The month of record

Interview Didier Acouetey: “To support SMEs, we need coalitions”

Founding president of the recruitment firm Africsearch, Didier Acouetey is the initiator of the AFRICA SME CHAMPIONS FORUM, an event dedicated to entrepreneurship and African SMEs. In this interview, he gives an overview of the sector, which has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, while reminding us that solutions exist. Particularly in terms of financing.   

By DBM 

How are African SMEs doing?

Overall, SMEs are not doing very well, which is not very surprising since the effects of the health crisis are still being felt in many countries, where curfews and semi-confinements are still in place. On the other hand, the responses of the public authorities have been largely insufficient. To give you an idea, support to the private sector in developed countries represented 20 to 25% of GDP. On the African continent, we are talking about 1 to 3% depending on the country.  However, Africa is the region of the world where SMEs suffer the most because they already have a lot of difficulties in accessing market financing. Admittedly, some SMEs did receive support for two or three months during the crisis that arose from Covid-19, but the support programs then came to a halt very quickly. Especially since, if we look at this African SME planet, as I call it – estimated at more than 100 million small and medium-sized enterprises – the vast majority is composed of very small enterprises (VSEs), with between 1 and 10 employees. And of this segment of MSEs, you have about 80% that are in the informal sector, which further complicates their access to finance. In summary, the SME world is suffering enormously and I hope that we will have more massive SME support programs in the coming months. 

Supporting the economy means supporting SMEs. What innovative mechanisms should be put in place to meet their specific needs? 

In Uganda, for example, I met a bank that was able to capitalize on its internal incubator, which focused on VSEs, to successfully model their operations and thus set up adequate follow up. From this point of view, the question of follow-up is crucial. And when we talk about support for SMEs, it is not just about financing; there is also capacity building and market access. This is the triptych we need to work on. On the question of market access, we could have imagined, for example, in this context of health crisis, that the States would call on a host of SMEs to participate in screening and vaccination campaigns, to provide food support to disadvantaged populations, and to ensure that food supplies are provided through local SMEs in the sector. Clearly, these companies must be integrated into the dynamics of public projects. If we act on the three levers of action mentioned above – financing, capacity building and market access – we will begin to have a more coherent response. 

Innovation can also play an important role, especially with digital solutions. When we organized the SME forum in 2019, we invited a number of digital players in the field of financing for VSEs and SMEs, who managed to grant more than $500 million in one year. Better still, this type of scheme has sometimes been able to compensate – partially – for the inadequacies of the support provided by the public authorities, as I have observed in South Africa, where certain digital financing players have, during the crisis, managed to support very small businesses that were already on their platform. The amounts involved in this type of operation are certainly not very high, but when you’re talking about a very small company that needs $2,000 and manages to find solutions through these digital channels, I find that encouraging. It also allows us to better map the companies involved and see how their needs have evolved during the crisis. These are initiatives that deserve to be looked at closely.  

However, other support mechanisms are having difficulty making inroads, such as the compartments dedicated to SMEs. How can this relative failure be explained? 

In absolute terms, it is a good way to mobilize resources for SMEs. In China, for example, a new stock exchange for innovative SMEs was recently launched (on November 15 in Beijing, Ed.) and the companies concerned will probably be able to raise billions of dollars because it is a mature and liquid market. For a company to turn to the market to raise capital, it must first be mature enough, have a track record of results, and above all agree to open its capital to third parties. This is an important step in the life of an SME that may prefer to open its capital to a private equity fund, which will have managers able to discuss regularly with its management. The notion of confidence is fundamental here. In the case of the financial market, it is yet another step, since the company opens its capital to totally unknown people. It is therefore necessary to educate these small and medium-sized companies and to instill confidence in them before going public. 

The second aspect to consider concerns the financial markets themselves. In Africa, it is well known that these markets are not deep enough in terms of liquidity and that they do not know enough about their local SME fabric, which in turn affects confidence in these companies. The difficulty is therefore twofold, both on the SME side and on the market front. It will probably take a little more time for these SME compartments to really take off, both in terms of attracting companies and ensuring that investors feel confident before buying this type of asset. 

In conclusion, what prospects do you see for 2022? 

We can see that the recovery is cyclical with the pandemic waves that come and go. And when we see the containment measures that are coming, we have the feeling that we are going to be in a bullish-bearish cycle, with a lot of uncertainties. In this respect, the lesson of these last two years is that clearly, if there is no massive program of support to the economy and particularly to SMEs in Africa, many will still die. The public response must be much more ambitious and much stronger than it has been. We must accelerate the digitalization of all processes and the economic transformation of these SMEs and therefore of our economies.

Finally, and this last point is related to our SME forum, we need to think in terms of coalitions. In 2019, our partners at the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA) have committed to carrying out this coalition program to support SMEs, which was the subject of a dedicated forum in Cairo in November. In 2022, the coalition is expected to be established through a meeting scheduled in Kigali, which will probably take place during the first quarter of 2022. The different actors of this coalition, which are development banks, guarantee funds, investment banks, commercial banks, foundation, will then be able to discuss a coherent program of support, where each actor of the coalition will play its role. This is a real change because until now, each actor has taken initiatives in isolation. In this context where there is a lack of visibility, this coalition is the only one that, in my opinion, is able to bring together actors ready to commit alongside SMEs with a particular focus on women and youth. This is the good news we can announce for 2022.