Wednesday, June 10, 2020

COVID-19 & Africa SMEs: Refocus, Reimagine,Regionalize & Revamp-Financing! By Dr. Robin Sanders

(published also in, June 12, 2020-
It's time to zero in and take an in-depth look at the impact of COVID-19 on Africa SMEs -- particularly the assistance they need in the midst of and following this pandemic. Now is the time to Refocus, Reimagine, Regionalize, and Revamp-Financing for Africa's SME! The sector, as most African countries currently appreciate, is a key catalyst  and driver for the region's economic growth, development, job creation, transformation, and growing the middle class. 
These four R's -- Refocus, Reimagine, Regionalize, and Revamp-Financing -- are fundamental to increasing assistance; offering more tools; expanding regional trade options; and ensuring there's more SME COVID financing. All with the goal of being transformative and helping small businesses weather the peri-COVID (as lockdowns ease), and post-COVID periods.

Where We Are:
As COVID-19 continues its march across the Africa Region, with over 267,000 people infected, and more than 7000 deaths (links are dashboard-live), experts from around the Continent are searching for different therapeutic solutions, including traditional remedies (Madagascar's Artemisia Annua) to this deadly virus. 
The impacts of the crisis range from reduced trade, vast unemployment, further underemployment, closure of schools and businesses (hitting SMEs hard), and an uptick in food insecurity (on top of East Africa's locust infestation). The World Bank has projected a negative (-2.1 to -5.1) Africa economic growth rate for 2020-2021, making this the first time in 25 years that the region will face a Continent-wide recession. The magnitude of the health crisis also exacerbates existing issues such as: weaknesses in country health and education sectors (i.e. 200 doctors per 1000 people, few with national healthcare systems); COVID mental health issues; and, nearly 243 million African children not in school out of a world-wide figure of 1.6 billion (World Bank, WFP).1 
Thus far, economic remedial responses have included: 
All of these are welcome initiatives. That being said,  McKinsey's Africa Division in a May 19, 2020, virtual brief (attended by CEO-FEEEDS) estimates USD$50 billion is required now to help Africa SMEs weather COVID. For African startups, the picture is even more stark as investments toward them have drop by USD$80 million. To date, only USD$20 billion has been dedicated overall to the sector, reflecting that more strategically needs to be done.2

There is a strong now-argument that long-term thinking, rather than short, temporary fixes need to materialize. We already see challenges in the region with short-term policies focused on 2-3- month temporary financing or benefits. But, hunger, and economic uncertainty continue to rise, along with the stark possibility that many SMEs may not bounce back. So, what to do and how to start addressing these issues strategically for the sector? Here is where the four R's come in and can have impact.

Refocus & Re-Imagine!
Africa SMEs like most small business sectors around the world, tend to be where creativity, innovation, and imagination thrive. Refocusing and Reimaging means supercharging what Africa SMEs are doing, can do, and opening up new avenues for their growth. If an African nation has SMEs in (or the potential to be in) sectors such as software/app development, digitization, healthcare, education, transportation, small scale manufacturing or farming, then help them (policies, financially) re-invent all or part of their businesses. This includes advancing any elements that can have "touchless," client action -- as this will be key in the peri-COVID and post-COVID periods. One can see with sites like Nigeria's "Okra," (links bank accounts to apps),  Jumia (Amazon-like shopping), and Sokowatch (Kenya-based merchant-supplier hub linking East Africa) all currently have increased usage as African consumers become more accustom and trusting of these services.3

More Africa nations should consider creating small business ministries (or dedicated agencies), so that SME policy and financial needs are not subsumed under a broader ministry like trade or industry. Presently, there are only three countries (Liberia, Republic of Congo, and South Africa) with standalone ministries of small, and medium size enterprises. South Africa was the last to make this change in 2016. FEEEDS has advocated for the key role of SMEs in nation building since 2011; for separate SMEs ministries with numerous Africa country leaders since 2017; and in Sanders' book Rise of Africa SMEs; and, in a range of business articles from Nigeria's Guardian to

If establishing a SME ministry is not possible then increasing the existence of separate SME agencies, functioning like small business administration where policy, financing, support, training and credit can all be housed. Basically, a SME one-stop shop handling across-the-board needs, is what is missing. There are some good examples of the "agency-like," option in countries like Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. But, whatever is done -- more SME ministries, or agencies -- the result must be an Africa vision and version, localized for country needs.

