Building sustainability for women-owned MSMES in COVID-19 pandemic era

It is a general consensus that the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the world in unprecedented ways. For most people living in this time and age, the thought of a global disease outbreak that could completely alter our way of life was never imagined or anticipated, much less prepared for. Thus the accompanying shocks and lingering uncertainty from households to global corporations has been unparalleled.

While the larger-scale economic impacts of the outbreak especially on large businesses are obvious and are currently being addressed by most governments, however, the impact on the fate and survival of micro, small and medium-scale enterprises, especially across Africa is simply disastrous.

Prior to the pandemic MSMEs have been riddled with challenges ranging from access to finance; technical and non-technical support; infrastructure and legal, as well as regulatory and policy obstacles to business development.  The effect on small businesses is a major concern because they are the ‘engines’ that drive the economic development of developed and developing nations, accounting for over 90% of businesses consequently accounting for job creations, taxes and contribute to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating the challenges already faced by small businesses on both the labour demand and supply sides, as a result of higher levels of vulnerability and lower resilience because of their size. A  subsidiary of the World Bank known as We-Fi, notes that the supply side would see a drop in capacity utilization as a result of the lockdowns, as well as the reduction in labour supply from affected workers and from caregivers as a result of school closures. On the demand side, MSMEs are facing increased job losses and layoffs, as firms become unable to pay staff, as well as decreased spending by households and businesses. 

The coronavirus-small business dilemma comes with a different twist in Africa where women account for around 75% of small business owners especially in consumer-oriented sectors. Recognizing this difficulty that the pandemic presents to women, the Clean Technology Hub and CINOLU as both entrepreneurship innovation hubs based in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, organized a webinar for women entrepreneurs. The event featured experts in various areas of business development especially in view of the emerging business landscape and explored topics ranging from business risk management to SME adaptability and financing for small businesses.

The point was emphasized by the all women expert speakers at the webinar that due to the social roles played by women in the society, the virus will increase the overall burden on women who serve as unpaid caregivers in the society. This is in addition to their regular everyday job and the added burden of home-schooling and child care in the face of school closures. Furthermore, with the rates of Covid-19 rising steadily, and several relatives requiring care, many women are struggling with balancing these different roles whilst dealing with the changing business environment presented by the pandemic.

However as the experts shared, it was not all gloom as the insights they shared confirmed that one major result from the coronavirus pandemic was a growing stronger online community, which small businesses must leverage on in order to survive. Secondly, the experts further opined that the market will experience a shift in consumers’ attention to essential services and that this will threaten the sustainability of businesses that are not in that category. Small business owners were advised to reinvent their businesses to reflect the changing times; put in place insurance plans to protect equipment and property not easily replaced; shed off unnecessary costs and finally ensure to keep in touch with customers on a regular basis. 

The panel experts advised on the need to build their sustainability strategies around PESTEL– Political, Economic, Social Issues, Technology, Environment, and Legal factors. In view of the technological transitioning, it is pertinent for small businesses to invest in digital marketing and brand building. Unfortunately, many women remain technology shy but should be motivated to start experimenting with social media platforms and be consistent in their use until it becomes second nature. 

Admittedly, there are brick-and-mortar businesses that cannot easily transition their businesses online; however, such businesses need to put strategies in place to build customer loyalty and conditions that increase safety assurance for their customers. In order to increase revenue streams, businesses need to also consider developing new product lines or streamlining their offerings to focus and build expertise on the few products available.

A lot of the challenges experienced in financing arise from business owners not putting the right structures in place thus negatively affecting their investment-worthiness. In order to remain competitive, small business owners need to seek out relevant networks and form supportive partnerships to synergize their strengths. These also increase their access to growth opportunities, capacity building and growth investment opportunities. However, the experts stated that women-owned or led MSMEs also need to understand their business growth phase in order to know the suitable types of investors for that stage and avoid wasting time chasing unrealistic endeavours.

In conclusion, this is agreeably a very challenging time for most people, and women business owners considering the multiplicity of roles they play are advised to maintain a positive outlook, understand their stressors, get into regular routines including exercise routines, and invest in holistic and deliberate self-care to keep a healthy body and mind. 

Chidinma Ejike coordinates the School and Sustainability Program and is the Senior Associate  – Environment and Climate Change at Clean Technology Hub

Ifeoma Malo is the CEO of Clean Technology Hub

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