers. So much for transparent democracy, which obviously contributes to the general failure to create jobs. Researchers cannot design interventions without an insight, which we cannot get. However, there a host of other reasons that contribute to the lack of information, such as the large number of state employees with sideline businesses.

Botswana were very organised with a database of just over 13000 businesses classed as SMEs. If you assume, without any real research or statistical validity, that Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho have similar population numbers, and Swaziland approximately half that number, a fair estimate for all these countries would be 45000 SMEs. Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have bigger populations but do not necessarily have economies that are as developed, and i would therefore hesitate to make a guess for these countries. If you assume they have double the number of businesses you would estimate 135,000 in total for the countries surrounding South Africa. But this is guesswork and not research.

However, it does help to contextualise South Africa with business numbers in the millions compared to 135,000 to say 250,000, with approximately equivalent populations of say 50 million people.

I hope this answers the reader question in this regard. However, further input would be welcome in refining this response.
I do have exact data on some countries which is available commercially.

Monday, January 3, 2011

SMEs – SMEs struggling in South Africa. Why?

Many white-owned businesses have struggled since 1994. Many new businesses owned by all races since 1994, have found it difficult to establish themselves and grow.

Obviously the pre-1994 white-owned businesses allocate blame to the change of government. While this is a logical conclusion to draw, how accurate is it? There is no doubt that this had an impact on those businesses who had previously been a supplier to government, as government made an attempt to make their purchases reflect the country’s demographics.

However, what many of these business people have forgotten is that soon after 1994 South Africa rejoined the WTO. Furthermore, many businesses that had previously not been trading in South Africa due to anti-Apartheid trade restrictions, suddenly appeared at the front door to trade in South Africa and to use South Africa as a stepping stone into the rest of Africa.

Yes, globalisation had arrived! The problem is that very few South African SME business people have realised this. They still think they can continue to run businesses suited to lifestyle entrepreneurs without changing their businesses. They are still trying to understand why their profit margins have dropped and remain low. This is purely about globalisation. Thanks Walmart. While consumers may be happy with lower profit margins, SMEs are not. Low margins demand much higher volumes to stay in business.

The questions that this raises are whether these SMEs have increased sales volumes, have they tried to bypass the volume solution by becoming niche players in order to reduce the impact of the high volume/low price competitors? While my comments are based on anecdotal research, it appears to me that not many have changed how they do business. They all seem to be focused on the good old days instead of the future.

SMEs need to accept that they need to carve out a niche for themselves or scale up. The problem is that South Africa offers an incredible lifestyle opportunity, and this can distract attention away from the important issues. The problem is that our new SME owners have arrived bearing similar attitudes and expectations, and are wondering why they cannot make it. We all need to change our thinking going forward, because whether we like it or not we are part of the global village.