The South African SME toolkit

6 September 2007

Global computer giant IBM, local company Business Partners, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Department of Trade and Industry have come together to offer South African entrepreneurs and small enterprises a free web-based toolkit to help them start, finance and grow their businesses.

The South Africa Business Toolkit, launched on Tuesday, contains “the latest information and communication technologies to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets learn and implement sustainable business management practices”, IBM said in a statement.

The aim, IBM said, was to increase the reach of South African small business into the global economy by improving the productivity, efficiency and capacity of the estimated 600 000 active small businesses in South Africa, as well as by improving their access to capital and new markets.

The South Africa toolkit was developed by IBM and the IFC, a member of the World Bank Group. It is available both as online and offline modules which include the website, offline CDs, mobile alerts and classroom training.

“The SME Toolkit is a particularly powerful combination of technology and business expertise in a country such as South Africa, where there is so much potential for small and medium business growth,” said IBM South and Central Africa MD Mark Harris.

Specially designed free tools
The toolkit website contains information and tools to address accounting and finance, business planning, human resources, legal and insurance, marketing and sales, operations, and technology needs. For example, a business owner can quickly go to the site, find templates for employee evaluations, then log off.

Among the specially designed free tools are:

  • An online calculator to help businesses determine their readiness for financing.
  • Software to build a website.
  • Business forms for employee performance evaluations.
  • Community tools such as online conferencing, blog capability, group calendars.
  • Survey and quiz builders to help small businesses make decisions.
  • A multilingual business directory to help small businesses link locally, regionally and globally.

“Small businesses are the growth engines of the world’s economies, yet their success rate is not as good as it could be simply because of a lack of access to good business management practices,” said IFC director for Africa Thierry Tanoh. “Giving small businesses the information and new collaborative technologies they need will help them grow and prosper.”

Small businesses can, through the toolkit, receive business training delivered via classroom workshops and partnerships with local support providers. The toolkit can also help small businesses go global by providing detailed market access, investment and trade information for the 64 countries most exported to.

In South Africa, where an estimated 70% of new businesses fail within 18 months, the toolkit has been designed to provide the access and expertise to enable small business to connect to the world economy.

“Many entrepreneurs struggle through their challenges laboriously, and many of them get it right, after they have tried and failed a few times,” said Ferose Oaten of Auto Vehicle Test Centres AVTS. “Some don’t get it right at all, as they think that a good idea is enough.

“This toolkit should go a long way in taking away the obstacles and goes further than just the starting, establishment phases, but goes on to provide the tools for maintenance and sustainability.”

Customised for the SA market
According to IBM, its local partners in the countries hosting the toolkit – such as Elite in Nepal, Dunn & Bradstreet in Singapore, and Business Partners in South Africa – are responsible for making sure the more than 500 pieces of content, tools and resources are customised, localised and available in the language of their respective markets.

“These partnerships provide small businesses with local support, thus nurturing their businesses to improve their chance of survival and to generate more jobs,” IBM said.

“When a business is in trouble one of the most important things needed is advice from someone who cares, who has been through it before,” said Jo’ Schwenke, MD of Business Partners, a specialist investment company for small and medium businesses in South Africa.

“The Web 2.0 collaborative features of this toolkit provide that advisory service by allowing small and medium business owners to interact with each other as well as access data normally available only to Fortune 1000 companies,” Schwenke said.

Plans for wireless
Since the toolkit was launched by the IFC in 2002, IBM has spent more than US$1.6-million on rebuilding it on open source platform “using top talent in IBM research.

“The Toolkit now includes new Web 2.0 features such as live chat, online forums, business directories and survey capabilities to create a community where small and medium-sized business can collaborate – anywhere around the world,” the company said.

There are also plans to allow users to connect to the toolkit using wireless devices such as cellphones.

“This truly is one-stop shopping for small businesses, and it levels the playing field,” said IBM vice-president of corporate affairs Stanley Litow. “We know the tools that large businesses use mostly and we know the role technology can play in leading to growth.

“Now, every business can have the same chance to succeed.” reporter

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