Why Coaching in Africa should focus on the SME sector

I am one person that never liked the acronym SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) in the African context. I find it gives the impression that we are dealing with mini corporates simply struggling with diseconomies of scale. I prefer to refer to them simply as enterprises. It peels away the veneer of a pseudo corporate to bring to light the true nature of the entrepreneurial spirit behind a typical African business:

  • The young lady who kick started her delivery business walking her shoes bare just to “courier” a parcel for her first client at a breakeven price and is now employing more than 20 people.
  • The valuer working hard to reposition his firm into a more robust business in a highly competitive industry, but still struggling to get his team to converge around his vision.
  • The fixtures and fitting enterprise that has invested heavily in a quality offering but coming up against an oligopolistic industry structure proving to be difficult to break through.
  • The physiotherapy enthusiast who has turned their passion into a business taking on established players in the physiotherapy and massage industry and is making significant inroads.
  • The social media marketing start-up with a compelling offering that is leading to exceptional business growth but is now running into challenges of how to effectively plan and manage for the impeding scale up.
  • The agribusiness processing start-up with a novel idea to process red coffee berries through a low-cost process that ensures the highest quality coffee that can fetch the best prices for their farmers but struggling to access financing to scale its operations.

All these firms have survived the impact of the covid pandemic and are each employing between 7 to 70 people. They are some of the most resilient people I have ever come across and are true survivors. They all show potential to grow beyond their current existence but need support to restructure their operations and access the right funding to be able to compete and innovate for growth.

The challenges they face cannot be understood through the academic lens of faraway countries or universities, it can only be understood by getting into the trenches, rolling up our sleeves and walking the journey with them. It is my strong belief that, this is where coaching can play a game changing role.

To date coaching in Africa has focused on the corporate c-suite through executive coaching which continues to grow exponentially across the continent. The enterprises listed above have largely been excluded from benefiting from the critical tool for capacity development that coaching can be. The question is, why is it that the African SME which forms 90% of businesses on the continent is not getting attention from the coaching industry. There could be a couple of reasons:

  1. The fact that coaching was introduced to the African market as “Executive Coaching” that attracted c-suite executives from the corporate world to become the premier certified coaches on the continent. By nature, they would turn to their kind as their primary market i.e. corporate executives.
  2. The perception that it is the c-suite who can afford the hourly rates charged for coaching services around the world.
  3. The coaching tools currently taught are for coaching focused on the individual’s needs as opposed to the business’ needs.

My analysis however is that given the size of the enterprise sector in Africa which significantly out numbers the corporate sector there is an exponentially bigger market for coaching in Africa than we are currently focusing on. My experience so far working with such enterprises is that once they see value in an offering, they are willing to pay for it. As per examples of the enterprises enumerated above, they have real challenges that can be addressed through coaching to achieve significant impact and put these businesses to a path of growth and scaling.

Why is it then, that African coaching is not addressing this key sector? I believe it is because we have not developed the right coaching tools to meet the needs of Africa’s enterprises. The tools imported from the west can only go so far because our environment is significantly different from where these tools were created. Our challenge is to adjust these tools or innovative around them taking into account the needs of the African entrepreneur.

In my opinion the new tools to be effective will need to look at four aspects of the enterprise:

  1. The needs of the entrepreneur or leader of the business.
  2. The needs of the team that supports the entrepreneur in the business.
  3. The needs for the enterprise to effectively engage with its environment.
  4. How the enterprise can strategically position itself in that environment to create its own niche.

Small and medium-sized enterprises form the backbone of the African economy, representing more than 90% of businesses and employing about 60% of workers. With the right coaching tools the coaching industry can have significant impact on setting these enterprises on a path of significant growth and impact.

Prof David Clutterback, in a recent article asked coaches to reflect on “what they are going to do in 2021 to make sure coaching fulfils its potential to change the world for the better”.

This is a call to the African coaching industry to join hands and put more focus on how we can help SMEs, these engines of economic growth to play their rightful role in uplifting the continent’s growth and development.

By Paul Musoke – Managing Partner, Ankolo Consulting Ltd