There is no doubt that support for the development of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) can be the answer to both economic growth and job creation across Africa, where more than 60% of the continent’s population is aged under 35.

Many countries on the continent are grappling with chronic unemployment and soft economic growth rates that impede job creation by large corporates. However, statistics show that SMEs represent a significant part of the economy as they constitute about 90% of private business, contribute more than 50% of country employment rates, and makeup as much as 40% of GDP in most African countries.

It is clear, therefore, that SMEs play a crucial role in stimulating growth, generating employment and contributing to poverty alleviation and social development. It is for this reason that they are a central focus of our business at Absa.

Starting and running an SME is always a daunting challenge, especially for those with no access to funding or without the business skills needed to successfully run an SME.

Not only is access to financial support important for SMEs, so also is market access, since more often than not, many entrepreneurs struggle to establish, let alone grow their market presence. At Absa, we also recognise that, while it is our business and moral responsibility to promote the development of SMEs, we also have an equal task of ensuring that we help to build their business skills, the lack of which remains a significant challenge for many.

To overcome these challenges, we have adopted a three-pronged approach to supporting SMEs in the countries in Africa that we operate in – providing access to finance, access to markets and access to business development support.

However, providing financial support is easier said than done, mainly because of the challenges posed by adapting traditional lending methods to SMEs. We have found that some do not have financial records, some do not have adequate – if any – collateral security to access loans, and some have poor credit records.

Absa, as a responsible corporate citizen, is working with stakeholders such as governments and other corporates to innovate ways of providing funding to SMEs in a manner that is not only commercially sustainable but, most importantly, takes into consideration the challenges already mentioned above.

With time, such solutions not only improve access to finance but also lower the cost of financing and optimise much-needed operating cash flow for SMEs.

In addition, we have created specialised non-traditional funding solutions to assist SMEs, and these include, among others:

The Women Empowerment Fund

The fund provides finance to women entrepreneurs who have the skills, expertise and demonstrable potential relevant to the business and/or the industry or sector. The funding is available for all women SMEs who do not have sufficient security to start their own business or purchase an existing one in terms of normal bank lending criteria.

The Development Credit Fund

This fund is also offered to SMEs with insufficient security to obtain credit to start or purchase existing businesses. Clients/applicants need to provide an own contribution, which will be determined by the risk grading pertaining to the industry.

When it comes to access to markets, we have realised that many SMEs struggle to penetrate existing markets or even establish new markets, particularly when they are competing against larger competitors. Absa has committed itself to linking SMEs into the supply chains of big corporates, because major corporations spend billions in funding annually on procuring products and services from other companies.

By linking SMEs to these companies, there is a greater opportunity for small businesses to rapidly grow after being included in the supplier base of these large companies. In South Africa, for example, we have developed, in partnership with a local fintech, the Absa Procurement Portal, which creates the linkages between buyers and suppliers. The portal verifies and validates SMEs, who are located using various searchable fields such as geographic location, size or black economic empowerment credentials.

To date, there are about 67 000 registered SMEs and almost 7 000 registered corporate buyers actively using the portal. Absa’s presence in markets outside

South Africa also creates opportunities for these entrepreneurs and emerging small businesses beyond South Africa’s borders.

To develop the business skills of SMEs we have, through our business development support initiatives, already helped tens of thousands of SMEs to develop their businesses through training, business tools, seminars and networking. By offering non-traditional support, the bank hopes to bring more small businesses online and make it easier for entrepreneurs to establish and grow their businesses.

As part of our Shared Growth strategy, we believe that by investing in individuals, communities and enterprises, Absa, through its various intervention programmes, is changing the African business landscape one entrepreneur at a time.