• Shaun Bateman

COVID-19 forces SMEs into ‘business survival master class’

Lockdown offers tough yet invaluable experience for innovative small businesses



The COVID-19 pandemic is putting South African small and medium enterprises (SMEs) under enormous pressure, however, this resilient and highly innovative local business community is putting up a spirited fight for its survival.

“With many smaller businesses used to being highly agile and resourceful, the SME sector is extremely resilient. This is good news because the sector is an important contributor to employment and job creation, and fulfills an important role in supporting the South African economy,” says Mike Anderson, founder, and chief executive officer of the National Small Business Chamber (NSBC).

In a snap online survey conducted the day before the national lockdown commenced, the NSBC found that 86% of the 733 small business respondents were already experiencing negative effects on their operations as a result of COVID-19. Some 88% indicated that they were engaging with fewer customers due to the viral outbreak.

“These times – as tough and lean as they are at present – present opportunities to learn crucial business lessons from the experience, as well as to invest in refining business practices. Tragically, however, these lessons will be hard learnt or may come too late for some businesses.”

Invest time in strategising

“The COVID-19 situation is hugely challenging, but we are all in this together. Small businesses will need to dig deep and use this time proactively. It is worth the investment in time to adapt, refine and enhance a business so that it is ready to operate efficiently and grow as soon as the opportunity arises once more,” Anderson says.

Professionalise your online presence

“Business is increasingly being conducted online, and a professional website and social media presence is of immense value to smaller businesses and offers a relatively low-cost marketing opportunity. This is the time to get your online presence right, and make it as convenient as possible for prospective customers to find your company online.”

Anderson encourages the public to support small businesses where possible, as many companies are still taking online orders and setting up services in advance for when the lockdown is lifted. “Those South Africans who are fortunate enough to still have a regular income and who may feel the need for a little retail therapy during the lockdown, please consider supporting local SMEs where possible. Your support could make a real difference at this time.”

Look after key staff to promote growth

According to Anderson, small businesses often tend to have a much closer relationship with their staff. “For small businesses, in particular, losing talent can have a significant impact on their operations. Although we are in tough times right now, it should be kept in mind that for our businesses to recover we will need to look after our key people who build growth, sales, and revenue.

“All too often, however, valued staff members are tempted to leave small businesses to pursue opportunities at bigger corporates because of the better employment benefits they more commonly offer,” he points out.

Bianca Viljoen, Marketing and Distribution Director for Agility Corporate, says that access to healthcare and employee benefits during this challenging time is perhaps more important to staff members and their employers than ever before.

“At the moment, we are all preoccupied with COVID-19. However, for many years the South African workforce has been affected by chronic diseases such as diabetes, HIV and hypertension. We should not lose sight of the risk that these conditions present to individuals, and by extension their employers,” says Viljoen.

Agility Corporate, which offers fully integrated human capital risk management solutions, recently became a national partner to the National Small Business Chamber.

“For businesses to hit the ground running after lockdown, a productive and healthy workforce will be essential. It is therefore vitally important for employers to safeguard the health and wellbeing of staff as far as possible,” she adds.

With an understanding of businesses of all sizes, Agility Corporate offers a full spectrum of health and other employee benefits to cover employees at every level. Products offered by Agility Corporate incorporate a full range of medical scheme options through Health Squared Medical Scheme, primary healthcare products for lower-income staff, group risk benefits and retirement fund solutions; all of these products are underpinned by the exciting cashback rewards programme, Agility Rewards, and the Agility Employee Wellbeing Programme!

“There are affordable means to provide staff with benefits that are comparable with those offered by larger employers and because of the integrated approach we employ, staff productivity is enhanced.”

Anderson adds: “It is not in the nature of South African SMEs to crawl into a corner and give up when times are hard. Knowing the mettle of our small business owners, it is highly likely that they will emerge from the present difficulties stronger and more competitive than ever before,” he concludes.

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