Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) play a critical role in the Zimbabwean economy.
Literature, case studies and renowned scholars suggest that SMEs can only survive in the international business arena when they think globally, but act locally. There are a number of issues that SMEs will need to consider in order to compete successfully in the international marketplace.
This becomes even more urgent and imperative in light of the opening up of the economy by the Government to international players through its "Zimbabwe Is Open for Business" policy.
The following seven issues, although not exhaustive are some of the things that SMEs may need to take into account; self-belief and vision to succeed, business' core competencies, value proposition, innovation, adoption of technology, relationship management and ethical behaviour. Each of these issues is now considered in some detail below.
Self-belief and vision to succeed
Self-belief and vision to scale higher heights are critical components for success in any endeavour. Often-times we hear some top football managers saying that the team was able to stage an almost miraculous comeback from the jaws of defeat because the team had self-belief. With regard to SMEs, many a business have confronted many challenges that appeared insurmountable.
However, because of the self-belief and vision of the owner to scale greater heights, a solution on the way forward is often found. Challenges and obstacles may be met while competing in the international business arena, however, a never-say-die spirit can assist in the surmounting of prevailing challenges.
The business's core competencies
This refers to the business' strengths in terms of, for example the resources and skills that distinguish it from its competitors. The business, therefore, has to understand what its core competencies are before it can even begin to think of taking advantage of them. The business can then leverage on those competencies on the international marketplace. Zimbabwe is replete with human talent which the business can take advantage of. However, it is imperative that the business recognises human talent as a source of competitive advantage. Employees are the business's most valuable asset and as such, they need to be rewarded and looked after accordingly. Competitive advantage crafted around a people management culture is critical as it is not easy to imitate.
There is need for local businesses to be original in whatever business venture. There is also a need to exploit value from the experience gained locally before venturing into international markets.
For a business to be successful it has to go through stages of business development, which involves critical analysis of the business, including attendant risks and their mitigation. The need for product and service quality cannot be overemphasised if SMEs are to compete successfully globally. SMEs should design their products in such a way that the product have not only a local but an international appeal, a process referred to as internationalisation. The Buy Zimbabwe campaign is a noble idea, as it is anchored on the production of quality goods and services which can successfully compete internationally. However, it may be asked which one is the better approach; Buy Zimbabwe, Made in Zimbabwe or Proudly Zimbabwean?
This is about continually introducing new products and services, and new ways of doing things to remain competitive.
A key challenge for SMEs in Zimbabwe is to survive in the local environment, where they face intense competition from multinational firms. Innovation can provide the platform for success in this regard. A case illustrating the importance of innovation in Zimbabwe is in the tourism sector. Victoria Falls being one of the Seven Wonders of the World is flooded with international travel and tour operators. This has not stopped indigenous companies from getting a fair share of business. The indigenous operators have managed to overcome the competition through continually improving their product and service offerings.
Schools and universities can assist in the aggressive drive towards innovation by ensuring that innovation is a central theme in the students' syllabi. In this regard, the Government of Zimbabwe through the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education has through its 5.0 policy ensured that innovation is institutionalised with the educational system. At primary school level, basic ICT issues have been incorporated in syllabus and this bodes well for future of SMEs and their ability to prosper both locally and internationally.
Adoption of new technology
Technology introduces efficiencies, reduces costs and potentially increases the profitability of the business. The digitisation trend can also be exploited in many sectors in the areas of, for example employee and assets management as these are a major cost centre of any business if not well managed. Furthermore, the SME business owners should make efforts to be technologically savvy. Business can now be conducted virtually and therefore this adds urgency and emphasis to the foregoing point.
There is need for SMEs to put in place systems for ongoing engagement with clients with a view to retaining them. This will help the SMEs as they face completion from international players.
For SMEs to compete successfully globally they have to act ethically. The issue of ethics is no longer just a textbook issue. Worldwide there is a growing concern for both governments and business to behave ethically. Therefore, adherence to probity and accountability is important for SMEs to succeed on international market place. At some point SMEs will need funding because, "if you don't borrow, you don't grow".
However, funding institutions will not lend their money to unethically run businesses. SMEs need to watch against extravagant expenditure driven by the need to be flamboyant and ostentatious if they are to grow and compete internationally.
It can be seen from the above that there is indeed room for SMEs to survive and even prosper on the international business arena. However, as shown above, a determined and focused SME has to take a multi-pronged approach for this to happen.
Bernard Gwarada is a research candidate in International Business at the University of Pretoria's GIBS Business School. He writes in his personal capacity.