Stimulating the formation of manufacturing business in South Africa


My international readers must please forgive my focus on my beloved home country in this post. But this is a topic that is close to my heart that we have to resolve in South Africa to secure the wealth and prosperity that our nation so desire. But perhaps you have faced the same challenges wherever you work.

I receive many requests to assist with the ‘creation of industrial businesses’ in South Africa. As this is a topic that is close to my heart I usually respond very enthusiastically to these requests. But in the last year or two the reality of the difficulty of establishing these kinds of businesses have dawned on me. Let me take you through my thinking.

Lets look at what it takes to start a manufacturing business. Firstly, you need an entrepreneur. This person must take the lead and mobilize and marshal the right resources, people and processes to take advantage of some opportunity. I think you would all agree with this statement. But if you unpack this sentence then you find three potential bottlenecks:

a)      you need an entrepreneur;

b)      this person must take the lead and mobilize the right resources, people and processes

c)       you need an viable opportunity

Point a) is a challenge. To start a manufacturing business the entrepreneur stands a far better change if the individual has technical or scientific competency or experience in the industry. With the current incentive environment many black or female candidates with the required competencies are better of in the corporate world, where large salaries and other perks are available. With the shortage of experienced or highly qualified advisors, most white candidates that meet this requirement have incentives to rather provide consulting services to government or large business. Many development programmes try to work around this problem by taking young inexperienced people, or even worse, vulnerable unemployed people, and try to establish them as entrepreneurs despite the fact that they would prefer employment rather than being a business person. I can go on for pages about this issue, but let me stop here.

Point b) is a second challenge. The role of an entrepreneurs goes beyond having a bold vision or being able to spot a great opportunity. The entrepreneur must mobilize resources and recruit sufficiently experienced or qualified people to work towards exploiting the opportunity. It doesn’t end here, as the most important role of the entrepreneur is to use their leadership skills to organize their mobilized resources and people into business and manufacturing processes. The latter is really difficult if the entrepreneur does not have management or manufacturing experience. Of course, we can all think of examples of individuals who have built viable businesses without management or technical skills. These cases are rare for many reasons, and it often depends on the character of the individual and the tolerance of their customers to pay for the steep learning curve that small under-resourced or under-managed enterprises have to go through. Say for instance, an entrepreneur can secure enough capital to start a manufacturing business, but they do not have any manufacturing experience. Unless they are able to recruit and trust a suitable qualified and experienced person that can take the responsibility on the technical side of the business, their investment is doomed. The inverse is also true. When a person that is technically competent starts a business, they might have trouble with the management of the administration and business processes of the enterprise unless they are able to recruit staff with sufficient experience to reduce the risks on that side of the business.

The third point is around the opportunity, and the ability of small enterprises to pursue them. One of the huge business process innovations of the last decades is the emergence of franchises. In a franchise, a proven and tested business system is replicated throughout a market. Think of a car-rental business. If you wanted to start a car rental business 15 years ago, you would need finance for several cars, staff at your outlet, technical staff, and cleaning staff. Now the likes of AVIS and others have mastered their business and technical systems to the point where a franchise in a small town can use tried and tested methods to run an office. The person managing the branch or franchise earns far less than you would be satisfied with, and plugs into a national (or even global) administrative system that manages salaries, vehicles, insurance and logistics. It would take a very brave business person to try and compete with such a hugely refined and efficient business system. And if you think of it carefully, then some of the basic rules of economies is that these kinds of system makes a society wealthier, as the productivity of each person working in that franchise branch is much higher than it would have been in your independent outfit. To compete against these business innovations (the innovation of a decentralized management and administrative system backup up by a highly efficient logistical system) you would need to have a highly differentiated business with many innovations. I am not saying it is impossible, I am simply saying it will not be easy.

OK, that is a service business example. For an entrepreneur to pursue the manufacturing of almost any product, they need suppliers, service providers, process information, marketing channels. The days where a single business making a completely integrated product are over, as these opportunities are often only profitable in a large scale. Manufacturing now takes place in ‘value networks’. So if I wanted to manufacture speakers, I have to establish myself within these networks. Despite the fact that almost an electronic student knows how to create a set of speakers, without knowledge of these networks and industrial systems it would be very difficult to establish a profitable and competitive speaker manufacturing business. So unless my product is completely unique or differentiated, I have to depend on existing systems to build my business.

Why are there so few serious entrepreneurs pursuing detergent mixing, or candle making or many of the other business formats that are often promoted by small enterprise promotion agencies? I think the main reason, is that the opportunity to build a business where a viable return on investment can be secured is limited. This means that vulnerable people are being helped to establish businesses where most sensible investors would not even venture into. If anyone can copy your business model even without acquiring the right skills or technical competencies, then how would you secure your investment?

We need to rephrase the objective of small enterprise development in South Africa. What we need to promote in South Africa is that experienced and technically competent people working in large corporates must have incentives to quit their secure jobs in order to pursue higher risk business opportunities. We need people with management skills, or with scarce technical skills, to start tinkering and designing new businesses, new products, new management systems in order to gain an advantage or an ability to secure a return on investment. Let these people create the jobs for the people that are lacking entrepreneurial skills or technical skills.

Let me know what you think!

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