BY NKIRUKA NNOROM
Deepankar Rustag is Managing Director, VConnect Global Services, a local search engine that provides information of product services and business. In this interview, he says the success of small and medium scale enterprises in Nigeria requires collaborative support of government and local banks.
What is your assessment of Small and Medium Scale Enterprises, SMEs, in Nigeria having been actively involved in the industry in the last few years?
Small businesses here are very passionate, but they require a lot of support to actually grow. A lot of efforts are made by banks, government and other infrastructure providers to groom the large scale businesses. How many of their policies are targeted at small and medium businesses? I know the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN) is there. Some of the banks also provide some assistance, but this is not enough? SMEs really need our support. Small and medium scale businesses across Africa reportedly contribute more than 50 percent to their Gross Domestic Products (GDP), but unfortunately that is not the scenario in Nigeria. We are still way behind and that has to change. We have to grow in terms of the contribution of small scale businesses to the nation’s GDP. Small and medium scale businesses have a very important role to play in any economy, especially in the area of employment. The government and the banks need to direct their policies to the SMEs.
What is your company doing to ameliorate some of the challenges facing SMEs?
Last year, SMEDAN came up with a survey on the challenges that small and medium scale businesses face. One of their challenges, according to SMEDAN’s findings, was working capital. I think banks are working towards changing that. Other government institutions like the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) have actually provided funds to take care of them. Some of them face challenges like manpower, workforce and getting skilled people and raw materials. Also, for start ups to manage on their own is tough. You manage your stock, warehouse e.t.c. alone. In other parts of the world, there are softwares you can install in your computer to help you manage your warehouse, invoices and your inventories. We don’t have such softwares here. But now we are helping small business get these tools on their smart phones. They don’t need to have computers to have them. Before now, if an SME wanted to do marketing, they had to print fliers and you cannot track the performance of a flier. It is a very expensive form of marketing. Some have argued that fliers are more economical but that is not true. There are different ways of spending little money to get value and return. We have trained them to know that by spending little amount of money; they can grow their business on month-to-month basis. That is why we conduct a lot of business forums and we invite the CEOs of businesses; we partner with them, we provide them with internet and laptops and show them how to utilise the platforms we have created. Our team members help some of them who are not very conversant with computers and internet. Some have started using smart phones, but are not used to internet. We give them all the resources so we can actually take them online. Also, we help them measure return on investment. Marketing is a very important concept. A trader in Alaba International Market may be passionate about what he does but because he is in Alaba and does not have any control in Surulere, Victoria Island, Ikoyi and Ikeja where a lot of consumption happens, he loses business. How can a person in Alaba have control over all those other areas? Online presence actually helps him. Recently, someone from one of the big companies ordered 300 or 500 leather bags from Kano through our site. It does not matter where you are; online presence is all you need.
Recently your company moved 700,000 SMEs online, how were you able to do this and what impact would this have on SMEs?
When we started our business, we had close to 7,000 small businesses or individual driven enterprises online in the Nigerian space. We looked at several initiatives as to how we can change the sector. Our plan was to make websites for thousands of businesses. In that process, we were able to take 700,000 businesses online. We went from area to area, state to state and have combed three states completely starting from Lagos and now going to other states.
What can SMEs gain from Vconnect.com that they cannot get from other search engines like Google?
Google is a data aggregator; Google gives you any website that is on the internet. But someone has to take the initiative to bring the content to the Nigerian space on the internet. Google does not give small business website or the visibility that they require to grow their business. But Google is our big brother, they help us get publicity, but when you search for information on Google they take you back to us. To answer your question properly, we are content based and Google is more of a facilitator.