The U.S. has the Small Business Administration (SBA), servicing some 30 million US small businesses. Interestingly, 80 percent of U.S. small businesses are female-owned, similar to Africa where women mostly run micro, small, and informal businesses. Unfortunately, the similarities continue in other not so positive areas. An April 28, 2020, "CNN-Quest Means Business," broadcast estimates that 50 percent of U.S. small businesses (mostly female-owned) may not be able to bounce back post-COVID.  The numbers are equally as high for Africa SMEs, meaning the livelihoods of women are the most affected.5

One silver lining though, reflective of the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses, and female-owned ones in particular, are the numerous examples of reimaging already underway during COVID by SMEs world-wide, such as ATM-like structures in Vietnam dispensing rice to combat hunger, and great Africa SME solutions such as:6
  • Burkina Faso & DRC: pedal-powered or automatic, water-conserving handwashing machines in front of supermarkets.
  • DRC: fashion designers such as Hanifa Designs, using 3D-printing, avatars, and 3D animation models to launch runway Internet fashion show.
  • Egypt: bakeries moving from traditional baking to ready-made, untraditional boxed baking mixes (Cairo's Nola Bakery).
  • Kenya: small businesses, manufacturers, and technical institutions retooling from school uniforms (DEKUT), garden cloths, fashions and textiles to making regular and surgical masks; app-driven independent delivery services (GLOVO); Zoom-like virtual meeting platform (Gumzo); "boot" groceries shops (conversion of car trunks to small stores); (Sokowatch).
  • Nigeria: social enterprise radio programs for e-learning, given lack of computers and Internet/broadband access, broadcasting in 12 states (ACE Charity).
  • Tanzania: "The Corona-Check App" using artificial intelligence so one can self-check symptoms and personal data is reportedly protected; ExamNet app to assist students prepare for year-end exams (in English and Kiswahili). 
  • South Africa: low-pressurized, self-sustaining COVID health pods; low pressure reduces spread, better protects healthcare workers, and helps patient's breath; Saloodo! cargo app (eliminates face-to-face bookings), addressing Zimbabwe-Botswana-South Africa border backlogs.
  • Senegal & Madagascar: conversion to more manufacturing of traditional remedies like Artemisia Annua (Natura-Bio Dakar, Zahana Madagascar).  
  • Sudan: converting mini buses to field hospitals, or  ambulances.
  • Rwanda, Uganda, & South Africa: setting up bleached-laced handwashing stations at super markets and transport sites.
Despite these praiseworthy examples, challenges remain in permanently (not temporarily), moving the needle forward on strategic comprehensive, long-term support to Africa SMEs. The answers lie in regionalizing and revamping the approach to financing.

Regionalize: Enter AfCTA - Its Supply Chains
First, hats off to the Africa Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA), given that prior to COVID-19, it had already included in its various working groups a focus on Africa SMEs. Although, COVID-19 put the July 1, 2020, implementation on hold until late 2020 or early 2021, the new AfCTA Secretary-General, Wamkele Mene, said that he "saw the Agreement as being a key tool for Africa's post-COVID recovery," (6/10/20 virtual brief).
7   In addition the AfCTA has created an "Africa Business Council," which will be the vehicle for stakeholders businesses, particularly working with the Regional Economic Communities' (RECs) efforts to incorporate SMEs into various related aspects of the AfCTA and regional trade.8

