The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ (SAICA) annual SME Insight Survey, which is part of SAICA’s continued commitment to government’s National Development Plan (NDP) objective of using SME growth as a driver of employment, enables the institute to present evidence for dialogue with policymakers to suggest ways to facilitate such SME growth.
The 2015 survey attracted more than 1 300 responses from business owners. The increase in this figure, from 800 respondents in 2014, indicates that many SMEs are eager to engage government on policy decisions that will affect their chances of long-term sustainability and individual company growth – which, the research also indicates, is the only way to turn SMEs into mass job creators.
The 2016 survey is currently calling for SMEs to participate, and thereby to voice their wishes regarding the policy conditions that government could change. Changes to government policies over the past two years indicate that this type of pressure helps to give the minister more power to influence change. SMEs wishing to participate should find the survey here: 2016 SMME Insight Survey
Of the companies who participated in the last survey, those employing the highest staff complement are invariably those SMEs with the highest turnover. Clearly if these companies could increase turnover they would employ many more people.
What many SMEs are not eager to do, the research makes clear, is to grow their businesses by doing business with government, at national, provincial or municipal level. 73% of respondents do no business with any government agency whatsoever, and a further 15% rely on government contracts for less than 10% of their turnover.
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Only 8% derive more than 25% of their turnover from government business.
This is even more anomalous when considered alongside the fact that 38% of the SMEs surveyed have BBBEE ratings of 4 or better (under the previous regulations), which qualify them to compete for government tenders at a time in which the state is spending enormous amounts on development, and is ostensibly building a procurement engine that favours transformed SMEs.
The 73% who do no government business at all were asked to rate their reasons for this, and the general consensus identified a number of key perceived barriers:
- That the tender process is too onerous, and is not transparent
- That government institutions are too slow to make decisions
- That government takes too long to pay invoices, especially to SMEs, which have the most sensitive cash-flow
- That they cannot meet BBBEE requirements, or that the BBBEE certification process is too onerous.
Changing perceptions: Government is listening
This is not the first time these issues have been raised, and it appears that government is responding proactively in a number of areas. In his 2015 Budget speech, former Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene announced his intention to create one portal for doing business with government; a central tender registry that will allow SMEs to register with all the requisite paperwork once, and henceforth apply for tenders without having to repeat the red tape each time.
This should make the process of applying for government contracts less daunting, while at the same time affording the transparency which will help to curb nepotism and/or corruption. It should also speed up the process of awarding tenders; hopefully, the establishment of this registry will encourage more SMEs to compete for government business.
It is understandable that late payment is a thorny issue for SMEs, most of which rate other SMEs, as a sector, most likely to settle invoices on time. With restricted capital and high overheads, many SMEs cannot survive, let alone prosper and grow, without reliable cash-flow.
Government’s undertaking to institute a KPI for all government financial officers to make payments within 30 days will be a strong incentive for SMEs to bid for more government business – as long as it is monitored and enforced effectively at all levels by the Treasury.
At the same time, as successful SME owners who do plenty of government work have pointed out, government’s financial officers are also bound by stringent regulations set in place to contain fraud, so by law they cannot make payments for which the paperwork is not in order.
SMEs need to ensure they understand whatever tax certificates, legal compliances or other information are required, and submit them in full along with their invoices, if they want to enable and receive prompt payment.
Government have also halved the tax rate on smaller SMEs, from 6% to 3%. This will make it easier for these businesses to compete with bigger operations for business in both the private and public sector, and with government being by far the country’s biggest spender on procurement, it should also encourage more SMEs to do business with government.
The turnover threshold regarding complex BBBEE compliance process has also been doubled, to R10 million. 75% of the SAICA SME Survey respondents have turnovers of less than R10 million per year, so under the new regulations they are automatically rated at least at BBBEE Level 4, which qualifies them to bid on government tenders. Far from being an onerous battle with red tape, the new BBBEE codes actually make it easier for many smaller SMEs to tender for government business.
An area that requires action
There is another concern raised by SMEs that suggest government could, through fairly minor tweaks in policy, make it easier for entrepreneurs to establish SMEs and grow them to the point where they become job creators. 49.9% of those surveyed cited government red tape as a disincentive to starting new companies – these include a wait of three weeks or more to process VAT registration, and similar hurdles involving company registration, tax clearance certificates and other required permits. Some have suggested that government might find the example of Rwanda a useful model in streamlining these processes.
The 2014/15 Global Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranked Rwanda 6th out of 144 countries in terms of ‘burden of government regulation’. The country has achieved this status by attending to areas like the ease of starting a business, obtaining construction permits, registering a property, paying taxes, trading across borders and enforcing payments. It takes six-and-a-half days to register a company in Rwanda, and a day to register for VAT; South African start-up businesses can expect a wait of 46 days and 21 days, respectively, to obtain these essential clearances.
It is hoped that the concerns expressed by SME owners in the research will be considered by government policymakers in their on-going efforts to support and encourage SME growth, and that the information will be valuable in shaping future policy. SAICA has launched the 2016 version of the annual SME Insight Survey as its contribution to the health of the SME sector and thereby to job creation. As Terence Nombembe, CEO of SAICA, said when releasing the 2015 Insight Survey’s findings, “By collecting these insights and investigating the findings, our aim is to influence policymakers in creating a more enabling SME environment – and to demonstrate the ways in which SAICA’s Small and Medium Practices (SMPs) can better assist their SME clients.”