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Saying goodbye after nine years at USB’s Small Business Academy (SBA)

  • June, 21 2021
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By Dr Marietjie Theron-Wepener, founder of SBA

It is with wonderful memories and a deep appreciation of the resilient spirit of small-business owners that I left the Small Business Academy (SBA) at the University of Stellenbosch Business School at the end of March this year.

At the time of the founding of the SBA in 2012, there was agreement that the business school should get involved in the training of small-business owners, given the critical role that micro, small and medium-sized (SMMEs) enterprises play in the economy of South Africa. The establishment of the academy came about after a long process of consultation and negotiation with Stellenbosch University and other stakeholders. Crucial in these conversations were the business community and business forums in Khayelitsha, which is the largest township in Cape Town, and corporate companies close to the business school’s campus.

The aim with the SBA was therefore to give life to USB’s vision to have a meaningful impact in society. The business school has always strived to expand its social engagement and to make a difference in the lives and businesses of small-business owners in low-income communities. The founding of the academy allowed the school the opportunity to make a difference by leveraging its core competency, namely business education.

The start: Great expectations

The SBA was officially opened by the late Rector of Stellenbosch University, Prof Russel Botman, who strongly supported the establishment of the academy. The SBA launch formed part of a gala event of USB alumni in Cape Town in May 2012. Prof Botman, Prof Johann de Villiers (the then Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences), Prof John Powell (the then Director of USB), Dr Marietjie Theron-Wepener (the then marketing director of USB), Luvuyo Rani (well-known entrepreneur from Khayelitsha), and USB MBA student Bongani Mgayi all played key roles in turning this vision into a reality.

Next, the SBA had to design a programme that would be suitable for small-business owners with existing businesses. The target market would be people who had a matric certificate and who owned a business in a low-income area. After a thorough investigation of the training and mentorship programmes on offer in the Western Cape, it was found that start-ups and incubators were already receiving a significant amount of attention.

The focus would be the training and mentorship of this group of entrepreneurs.

At the time, various foreign foundations and foreign governments were also involved in training and mentorship for entrepreneurs. However, a specific need was identified in terms of the development of small-business owners with existing businesses. Therefore, the target market was defined as small-business owners in low-income communities. The focus would be the training and mentorship of this group of entrepreneurs. As the need for a business development programme was identified in collaboration with the people of Khayelitsha, a decision was taken to start with a programme aimed at the small-business owners of Khayelitsha, and then expand to other low-income areas.

The first group of small-business owners from this township started with their training in March 2013.

The first group of small-business owners from this township started with their training in March 2013. From 2014 onwards, the catchment area of the SBA Development Programme was expanded, with the academy also enrolling participants from other areas in Cape Town’s Metro South-East, such as Langa, Gugulethu, Blue Downs, Philippi, Delft, Mfuleni, Strandfontein and Mitchells Plain. In 2021, the SBA presented its ninth programme in the Western Cape.

Breaking new ground: Two programmes off-campus

In June 2016, I, as head of the SBA, received an unexpected visit from senior public sector officials from the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. Ayanda Gqoboka, chief executive officer of the Joe Gqabi Economic Development Agency (JoGEDA), saw an advertisement for the SBA Development Programme in South African Airways’ inflight magazine Sawubona. He thought that the programme offered by the business school was worth investigating and made an appointment to discuss a similar programme for the district municipality in the Eastern Cape. The main aim of JoGEDA is to stimulate economic growth in the Joe Gqabi District Municipality in the Eastern Cape on behalf of the region’s five local municipalities.

In late 2016, this led to the launch of the SBA Development Programme in the Eastern Cape.

In late 2016, this led to the launch of the SBA Development Programme in the Eastern Cape. The programme’s curriculum was the same as in the Western Cape, but a few adjustments had to be made because the delivery had to take place in Aliwal North, a smallish town in the Eastern Cape, almost a thousand kilometres from Cape Town. The distance between Cape Town and this rural part of South Africa meant that lecturers and the mentorship team had to fly to the closest city, namely Bloemfontein, and then travel by car for about 200 kilometres to reach Aliwal North. Mentors – typically USB alumni – were not as readily available, and at the start of the programme, senior mentors from the Western Cape had to travel up-country. Over time, more mentors came on board, including a few top students from the SBA programme itself.

