By Ade Fashade
There is no doubt that we live in a world where technology dominates our everyday life choices and decisions. Our access to information and opportunities is now dependent on having the right technological tool and medium. Interaction and engagement across sectors, cultures and society is facilitated by technology. This has become more so for any business that is looking to become relevant in its market environment and more competitive in an increasingly fast-moving and global business environment. While big businesses and multi-nationals are generally making the most of the technological advancement out there, the transition has been a bit slower for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs).
In many advanced industrialised countries like the UK, SMEs are valued as the backbone of the economy. The government have strategies in place to support SMEs in ensuring that they continue to be major avenues for economic vibrancy. Sadly, the same cannot be said in terms of support for the sustainability of SMEs in Nigeria. According to the Federal Office of Statistics of Nigeria, 97% of all businesses employ less than 100 employees. That equates to virtually all businesses in Nigeria! If majority of them continue to lag behind in terms of developing sustainable ICT strategies for their businesses, the impact on the Nigerian economy and its potential to continue to grow and be relevant and competitive in a technologically-savvy global market could be adversely affected.
Much of the problem facing SMEs in leveraging technology in advancing their businesses is down to costs. Many of them have difficultly accessing finance and loans from banks for example, due to the stringent and costly bureaucratic processes, and in many cases, outright rejection. However, SMEs can begin to overcome this by researching and developing cost-effective technological tools that can help advance their businesses, and also consider viable partnerships with either their peers or with larger firms in reducing costs and improving their ICT potential. SMEs must begin to see technology as an opportunistic tool to be able to create, innovate and transform. Mobile technology, social media and cloud computing (a technological phenomenon that is gradually becoming popular with Nigerian businesses) are key technological tools that can be cost-effective in helping to open potential markets both at home and abroad. For SMEs to begin to take full advantage of the opportunities that technology presents to their sustainability and competitiveness, they require support from both government and the corporate sector.
In successfully leveraging technological advancement of SMEs in Nigeria, it is important to establish levels of advocacy and support in order to help them attain their full technological potential. As Nigeria is now fully recognised as one of the fastest growing markets in the world (the 30th largest economy according to the IMF), growing the SME sector is vitally important, especially in the area of technological advancement. The SME sector needs better organisation in order to effectively make the best of its vast potential, and technology will most certainly play a significant part in realising this. An established independent national body that solely supports and advocates for SME needs should be enacted by our legislators. It should be the singular voice of the SME sector on such important issues as ICT sustainability. I am aware there is a National Association of Small and Medium Enterprises (NASME). However, this is a privately-run, under-resourced organisation that does not even have its own dedicated website! (except for a brief information page hosted on the African Heritage Institution website.
An established, legally constituted body can, for example, provide investment and facilitate the development of Business Enterprise ‘hubs’ across the country where SME can have access to ICT tools in helping their businesses prosper. These Business hubs will provide much-needed ICT support, especially to new and emerging SME start-ups, who may be unsure of where to make a start in terms of ICT leveraging for their business. These ‘hubs’ will serve as a meeting place for owners of small businesses to network, hot-desk, share advice/information, and support each other. More of these types of business technology-centred hubs will improve the attitudes of SME towards embracing technology as a crucial tool to business sustainability.
Another important way of advancing technology for SMEs is partnership with larger businesses and corporate organisations. I believe that large corporate bodies have a role to play to support SMEs in this area. It is possible that SMEs may not be wholly attracted to this idea, perhaps due to fear of being ‘taken over’ by the ‘big boys’!. However, I think larger organisations can partner with SMEs through mentoring and networking support. Larger businesses may choose to support SMEs with a social aim as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility objectives. Partnerships of this kind can be profitable, as it can be a ‘win-win’ situation for both SME and the larger corporate body in advancing both their brand in a competitive continental and global market. Foreign multinationals, who make huge profits in Nigeria, can also be encouraged to support SMEs in leveraging technology, as way of putting something back into society.
These are potentially exciting times for SME owners and partnerships. Despite the negativity that currently engulfs the political and economic life in Nigeria, the country has become a key player in a booming global market environment. Effectively exploiting its vibrancy will be hugely dependent on embracing the relevant technological options and opportunities. CEOs of SME will have to show strong and committed leadership in the area of technology. They will need to develop a positive and strategic approach to leading their organisations in dealing with the technological advancement and changes that SMEs are facing and will face in the coming years. Their leadership and commitment to ICT strategies will determine the sustainability of their businesses now and in the future. Technology is making the business world smaller, and SMEs must ensure that they are not squeezed out and left behind.
Ade Fashade, Human Development & Public Policy Consultant
***Still unsure how to start leveraging technology for your business, register to attend LEAP’s 9th CEOs Forum holding on May 15th, 2014, here now.