Fast Company editor in chief Wesley Diphoko. PHOTO: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)
Fast Company editor in chief Wesley Diphoko. PHOTO: Armand Hough/African News Agency (ANA)

The Infonomist: Small business need digital savvy to survive Covid-19 impact

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 24, 2020

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By Wesley Diphoko

Covid-19 is exposing South African digital inequality.

As more businesses and organisations move online to still provide their goods and services, some are battling with this transition.

If the situation remains the same we are likely to see a widening gap between those that have digital capability and those that lack such capability.

In the same way that buildings mattered for some businesses and organisations pre-Covid-19, digital infrastructure has now become a critical resource for business existence during this pandemic.

In the process of providing support for businesses this resource has been ignored. Money has been seen as the key resource to keep businesses afloat even though it’s ability to provide support is limited.

The most important resource that should be offered to business should be technological in nature. Businesses need to survive the storm by using tools that will work under current dynamic and tough conditions and also prepare for the digital future. Such support is lacking currently.

Part of the reason for lack of support in this regard has a lot to do with the fact that digital infrastructure is not yet seen in the same light as other forms of infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water.

Most businesses even those that are trying to adopt digital systems are struggling to provide quality services using safe tools. In most cases there’s lack of guidance, especially in the small, medium and micro enterprise sector.

To understand the seriousness of the need for digital support you have to watch how Uber type businesses are eating the lunch of local established businesses. Uber Eats is busy disrupting local businesses by just using a digital infrastructure that is not even built locally.

Taxi business understand very well what it means to be disrupted by a business with digital capability. Even attempts by some taxi organisations to develop their digital infrastructure has not rescued them from the Uber digital infrastructure.

Efforts to save local businesses during Covid-19 has to go beyond financial support. There are far more fundamental shifts that are taking place and impacting on local businesses.

We are going through a seismic shift from off-line,traditional to online and digitally enabled businesses that are powered by far more complicated digital infrastructure.

Local businesses stand no chance of fighting if interventions to save lack the digital layer. Cinemas, events, retail and other businesses that are hard hit during Covid-19 can no longer just survive by getting more financial support.

A business model backed by advanced digital infrastructure is necessary if these businesses are to rise again. The reality however is that most of these businesses cannot respond on their own with their limited digital resources. South African businesses needs far more robust digital intervention to withstand the current storm.

Under normal circumstances small businesses cannot be expected to build roads in their own community. In the same vein, small businesses should not be expected to build their digital infrastructure to fight a pandemic and Goliath like tech companies that are taking advantage of the current situation.

The Ministry of Digital Communications as well as Economic Development needs to work together to facilitate the development of a designated digital infrastructure to respond to the current economic storm.

Wesley Diphoko is the Editor-In-Chief of Fast Company (SA) magazine.


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