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Unlocking SME potential to increase resilience and excellence in uncertain times


If you’ve attended previous Annual SME Conferences organized by the Strathmore University Business School (SBS), you will recall the pomp-filled executive organization of a delegate-packed auditorium. Generally, an immaculate event. Did I mention the food and drinks?

Re-inventing the wheel

2020 has meant re-inventing the wheel for almost every corporate. This year SBS partnered with  NCBA Bank Kenya to host a unique virtual 8th Annual SME Conference on Thursday 10th September 2020. Apart from it being virtual, the conference was free for all and saw over 200 attendees participate in a convivial conversation around the “Unlocking SME potential to increase resilience and excellence in uncertain times” theme.

Fronting a number of key speakers from diverse business sectors, government, and higher education with extensive expertise, this engaging conference focused on interactive open discussions and attendees’ questions and answers across a morning panelist session and an afternoon networking session.

During her welcome note and introduction to the conference, Prof. Ruth Kiraka, seasoned Lecturer and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at SBS, reiterated the purpose of this event which was to provoke SMEs to rethink and reorganize their business while in the new normal. “It will be difficult to go back to our old ways. Humility is the new normal in leadership. The workplace is changing. We need intellectual humility to be able to be open-minded and embrace this new world,” she said.

Bread and butter

Dr. George Njenga, SBS Executive Dean, also added that Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are the ‘bread and butter’ of the East African region. They constitute the largest employers in Kenya, employing millions of people and jointly contributing to approximately 30% of the GDP. SMEs have over the years driven the sustainability agenda but the current COVID-19 situation has thwarted the efforts of many and crippled even more in its wake.

He urged SMEs to unite, form cohesive networks, and ensure they offer quality services in order to have a voice in policy decisions at the national and county government levels. This is the only way they can invite attractive and cost-effective funding. He added that every county should have a business development centre. But in order to gain the ear of  the government and private sector, it is important that the SME networks spread across the entire country.

Dr. Njenga also appreciated efforts by the government, saying, “We are grateful to the government which is constantly looking at the cost of import and infrastructure. The Treasury and Ministry Industry, Trade, and Cooperatives are working on the concept of credit guarantee as the credit rates to SMEs is very high.”

The pandemic and SMEs

John Gachora, NCBA Group Managing Director, emphasized further how the effect of the pandemic has been felt most by SMEs. Speaking on the importance of the survival and growth of SMEs in the region, Mr. Gachora highlighted the impact of SMEs terming them the engines that fuel the economy through creation of employment opportunities for many households. He noted that many businesses have had to either close or drastically reduce their workforce headcount. Those that have been resilient have also not been spared, stating that their cash-flows continue to reduce significantly.

He encouraged entrepreneurs to use the opportunity provided by this crisis, instead of complaining. “Many SMEs have the potential to be large corporations and that is why we must be cheerleaders and optimists,” he added. In his parting shot, Mr. Gachora hailed the ingenuity of resilient entrepreneurs saying “It is good to see factories are being repurposed to supply PPEs, hotels have been refitted to become isolation centres and people have turned their vehicles to roving vegetable markets.”

Lawrence Karanja, Chief Administrative Secretary, Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Cooperatives delivered the keynote address on behalf of Hon. Betty Maina, Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Cooperatives. He began by denoting the impact of the current crisis on business strategy, customers, workforce, finance, technology, and industries. He emphasised digital transformation to ensure business continuation as SMEs must rapidly operate in new ways adopting high digital acceleration. He spoke on the government’s measures to alleviate the pressures of the pandemic on SMEs such as lowering taxes. The introduction of a credit guarantee scheme has allowed SMEs access to credit facilities. In answer to one of the questions, he pointed out that the list of “The 300 Goods” that will be sourced locally was gazetted and will be reviewed every three months thereby creating an opportunity for SMEs to do business with the government.

Concluding the first session of the conference, panelists Kwame Owino, CEO Institute of Economic Affairs, and Juliana Rotich, Co-Founder, Ushahidi, BRCK, Boya, agreed that building businesses on technology tools is the next frontier and entrepreneurs should rethink, reboot, and reorganise their business models along these lines, to provide services in a new and better way.


This article was written by Francis Kabutu.


Would you like to share your experience of living through the circumstances brought by the Covid-19 pandemic? Kindly email: communications@strathmore.edu