That being said, we all know that Africa SMEs have historically struggled with barriers to regional markets, such as cross border trade of goods and services, high tariffs and taxes, and logistical impediments. More recently though, there is a double appreciation of both the economic value of Africa SMEs as they contribute 50% to the region's GDP (McKinsey 5/19/20 virtual) and because they cannot be left out of any trade discussions like AfCTA, or the current US-Kenya Trade negotiations as so underscored by Kenya President Kenyatta (6/18/20 virtual brief), which began July 7, 2020, and are ongoing. However, ensuring sustainable supply chains for SMEs must also be included in these discussions. Resolving and regionalizing supply-chains and value-additions will make the difference for small businesses (larger ones too) between surviving and thriving. A few recommendations for Africa SMEs or policy makers to consider:
  • Examine where SME past suppliers were; can they be localized, or regionalized.
  • Rethink procurement processes (digitalization).
  • Repurpose part of an SME business, keeping as many supply chain issues in-house or in-country.
  •  Use e-commerce whenever possible (i.e. Alibaba's Electronic World Trade Platform, or EWTP, created to advance SME world-wide e-commerce, has significantly helped Africa's sector sell its products).
  • Create an "Africa SME Continental E-Commerce Platform" to assist small businesses (as an alternative to EWTP), something the AfCTA or REC's could examine; this also allows SMEs to by-pass costly intermediaries.
  • Create more "touch-less," avenues in products themselves, or in product delivery options.
  • Ensure Special Economic Zones (SEZ) have a policy framework for small-large company partnerships; SEZ's can create an environment to build relationships and confidence between small and large businesses.
  • Take advantage of new COVID supercharged sectors (e.g. health, education software/app development, food security/agriculture, renewables, delivery, digitization etc.).
  • Help connect SMEs (locally and regionally) to expand selling potential, production capacity and partnerships.
Revamp-Financing: Toughest Area for Last!
Financing (credit, loans, access and investments) has always been a struggle for SMEs everywhere, but particularly in Africa. COVID-19, and  its aftermath, will continue to exacerbate these existing challenges.

What is clear from the above is that Africa should consider developing a continental policy and financial framework for Africa SMEs, not just for these COVID times, but beyond. Instead of each institution (domestic, regional or international), donor, company or government having their own "framework." This would provide a similar set of guidelines, SME definitions (as right now they are all over the map), and data, from which all could pull. One example could be what FEEEDS outlined in 2017 called the "Africa SME Strategic Plan," or Africa SSP (Rise of Africa SMEs, pp. 390-395). The Africa SSP listed seven overarching pillars for better long-term, structural and coherent support to the sector.  Below are an additional six recommendations added to the original seven points of the FEEEDS Africa SSP as a result of COVID-19:9

FEEEDS' COVID Additions To Its Africa SME Strategic Plan 
(Africa SSP)
  • More Africa-generated funds and initiatives raising monies strictly focused on COVID's impact on SMEs from the African private sector, AfDB, and African Union outside of their normal SME funding.
  • African-created SME clearing or payment settlement platforms (using blockchain), similar to what the Africa Export-Import Bank is creating for government use and the larger Africa private sector during COVID; this would help shore-up transparency and buyer confidence.
  • Increase Africa-generated initiatives that backfill the drop in remittances, on which many Africa SMEs depend, including informals.
  • Initiatives which focus on assistance to country Diaspora (similar to Senegal's), as many of them are now unemployed and may not qualify for third country assistance.
  • Multilateral institutions providing COVID impact facilities targeted for SMEs through their country governments (NB: as of July 2020, IMF still had USD$750 billion on its balance sheet  in its lending capacity still on the sidelines, which some could be tapped to help African governments better assist its SMEs).
  • Increase local financing power provided by facilities and guarantees receive from multinationals to better support SMEs with such things as:
      a.) credit and bank loan extensions
      b.) tax and royalty deferrals, or tax holidays
      c.) assist with more mobile banking tools

      d.) more un-bank SMEs to banked, using mobile banking tools (Nigeria alone has 60 million unbanked)
      e.) business rent and lease payment extensions
      f.) debt forgiveness
    • g.) special 2-3year interest rates for SMEs
      h.) fee waivers (on ATMs & mobile cash transfers)
      i.) increase daily cash transfers and withdrawals
      j.) increase grants and training

