Even before COVID-19 hit South Africa, as the first black, female-owned company in the transport safety industry, we have been no stranger to business challenges.
Our company, ITraffic, which manufactures road restraint systems, is part of an industry where, for many decades, there have been only three key players in the country.These are the companies which, with access to markets, could contribute towards economic growth and much-needed jobs—particularly for the youth who are most affected by South Africa’s extremely high unemployment level.
But in an economy characterized by high levels of market concentration, excessive bureaucracy and red tape, small players have limited opportunity. Outdated regulations, rules and procedures that are needlessly complex create unnecessary roadblocks, strengthening the monopoly and limiting the space for entrepreneurship and job creation.
With COVID-19, we became even more vulnerable as we could no longer physically approach different organization to fish for opportunities. Maintaining networks has also become a challenge. While the government offered COVID-19 relief funds and loans to micro, small and medium-sized (MSME) enterprises, some entities were unable to access them. And those that did, will later find themselves in debt, putting them in even more risk.
Snapping out of the COVID-19 pandemic paralysis and accepting the new reality that our business—which specializes in innovative road safety and technological solutions—will no longer be the same, was a necessity. We had to adapt or die!
To survive, we committed ourselves becoming more pro-active in rebuilding our business model, forming new alliances, and creating a culture of perseverance and resilience. This meant taking decisive steps to “failure proof” the business and stretching our resources to avoid drowning in debt. We are also deliberately interacting with other MSMEs, building networks and making sure that we are well exposed. We are now more intentional about demanding change in our sector.
However, there is no magic wand, nor is there a one size fits all solution that applies to all MSMEs. Each business is different, operating in different industries and each with its own dynamics.
Efforts to encourage people to be entrepreneurial during and after this pandemic will not work if access to key markets remains highly restrictive. What is needed is urgent structural change that will create space for equal opportunities and economic policy adjustments that will remove distortions and imbalance in various sectors to breakdown old and persistent patterns of dominance. The government needs to hold organizations accountable for transformation.
We also need to have a conversation about support provided to MSMEs, as often agencies created for this purpose are staffed by people with no hands-on entrepreneurial experience. To succeed, we need support from experienced people who can understand the challenges faced by MSMEs and are to guide accordingly.
Within South Africa’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, a focused support program for MSME participation in the manufacturing value chain was recently announced. The plan includes targeting specific products for manufacturing by MSMEs for both the domestic market and for export. It also allows for the provision of business and infrastructure support, financial assistance through loans and blended funding, facilitating routes to market, and assistance with technical skills, product certification, testing and quality assurance.