A toolkit for any business

South African entrepreneurs are some of the most hungry for good business information if the experience of the small to medium enterprise (SME) toolkit is anything to go by.

The online resource for entrepreneurs, adapted to 32 developing countries and translated into 17 languages, registers 15 000 unique visitors on its South African site a month, one of the highest rates of use among the participating countries, says Sylvia Zulu of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector arm of the World Bank that launched the South African version of the site in 2007.

This may surprise some entrepreneurship developers, given the availability of competing resources in South Africa. The SME toolkit (//southafrica.smetoolkit.org/sa/en) registers the most users in countries where it is one of very few sources of business information.

Belarus records the most users, followed by Benin and Senegal, as well as Mongolia, says Zulu.

The tally of 15 000 may seem insignificant against an estimated one million formal or semi-formal entrepreneurs in South Africa, but most people familiar with business owners’ tendency to regard information and training as lesser needs would not sneeze at the number.

Lack of internet access limits the number, although research shows that owner-managed businesses are the fastest adopters of the internet in South Africa.

Normally the need for finance comes up tops in surveys among South African entrepreneurs, followed closely by the need for business opportunities, security and skilled labour.

Business development experts seldom take the expressed needs at face value as the need for finance is often a manifestation of a deeper lack of business knowledge, which leads to problems in the business and ultimately to cash shortages.

The good news is that the most popular topic on the site is business planning, according to Pierre Mey, executive general manager of Business Partners, the small-business finance house that acts as custodian of the SME toolkit in South Africa on behalf of the IFC.

Finance is only the fourth or fifth most popular topic. But it could be that the need for finance remains the main driver of users to the site.

Entrepreneurs tend to compile a business plan only once they need it to persuade a financier to lend them money.

Mey says, after business planning, the most popular topic on the site is information about various business laws.

A surprisingly popular section of the site is exporting, usually the interest of larger businesses than the typical SME toolkit user.

Zulu says 61% of SME toolkit visitors are entrepreneurs with fewer than 10 employees.

The SME toolkit contains articles, fact sheets, case studies, business calculators and directories covering nearly all topics that entrepreneurs will grapple with at some time in their business career, from HIV/Aids in the workplace to tax laws.

Zulu acknowledges that a problem with offering an information resource to a community of entrepreneurs is that they often ‘don’t know what they don’t know”, making it difficult for them to find their way through an expansive resource without the structure of a training course or the guidance of a mentor.

To counter this, the IFC is developing a diagnostic tool for entrepreneurs aimed at helping them to identify the gaps in their knowledge and their blind spots.

The tool will be available online early next year, says Zulu. In another expansion of the programme the IFC will roll out its Business Edge training programme in South Africa next year. It consists of 37 modular half-day sessions, which entrepreneurs can attend as they need.

Zulu says the training sessions will be offered at marketrelated fees so as not to distort the market by undermining existing commercial training providers.

Business Partners funds a fulltime staff member to manage and localise the content of the SME toolkit.

Although Business Partners’ clients are much larger and tend to be more sophisticated than the
average SME toolkit user, Mey says the financier’s involvement is seen as a social development contribution, a bit of market development—some of the SME toolkit users may one day become Business Partners’ clients—and as part of the advocacy role that Business Partners tries to play as the voice of the South African entrepreneur.

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