The year 2020 upended the global economy, bringing disruption and, in many cases, devastation at mass scale. Small, medium- and micro enterprises (SMMEs) as well as survivalist businesses have been especially hard hit.

During the course of this year, the Nedbank Proud of my Town initiative launched a tailor-made enterprise support programme to assist 66 small businesses in Mamelodi-East township (Gauteng); Boitekong township in Rustenburg (North-West Province); Kanyamazane township in Nelspruit (Mpumalanga) and Stellenbosch and Paarl in the Western Cape.

Building Business, as the programme is known, promotes local economic inclusion for micro- and small business owners from under-resourced areas in their home towns. Developed by Nedbank in partnership with PoMT implementation agents, urban planning social enterprise, Ranyaka Community Development, the programme works to achieve this by increasing accessibility to needs-based training, local mentors, affordable market-centered trading spaces, local supply chain inclusion support and local investors.

Tackling the challenges amidst a global pandemic
With business coming to come to a complete halt at the end of March 2020, small businesses in particular found themselves strapped for cash and facing the harsh reality of not being able to feed their families – let alone continue running their businesses.

A global crisis led to the decision to allocate the 2020 Building Business programme’s resources to implement a customized, two-phased relief and recovery intervention for entrepreneurs in a number of the Proud of my Town communities. This year’s programme specifically sought to assist these businesses to stay afloat both during lockdown, as well as to recover from the effects of Covid-19 and the unintended, yet devastating impact of lockdown on their businesses.

Immediate emergency relief to a total value of over R220,000 was provided in the form of food vouchers and stipends. The Proud of my Town implementation team then assessed entrepreneurs’ business support needs through telephonic interviews, a customised online survey, data analysis and once possible, in-person consultation with business mentors.

From basic financial literacy training by Nedbank to one-on-one guidance by experienced mentors; a host of marketing support interventions to registration on long-term networking, coaching and funding platforms; an internationally-hosted webinar to Covid-19 readiness training, the idea was to equip, connect and showcase the programme participants so that 2020 be remembered not as a year when their businesses floundered, but rather, as a year that kickstarted an exciting new chapter in their journeys as entrepreneurs.

Connection in a time of distancing
Free business coaching and mentorship through Zoom, WhatsApp and other digital portals provided an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to connect in a time of disconnect and distancing. At the same time, entrepreneurs were familiarised with new platforms and technologies that will no doubt unlock further opportunities in future.

Once Covid-19 regulations made it possible, face-to-face visits served to strengthen the relationships between entrepreneurs and mentors. In addition to the importance of business guidance, one should not underestimate the value of a dedicated mentor who provides constant encouragement and a listening ear to a small business owner who is navigating such challenging times and potentially struggling as much emotionally as he or she is battling to keep afloat financially.

In Mamelodi, the Regional Connect Institute provided mentoring and coaching services, whilst in Stellenbosch, 14 entrepreneurs received practical action mentorship guidance and monthly check-in sessions from seasoned business owners and experts from within the ranks of the Stellenbosch Network (a local business network) and the Stellenbosch University’s Small Business Academy. In the Western Cape, the majority of the entrepreneurs will receive mentorship support until the end of 2020.

Getting the word out
More often than not, the owners of micro, survivalist or small business owners simply do not have the time, financial resources or in-house expertise to develop high-quality, effective marketing material. Whilst a lull in business never bodes well for cashflow, it does offer an entrepreneur the opportunity to pause, take stock and pay attention to oft neglected business necessities such as marketing and product development.

Whilst the interventions in the Building Business programme were customised to meet the needs of the entrepreneurs in specific areas, marketing support and training forms part of the programme across the board.

Professional photo sessions showcasing the entrepreneurs, their businesses and products provided participants in Mamelodi (Tshwane), Boitekong (Rustenburg) and Stellenbosch with high-quality images to support their marketing efforts. Their stories are being shared widely on social media and are increasingly being picked up by local news platforms. The next round of storytelling for Mamelodi and Boitekong kicks off in November.