Senior officials from Stellenbosch University have often expressed the wish to also offer an SBA Development Programme in the town of Stellenbosch itself. In 2020, the Social Impact Division of the university decided to fund a separate programme for the town. Stellenbosch Network and Distell, with its head office in Stellenbosch, joined hands in the initiative, and the first SBA programme started running in Stellenbosch in March 2021. Stellenbosch Network is a cross-sector and inter-disciplinary membership organisation that brings people from industry, government, society, and academia together to share ideas and encourage collaboration and partnership in support of economic growth for the greater Stellenbosch area.

Curriculum design: Balancing the requirements of authorities and the needs of participants

The SBA Development Programme was designed to develop small-business owners, to help ensure that their businesses are sustainable, and to assist them to grow these businesses.

An important drawcard for prospective participants of the SBA Development Programme was that they would ‘graduate’ with a certificate from Stellenbosch University. Therefore, care was taken to design a programme that would be in line with all the requirements of, firstly, the business school, secondly, Stellenbosch University, and thirdly, the Higher Education Quality Council (HEQC) of the Council on Higher Education (CHE) in South Africa. That is why USB’s SBA Development Programme is accredited by the HEQC of the Council on Higher Education under the auspices of Stellenbosch University. Also playing a significant role in the development of the programme were Edith Kennedy (the then head of stakeholder relations at USB) and Prof Salomé van Coller-Peter (the then head of the MPhil in Management Coaching at USB).

The programme is registered as a short course with Stellenbosch University and provides flexible learning to meet the specific needs of owners of micro and small businesses. The programme is offered in week-long blocks to meet the needs of adult learners, enabling them to develop leadership skills (personal level) and managerial, business and entrepreneurship skills (enterprise level). The SBA participants’ ages typically range from 24 years to over 60 years.

The SBA Development Programme comprises the following elements:

  • Training: The subjects covered are Business Essentials, Marketing, Finance, and Business Plan Development, Writing and Presentation. Computer Skills also receive attention. At the end of the programme, participants need to present their business plans to a panel of academics, sponsors, businesspeople, and public sector officials.
  • Mentoring: Alumni of the business school and the SBA act as pro bono mentors for participants on the programme. The alumni – all volunteers – are matched with participants to provide support and guidance. Mentors help the participants understand the challenges and opportunities in their businesses, and together they find solutions for the businesses to grow and expand. The mentorship part of the programme has been identified as a key pillar and one of the main reasons for the success of the programme.
  • Workshops: Practical workshops are offered by role models and volunteers to match the needs and expectations of participants. Topics cover access to funding, how to pitch for a government contract, how to register a business, insurance for a small business, customer service, marketing tips, and understanding black economic empowerment (BEE).
  • Student engagement: Master’s level international students on study visits to USB assist the small-business owners with various aspects of their businesses. The visiting international students also offer workshops on topics such as the use of social media.

It has become widely accepted that the staff, senior students and/or alumni of institutions of higher learning also become involved in social impact initiatives of the institution. This also applies to USB, where staff, alumni and students have expressed a keen interest to help emerging entrepreneurs tackle the many obstacles and challenges they face during the expansion phase of their businesses.

Expanding the SBA’s activities: Adding research and alumni development

In 2015, the SBA started a research initiative to feed new knowledge into the ecosystem of sponsors, small-business communities, and other stakeholders. The impact of the SBA programme on participants is measured, and the results are incorporated in impact reports. The mentorship experiences of mentors and mentees (participants) are also tracked.

The research done by faculty and students has been reworked into accessible outputs (facts sheets), offering practical advice to small entrepreneurs.

Research on the SBA is also undertaken by USB’s faculty members and PhD, MBA, and MPhil in Management Coaching students. Focus areas under the bigger umbrella of small-business development in Southern Africa include the benefits of mentorship of small businesses, factors stimulating growth in small businesses, the training and mentorship needs of small-business owners, factors contributing to the success of small and micro businesses, and the challenges facing these businesses. The research done by faculty and students has been reworked into accessible outputs (facts sheets), offering practical advice to small entrepreneurs.

