Small businesses are often touted as South Africa’s best hope for economic growth and job creation. According to 2018 research from The Small Business Institute (SBI), small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up 98% of the country’s economy but deliver just 28% of all jobs. If small businesses are to play the economic role they should, the gap between those two numbers needs to be reduced dramatically. Thing is, those businesses face incredible challenges when it comes to visibility, access to markets, and attracting customers. Providing entrepreneurs with the right technologies and digital skills can go a long way to helping them overcome those challenges.
Access to market
One of the biggest obstacles South African small businesses face is access to markets. It’s easy to see why. Let’s say, for instance, you’ve started a small bakery. Traditionally, you’d have to rely on family and friends to spread the word about your goods and keep growing by word-of-mouth until you could afford paid advertising. Eventually, with enough time and effort, you’ll either end up with a string of bakeries or your baked goods on supermarket shelves across the country. Trouble is, many South African businesses go under before they get there. With the right technological tools and skills, however, gaining access to market can be much simpler. Google My Business allows business owners to create a listing for their business so that people can find them on Google Search or Google Maps. As well as pinning their exact location, business owners can share details such as opening hours, contact information, and a link to their website. And it’s free.This visibility doesn’t only make it easier for businesses to attract customers, it also lends them a greater sense of credibility when trying to get their products and services into retailers or other enterprise-scale businesses.
Digging into the data
Another major issue small businesses face when it comes to attracting and retaining customers is understanding their wants and needs. Many South African SMEs are still stuck using in the analogue world when it comes to things like sales figures and stock-taking. For these kinds of businesses, it’s also almost impossible to get an accurate sense of who their customers are, how they spend their money, and what products are in demand.
Here too, tech has a role to play.
Website analytics, for example, can help businesses understand what people are searching for when they land on their site, which products are the most popular, and even what their customer base looks like. Google My Business accordingly provides a lot of this data, allowing business owners to learn how people find them and where they’re coming from, as well as reviewing clicks, calls, and Business Profile views. But this kind of useful data isn’t just restricted to the online space. Today’s point-of-sale offerings can give business owners real-time insight into what products are selling best at what times and even help them keep stock as they sell. An additional benefit is that having this data on hand takes a lot of the hassle out of bookkeeping, saving valuable time and money. This kind of data allows small businesses to affordably figure out which product or service lines to pursue. Being able to only stock what you need can also be the difference between a business failing or thriving.
While many of the most powerful technological tools aimed at small businesses are either free or affordable, many small business owners may not be aware of them or lack the skills to use them effectively. While this may change over time as more tech-savvy graduates emerge from schools and universities, South Africa simply cannot wait for that to happen. It’s imperative that the private sector partner with the state to educate small business owners on the existence of these tools and ensure that they have the necessary skills to use them.At Google, our Digital Skills for Africa programme aims to do just that.
The free online programme allows people to build up their digital marketing skills at their own pace, learning everything from how websites work to how to export and expand their business internationally. But we can’t do it alone. The more people who come to the party, the higher the likelihood of success is for everyone. After all, if small businesses can use these tools to grow, they’ll be able to employ more people, helping grow the economy. And that, in turn, is good for everyone.