The outbreak of global pandemics such as COVID-19 comes with a huge price tag. The South African Reserve Bank estimates the current nationwide lockdown will cost the economy about three weeks’ worth of GDP, or 5.8% of R5.3-trillion, which amounts to a staggering R300-billion.
The economic outlook was not any rosier before the outbreak of COVID-19 either. The economy was hobbled by two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, while growth was just 0.4% in 2019 and was predicted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – before COVID-19 snowballed – to be just 0.8% this year.
Growing SME insolvencies
Worse still, the country’s approximately 2.5 million small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) bore the brunt of the pandemic, with the SARB estimating an additional 1,600 SME insolvencies this year.
So what are the future prospects for the SME sector post the COVID-19 pandemic? To what extent, if any, does the pandemic have on the pace of digitisation by the SME sector?
Earlier this year the International Data Corporation (IDC) predicted that the total ICT market in South Africa will reach $26.4 billion in 2020, growing by 2.5% despite the sluggish economic growth. This was at the beginning of 2020 before the outbreak of COVID-19.
With many emerging businesses still reeling from the devastation trail left in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, spending on ICT will likely be scaled down as cash-sensitive SMEs try to stay afloat.
However, many fledgling enterprises will realise that adoption of smart ICT solutions the critical success factors for survival.
Mobile connectivity solutions
It is expected that many industries will continue to work from home. Working remotely comes with its own set of challenges: virtual offices are dependent on mobile connectivity solutions to collaborate, connect and communicate.
To survive and prosper in this new world order, small and medium sized businesses will have to review their business model and integrate smart solutions in order to become more agile and to improve efficiencies.
Adoption of smart solutions can help small and medium sized businesses to significantly improve brand exposure, enable remote working, enhance customer communication, reduce operational costs, improve security and streamline project management. These attributes will be worth their weight in gold after the lockdown.
Usage of digital ads and social media can be very cost effective in maximising exposure of the business, while platforms such as Microsoft Teams, MTN Video Conferencing and Zoom have enabled virtual collaboration during the nationwide lockdown.
Advanced project management software provides an overview of the contribution of each team member to a given assignment in real time, while much they’re contributing to the overall state of the organisation.
Adoption of virtual and online solutions
In the post-lockdown era, cloud services will be key for businesses that will be operating remotely.
Cloud based services will be the key solutions that will help SMEs navigate through the storm. With a remote, home-based workforce, remote desktop technologies will also be essential.
More and more SMEs will require smart solutions such as cloud-based security services to protect the integrity of confidential information in the absence of conventional security measures such as firewalls; cloud-based back-up solutions for data recovery, cloud-based storage solutions for the safekeeping of important company data.
Customised solutions will become some of the tools needed to help with business continuity.
Digital gadgets that avail remote working, telecommuting, and enable all internal and external communications provide great examples of long-term investments that will help to safeguard businesses from any turbulence that may come.
Once the new infrastructure is in place, the entrepreneurs need to develop various scenarios and forecasts, and test their responses and strategies accordingly.
Given the everchanging nature of the current crisis, and the limited available resources in SMEs, leaders need to develop and implement decision making protocols to be able to remain agile and respond swiftly to any changes that may arrive and with minimum involvement.
The nationwide lockdown has accelerated the adoption of virtual solutions and online solutions in the fields of commerce, education and the public sector.
We expect this momentum to continue as SMEs beginning to reap the rewards of adopting new ways of working and using virtual platforms to operate.
The benefits for the economy would also be multi-fold: companies will see more productivity when there staff work from home as employees will spend less time in gridlock traffic.
By working and operating virtually, hard-pressed SMEs will also save on overheads such as rental and other associated expenses such as utility and security bills.
As SMEs seek for smart solutions to help them to buffer the storm, they are cautioned to be wary of opportunistic service providers who over-promise, but lack the infrastructure to deliver. Mobile network operators have built a robust infrastructure footprint that can help SMEs to meet their objectives.
South African based enterprises who are digitising their operations can take comfort in the unmatched network infrastructure that is backed up by eight national data centres, 30 regional data centres, the second biggest fibre network in the country spanning over 18,800 kilometres and a multiple award winning 4G network that covers over 97% of the population.
South Africa is yet to unlock the full potential of the small and medium businesses sector – the industry is expected to continue to play a critical role in job creation and a hub of innovation.
However, the extent to which SMEs manage to integrate smart ICT solutions into their operations will determine their success or failure post the COVID-19 lockdown. Agility and ruthless efficiency will be the buzzwords that define the SMEs of the future.