An opportunity to kick start the small business sector

This newspaper has commented in previous weeks on the air of expectancy which, in recent months, appears to have enveloped the small business sector, a circumstance which is being attributed to the advent of the Small Business Bureau and more recently the release by the IDB of the first tranche of funding for small business development.

On the face of it at least, the facility appears to be the most promising state-facilitated initiative to support the private sector ever to be put in place by the political administration. The bureau has already been talking about small business windows that make provision for various forms of training, grants and, significantly, bank guarantees that will facilitate lending access for small businesses which, hitherto, did not meet commercial bank conditionalities for loans. So that we are now awaiting the day on which the bureau is finally launched and actually begins to roll out the various services which it has been set up to provide.

On Wednesday, Acting Tourism, Industry and Commerce Minister Irfaan Ali said a number of interesting things to this newspaper about his own vision for the Small Business Bureau in its relationship with the small business sector. The minister appears to recognise what would appear to be the high level of expectation among small businesses that the bureau will deliver and hence, the need to create a bureau that is efficient, driven by the barest minimum of bureaucratic hurdles and staffed by skilled and efficient personnel who are seized of the concerns of the small business sector.

A second important point made by Minister Ali had to do with the need to administer the fund wisely, to – as he put it – ensure “the sustainability” of the fund and to make certain that projects cleared for grants or bank loans are deserving of the consideration they receive. This particular point is important because some previous small business initiatives have been known to collapse under the sheer weight of inefficient administration, profligate spending and flawed judgments in the matter of the allocation of funding for projects. Here it should be added that while the IDB will play an oversight role in the matter of the management of the funding and the impact which the project makes on small business development, the onus is on the government to ensure that the maladies of corruption and inefficiency do not frustrate what could well be a game changer for the fortunes of the small business sector.

Perhaps the most interesting point made to this newspaper by Minister Ali in Wednesday has to do with what he perceives to be the desirability of small businesses seeking the support of the bureau – whatever type of support that might be – to, as far as possible, undertake approaches in clusters or perhaps at the community level so that they can, collectively, benefit from the efficiencies associated with taking initiatives that work best for groups rather than individuals. The simple analogy regarding the advantage of providing support for a collectively owned chicken farm with 5,000 birds rather than a solely owned facility with 500 birds makes the point and though the minister did not actually utter the words he certainly appeared to be saying that the bureau might find it much easier to support ventures with what one might call a cooperative orientation though that is not to say that solely-owned projects will not find favour with the facility.

During our conversation with Minister Ali on Wednesday we detected both an intensity about this small business support project and an apparent determination to give careful consideration to implementing the sorts of best practices that not only ensure the sustainability of the project but also deliver the best possible results to beneficiaries. Of course, we know only too well that even with the best of intentions things, quite often, can go horribly awry which is why we would want to urge Minister Ali, the overarching Small Business Council and the bureau itself to ensure that once the process of dispensing services to the small business sector commences, it sustains high professional and ethical standards and keeps in focus the importance of the mission that it has been assigned.

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