Small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) are the backbone of the global economy, accounting for two-thirds of employment globally and between 80 and 90 per cent of employment in low-income countries, including Eswatini.
At the same time, they are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic related shocks. Many MSMEs have suffered huge revenue losses while others have shut down.
Economists are convinced that MSMEs can power a stronger recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic due to their innovative and opportunity-seeking nature, but they need more support.
It is against this backdrop, therefore, that analysts view the appointment of Khethiwe Mhlanga to lead the Small Enterprise Development Company (SEDCO) as an ignition of a flicker of hope for Eswatini’s MSMEs sector.
One cannot blame them for their optimism, which is driven by the strong belief backed with hard facts that Mhlanga’s rich career history and wealth of experience in business development will enable her to deliver on the mandate.
Having worked as a Senior Economist at the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development for almost eight years, and also as the Director for Industries in the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Trade makes her a cut above the rest. Her glowing credentials are raising hope that a new dawn is upon Eswatini’s MSMEs sector going into the future. Mhlanga assumed office about three months ago.
Asked what the MSMEs may expect from her now that she has been given the responsibility to chart their path, Mhlanga said she is obsessed with the empowerment of small-scale businesses and entrenching the culture of entrepreneurship. She disclosed that SEDCO is currently in discussions with key stakeholders who understand the needs of MSMEs. Unequivocally, she declared that SEDCO will now be more inclusive in its programmes to ensure that the youth, women and people living with disabilities are empowered on entrepreneurship.
The new SEDCO Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is determined to propel the organisation to promote the production of local goods ‘and ensure that they end up in the shelves in our supermarkets.’
For a leader who is determined to see the MSMEs sector developing and creating more jobs, Mhlanga encouraged emaSwati to become conscious customers by supporting local entrepreneurs and products.
“We’ll empower our MSMEs on wise capital investment, among others. We’ll be encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the trade agreements that Eswatini is part of,” she said.
She further stated that MSMEs would be empowered to produce goods for export within the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), Southern African Development Community (SADC), Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFT), the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union, among others.
Mhlanga is of the view that ‘our MSMEs must also be part of trade in services, be involved in the regional value chain and increase Africa’s intra-trade.’
“With the new normal of doing business, we will be encouraging our MSMEs to increase their digital presence.
After all, the MSMEs are the key drivers for industrialisation and economic growth,” she stated.
On the strategies she would employ to address the financial institutions’ reluctance to offer credit, mostly to the MSMEs in agriculture and manufacturing, Mhlanga said SEDCO is already working with key stakeholders in ensuring that MSMEs can raise capital for their business operations.
She highlighted that the financial sector had been key in developing products that cater for the MSMEs.
Regarding the perceived low entrepreneurial skills among MSMEs, Mhlanga said SEDCO provides comprehensive training to capacitate them in up-scaling their businesses. Her observation is that it is imperative to have a viable business plan and clear marketing plan because that is what equity investors are looking for. “There are interventions already in place and we are about to roll-out some with our collaborators on empowering the MSMEs,” she said.
She acknowledged the importance for SEDCO to in preparing MSMEs to access finance and manage the seed capital. Mhlanga highlighted that government had re-launched the Export Credit Guarantee Scheme (ECGS) and the Small Scale Enterprise Loan Guarantee Scheme (SSELGS) to assist MSMEs’ access to finance. “We’ll be sensitising our MSMEs about these schemes.”
She added: “SEDCO was encouraging MSMEs to use micro-financing institutions to access business loans.” Mhlanga stated that SEDCO had collaborated with micro-financiers, who provided training and business coaching to recipients of their funding.
Commenting about those who deliberately ignore business development support (BDS) services offered by various service providers, Mhlanga said SEDCO is working with key partners to empower MSMEs to upscale the uptake of such services. She said they are using different platforms to enable the MSMEs access to capacity building programmes. These include online training, social media, broadcasting services, television and the print media. These were used to circulate information that will empower the MSMEs to grow their businesses. The CEO conceded that MSMEs suffered from time and financial constraints, hence their inability to take advantage of some of the key services.
Just like a true professional, Mhlanga is delighted after landing the top SEDCO job, but is not oblivious to the fact that her work comes with tonnes of responsibilities. She said: “I’m constantly asking God to guide me through it. I believe that it is because I’m suitable for the job.”
She is confident of bringing new dynamism to the institution despite the challenges faced by MSMEs at present. She articulated: “I’m open to embracing change with the understanding that the MSMEs must adapt to the new normal. The traditional way of doing business has to be transformed to embrace technology and innovation. Agility and collaboration are needed for the MSMEs to survive and grow.”
Mhlanga had strong bias towards the transformational leadership style that emphasizes on building teamwork. “I believe in working as a team whereby we inspire excellence among each other. Everyone, has a role to play and that serves the purpose of taking us to the next level,” she said. Mhlanga further mentioned that her belief is in creating valuable and positive change among her team members with the end goal of transforming followers into leaders. She is also an enthusiast of upholding values and principles.
The first female to assume this highest position at SEDCO said she strived to be accountable and an advocate for transparency. Another significant highlight of her leadership style is the zeal to encourage individuals to be innovative and come up with efficient ways that would yield better results. “I believe in the growth of the team to such a level that they gain confidence in their decision-making skills. I enjoy being flexible or open minded as it enables me to adapt to any situation that comes before me,” she said.
The new MD was quick to indicate that she is highly-educated for the position. She holds a Masters of Arts (MA) in International Development Management from the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire, United Kingdom
Holds a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in International Affairs and Economics from Vesalius College – Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Brussels, Belgium.
Started her career in 1999 with Nedbank Matsapha branch where she worked for a year as a Clerk.
In 2000, she became the Assistant Economist (then Economist) at the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. In 2008, became a Senior Trade Policy Analyst in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In 2010, she became the Deputy Director Trade in the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Trade. In 2013, she became the Director for Industries in the Ministry of Commerce Industry and Trade. In 2018 she joined the Royal Science and Technology Park as Head of the Advanced School of Information Technology business section.
When serving as the Director for Industries, she together with her team formulated the Kingdom of Eswatini’s first National Industrial Development Policy. Served as Chairperson of the Technical Working Group for the Southern African Development Community – European Union Economic Partnership Agreements as the lead technical negotiator for trade in services.
Mhlanga, whose name Khethiwe means ‘Chosen’, believes that she is the chosen one to fulfil her family’s prayers. The daughter of Sethabile Mdluli and Njabulo Mhlanga recalls that her grandparents were very instrumental in her upbringing particularly in her early years.
She was raised in a household that put God before everything, hence she is still holding on to the values that were instilled in her. Mhlanga disclosed that education is one thing whose importance was emphasised by her mother and grandparents.
“My grandfather motivated me to take my education seriously and encouraged me to not ever fear being ambitious in life,” she narrated.