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Turning chronic problems into acute challenges we can solve

30th March 2022

Two years ago I wrote in this column that the entrepreneurial priority then was to save as many livelihoods as we could. “Many small businesses and gig workers face ruin in the coming weeks, with economic damage rivalling health threats; so our response should be as urgent as for the health threat.”

Predicting that the problem could last 18 months, I suggested some things we could do to keep people earning, “some of which we may want to continue after this tsunami of suffering is over.” As we emerge into what we hope will be a better environment for business, what should we keep doing to create jobs?

Back then we suggested that those with a secure income should be generous in continuing to pay staff and buy goods and services even if we couldn’t use them. Firms with secure revenues should be generous in dealing with suppliers and customers in temporary trouble. Firms in trouble should preserve cash wherever possible, be ruthless in cutting costs, be open with staff and suppliers, and look for new markets.

In AMI we have had the immense privilege of seeing many small firms across the continent do just that. More than 90% of the companies we worked with last year are still in business, and many of them have become stronger through the efforts required to keep afloat.

One inspiring entrepreneur is Adeoye Oluwatosin Adewale, CEO of Wale Success Agro Allied Ltd. He has a poultry farm in Nasarawa, Nigeria and used to sell all his produce from his farm gate. When Covid struck his customers stopped coming overnight, leaving him in despair. When he joined our Survive to Thrive programme he realised he was not alone – people across Africa were in the same worried state. They listened to and helped each other with ideas and suggestions.

He diligently applied the practical tools on our platform – the customer profiling document, the business plan template, the cashflow projection, the marketing plan template – and rebuilt his business.

Two years later he has more demand than he can fulfill. He sells eggs, broilers, goats and rabbits (a new venture) and manure from the hens. He now takes his produce to his customers, having found out who they are, what they like, and where they live. He has a WhatsApp group where they communicate and place orders. The Business Plan template showed him how to secure a government Covid loan in February 2021, which he repaid six months later. His workforce has grown from two in 2020 to eight today. The business is now far better that it was before Covid and his farm is now a model for young agriculture students.

I don’t want to downplay the tragedy that has faced many other businesses that were not in a position to find new markets. Unemployment is higher than ever now. But isn’t that the point? If Covid could force us to work together to tackle an acute public health challenge, can’t we work together now to tackle the chronic problems of unemployment and poverty, which together probably do far more damage than Covid has?

One very obvious contribution would be to continue to help small businesses thrive. As Adeoye Adewale demonstrated, given the tools, small business owners can grow their businesses and provide livelihoods for others. It’s not rocket science, and technology helps us get the tools to them.

Then it is up to government and big business to create the ecosystem that supports enterprising people creating and growing businesses. Humanity tackled Covid with amazing urgency, innovation, resources, collaboration. We could do it for jobs too. Let’s learn to turn chronic problems we have grown used to into acute challenges we can solve.

Jonathan Cook is a Counselling Psychologist and Chairman of the African Management Institute.


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