Some countries have stepped up, but overall efforts remain sporadic and piecemeal, instead of continental and strategic. Here are a few examples of what has been done in some countries:10
  • Kenya: Financial assistance to SMEs in key sectors such as farming, manufacturing, retail and VAT refunds. Targeting  informal sector in stimulus package civil works opportunities.
  • Nigeria: Selected banks offering more quarterly foreign exchange windows and amounts for SME importers.
  • Senegal: Payment assistance to Diaspora. Many have lost their jobs, reflective of the overall downturn in their ability to send remittances, which have dropped from $48 billion in 2019 to $37 billion since COVID-19.
  • Senegal: Three-month extensions on SMEs bank loans, tax adjustments; and assistance of $USD1.6 million to help small holder farmers.
  • South Africa: Assistance on rent/lease payments; $USD4.4 million for small retailers and manufacturers; and, $USD3,000 to help SMEs in the tourism sector.
In sum, COVID has required almost every sector and person to figure out not only how to survive during this period, but also how to come out the other end still being able to thrive. These four R's, Refocus, Reimagine, Regionalize, Revamp-Financing could apply almost to anyone, anywhere. However, for Africa SMEs, they will be key. A continent-wide approach not only addresses these four R's but would provide a much-needed coherent continental framework for stronger, sustainable support to the Africa SME sector. This will be important not only to helping the region climb out of recession, but also transform, allowing SMEs to get back to the business of contributing to the region's economic growth, development,  poverty reduction, and job creation.


1. Dr. Muhummad Ali Pate, Global Director Health and Nutrition & Population, World Bank, 4/28/20; USAID (virtual brief), 5/5/2020; WFP Director David Beasley, Atlantic Council, (virtual brief) 5/8/2020.
2. McKinsey Chief Africa Division, Ache Leke, CCA, 5/19/20, (virtual brief). "Quartz Africa," 5/4/2020 
3. "Global Business Africa," (Okra, Jumia, Sokowatch), 6/9/2020 (broadcasts)
4. The Rise of Africa SMES(pp160-166).
5. "CNN International - Quest Means Business," 4/28/20 (broadcast).
6.  "," 4/13/20 (Vietnam); CNN International," 4/27/2020 (Nigeria); "BBC Focus on Africa," 5/12/2020 (Kenya, Sudan); "Global Business Africa," 6/7/20 (Kenya-Gumzo), 5/8/2020 (South Africa); "Africa Live, CGTN," 4/27/2020 (Burkina), 5/1/2020 (Egypt, Kenya-GLOVO, Uganda), 5/20/2020 (Senegal), 5/28/2020 (South Africa-Saloodo!); 5/28/2020 & 6/8/20 (Tanzania-Moses Rogers Mbaga), 6/7/2020 (DRC-Dominic Kabula), 6/15/20 (DRC-Hanifa Designs by Anifa Mvuemba) (broadcasts).
7. AfCTA Secretary General, Wameke Mene, 6/10/20 (virtual brief), U.S. Chamber. President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, 6/18/2020, (virtual brief), Atlantic Council. President Kenyatta, 6/26,2020 (virtual brief), Corporate Council on Africa Leaders' Summit.
8. USTR Assistant Trade Representative Constance Newman Keynote Speech, Annual FEEEDS-GALLUP Africa Program, "Update on Today's US-Africa Trade Relationship," July 23, 2020 (virtual brief) 
9. The Rise of Africa SMES, (pp 390-395); Africa Live, CGTN, 5/4/2020 (Nigeria) (broadcast); CFR, July 1, 2020, (virtual brief).
10. "Global Business Africa," 5/23/2020 (Kenya, Kenyatta speech); Africa Live, CGTN, 5/28/2020 Senegal), 5/19/2020, 6/4/2020 (South Africa) (broadcasts). President Uhuru Kenyatta, Atlantic Council (virtual brief) 6/18/2020. Polaris Bank and others, Nigeria, 6/17/2020 (emails & flyers to clients).

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