The SBA also established the SBA Growth Initiative to offer continuous development opportunities to the academy’s alumni. This need – to not ‘abandon’ participants once they have completed the programme – soon became a requirement of sponsors and others. The annual SBA Outreach Day, held on the campus of the business school in the Tyger Valley business district in Cape Town, provides SBA participants and alumni with the opportunity to showcase their products and services, listen to experts, and attend practical workshops and network with members of the SBA ecosystem. The Outreach Day has indeed become a highlight in the calendars of SBA participants and alumni. During the year, workshops, masterclasses, advanced training, mentorship sessions and networking form part of the Growth Initiative offering.

Partnering: Working with sponsors and other stakeholders

The activities of the Small Business Academy are made possible through sponsorships from large corporate businesses, and funding from the public sector and Stellenbosch University.

For five years, I was head of both the SBA and USB’s Marketing Division. (After this, I was head of the SBA and a member of USB’s academic staff). Having worked in the industry before, I had access to senior people at large businesses, many of whom I knew personally. This was the starting point to discuss the new academy and to look for funding for the first SBA Development Programme in the Western Cape. Over the years, I was fortunate to secure close to R15 million for the SBA. In return, we offered benefits to the sponsors, such as seats on the SBA Steering Committee, branding rights of venues in the main building on the USB campus, and the opportunity to offer workshops to SBA participants. The key benefit for companies forming a partnership with the SBA and sponsoring the programme remains the ability to earn points under the Enterprise Development section of their B-BBEE scorecards.

If one looks deeper, the employees of these businesses, their families and their communities have also benefitted.

In 2013, the SBA Development Programme in the Western Cape turned into a reality as a result of the interest voiced by two large anchor sponsors, Distell and Absa, to become involved in the academy and the Development Programme itself. In 2021, the programme entered its ninth year, with almost 300 small-business owners having benefitted from the programme and the larger SBA initiative over the years. If one looks deeper, the employees of these businesses, their families and their communities have also benefitted.

Ayanda Gqoboka of JoGEDA concluded that the SBA’s programme would be suitable to develop small-business owners in the Joe Gqabi District Municipality in rural Eastern Cape. That is how public sector sponsor JoGEDA became involved as an SBA sponsor and partner in the Eastern Cape. In 2021, the SBA Development Programme was presented in the Eastern Cape for the fifth time.

The third SBA Development Programme, which was presented to small-business owners from the university town of Stellenbosch for the first time in 2021, is funded by Stellenbosch University and Distell.

Over the years, a number of these small businesses have become suppliers to corporate and public sector sponsors.

The sponsors become involved in the lives and businesses of the small business owners. Over the years, a number of these small businesses have become suppliers to corporate and public sector sponsors. One of these small-business owners, Bomikazi Nkolongwane, provided media and public relations services to JoGEDA. Another SBA alumnus, Rushana Charles, expanded her business and is now involved in online learning at USB. (After completing the SBA Development Programme, Rushana also completed USB’s Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management and Administration as well as MBA.)

Sponsors need to demonstrate to their boards of directors the impact of the SBA Development Programme on participants. The need for proper impact reporting has therefore become a key feature of the partnerships. Another expectation of the sponsors is involvement in the programme. Therefore, sponsors are involved in the academy in the following ways: They act as guest speakers during modules, they form part of the panels assessing the participants’ business plans, they present workshops, and they sit on the SBA Steering Committee.

Governance: Working with the SBA Steering Committee

The SBA Steering Committee functions as the governing body of the academy. This committee has no executive authority, but its role is to provide leadership and advice to the SBA management team. Members of the committee represent various stakeholders, including sponsors, business forums in the township areas of Cape Town, USB management, students and alumni, and SBA lecturers, administrators and alumni.

The road ahead

In April 2021, Dr Armand Bam, head of Social Impact at USB, became the new head of the SBA. Dr Marietjie Theron-Wepener is still involved at USB as a part-time faculty member, lecturing in Reputation Management, Marketing and Communication, and supervising PhD and MBA students.

Find more information on USB’s Small Business Academy at www.usb.ac.za/small-business-academy/

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