OPINION: Time for the economy to spring into action, Newsline

By Kizito Okechukwu

JOHANNESBURG – With the pandemic having annihilated businesses of all sizes across the world, we are in the midst of a serious wake-up call as we hope to find ways to live our lives as normally as possible while playing by the cruel rules of the virus. Since the outbreak, millions of deaths have been recorded and just as many jobs have been lost – forever.

South Africa, too, has felt the wrath of the pandemic. Our research, published in April, predicted that thousands of small businesses would cease to exist. Sadly, this is now fact.

Spring. It’s a season of fresh growth, new beginnings and rejuvenation. I believe that spring can create a natural source of motivation and encouragement, in tandem with our government, to make our economy blossom again. And here is how:

u Corporate. Big businesses must be encouraged to open and get their staff back on-site. In this regard, it’s not only about restoring corporate productivity, it’s also about the impact on peripheral small businesses. For example, I was saddened when I went to buy street food from the Mama in Bryanston and she told me that she sold 60 to 80 plates a day before the pandemic, but now she rarely sells more than 10 – because offices are empty.

Thousands of these small businesses rely on corporates and they need to resume full production, not to mention the larger peripheral businesses such as office cleaners and window cleaners. The domino effect of their not being able to work is crippling.

u Travel and tourism. As the Northern hemisphere approaches autumn (“fall” in the US), many tourists will seek regions with warm weather to visit.

We have to open our borders with strict health protocols – for example, a certified negative virus test a week before arrival and subject to rigorous airport screenings.

This will be a big opportunity to get many travel agencies, hotels and restaurants up and running. And the peripherals – such as waiters, cooks, cleaning staff, maintenance and tour guides – will be able to earn a living again. This will help to restore consumer spending power, pumping money into the economy.

u Health and fitness. It was encouraging to read that South Africa did not have a flu season this year. I guess this was due to people being confined at home and possibly because many took precautions by self-medicating, taking hot water, lemon and honey. I probably distributed more than 300 lemons to my colleagues during this period. So staying healthy and exercising is crucial to reduce the risk, as well as to keep wearing masks, social distancing and regular sanitisation.

u Start-ups. Our start-up ecosystem has been dealt a crushing blow. From those that have surrendered their slim hope of continuing and those that have retrenched a significant number of staff, to the venture capital industry, which is investing extremely conservatively, and the corporates that are over-cautious to talk partnerships or collaboration, now, more than ever, is the time to let hope spring eternal by building our economy on collaborative trust between small and big business.

u Conferences, events (including weddings) and entertainment. These are big money spinners, also employing many peripherals, so they have to get back into the economy, super-safely, of course. Conferences and events attract millions of visitors annually who have huge spending power. Entertainment, such as performers, musicians and the creative industry at large, which includes film and TV productions, hire thousands of freelancers, many of whom have been unpaid since March.

In closing, we must acknowledge our health practitioners who have done a great job, bearing in mind there was no clear-cut remedy to fight this virus quickly. We must spring into action and open the economy fully – and remember that it will take teamwork and diligent adherence to the health protocols.

Kizito Okechukwu is the co-chairperson of the Global Entrepreneurship Network Africa and the executive head of 22 on Sloane.