Putting businesses on the map
Ensuring that their businesses are placed on the map – in every sense of the word – participating businesses from Mamelodi received business starter packs in the form of logo design; the development of Google landing pages that will allow prospective customers to locate the business and access key information; one-on-one telephonic training to introduce mentees to the online platforms that would be best suited for the purpose of marketing their businesses; and general training on social media etiquette and considerations.

In the Western Cape, participants benefited from custom-designed digital advertisements to boost their online presence, as well as digital marketing support through the free listing of their businesses on the Support Stellenbosch website – a new online marketing platform dedicated to providing exposure and access to market for local small and medium enterprises from all Stellenbosch communities.

Supporting local
Wherever possible, the Proud of my Town programme makes use of local service providers – often from within the ranks of participating businesses. In Mamelodi as well as Stellenbosch, this was the case for the development of marketing resources for the participating businesses. MamelodiBiz and BluSpace Communication are both participants of the Building Business programme – and also provided a paid service to the programme itself by acting as the online and social media resource development service providers for the other programme participants. In Kanyamazane and Mamelodi, Akalali Productions and Doreen Holdings respectively, provided catering services for Proud of my Town events.

Covid-19 readiness training
Covid-19 readiness training formed part of the Mamelodi Building Business intervention with the purpose to train mentees on how to keep themselves, as well as their customers safe from the Coronavirus. Mentees were introduced to affordable products that they can use to sanitise their premises, how to handle cash and perform other contactless transactions in their businesses.

Unlocking networks, recognising opportunity
Across the globe, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for businesses to develop both a strong and loyal customer base in their immediate geographical area – as well as an online presence to unlock previously untapped markets. A baker in Stellenbosch, for example, reported that her mentor encouraged her to really get to know her local community. As a result, her market share in her immediate neighbourhood grew considerably. A leather craftsperson, in turn, used this opportunity to build up stock, move his workshop back to home to save cost and invest time and effort into boosting online sales.

When it comes to the power of networking, small businesses all too often admit that they have failed to recognise the immense power of connection. The Building Business programme seeks to facilitate those connections – not only between business and prospective customer, but between local businesses themselves. The listing of community entrepreneurs on the Support Stellenbosch local business directory exposes these small businesses to a whole new world of opportunity and once Covid-19 regulations allow networks and forums such as these to be fully operational again, small businesses can benefit greatly by participating actively in events and networking sessions in their own towns.

Innovating for positive social change
Entrepreneurs selected for the mentorship programme in Mamelodi, Tshwane were also automatically entered into a Social Enterprise competition that sought to identify, inspire, equip and enable entrepreneurs to embark on the exciting journey of social entrepreneurship in their communities. Entrepreneurs were challenged to submit business concepts that would address a problem faced by the community, whilst at the same time, generate a sustainable income for the business owner.

Given Maboela claimed first prize, identifying the general lack of information about educational, business and employment opportunities as a problem in his community. Understanding that access to the internet opens doors to a whole new world of opportunities, Given developed a plan of action to provide uncapped internet access to local residents in his area at an affordable price by installing access points at several locations throughout the neighbourhood.

The bigger picture
Whilst the Building Business programme for 2020 was designed to offer relief and recovery to small businesses facing the devastating effects of a global crisis, the core principles that underscore the programme are fundamental to the broader Proud of my Town Building Business initiative.

Looking to the future
The next exciting chapter in the Building Business Programme has kicked off in Stellenbosch where Nedbank Enterprise Development funding to the amount of R1,45m has been allocated towards the development of 30 local community SMEs. The onboarding process for the 2020/2021 Building Business programme in Stellenbosch commenced in October 2020. Each participant will receive business support tailor-made to meet the specific needs and maximise the unique strengths of that business. This will include training, access to trading spaces and a range of practical business support services.

The overall objective remains to promote local economic inclusion for small and micro enterprises by providing talented, passionate and innovative local entrepreneurs with the business skills, marketing support, local networking opportunities and access to market they need to not only survive, but thrive as enterprises that can ultimately also give back to their communities – and contribute to a flourishing local economy.