The rapid advancement of digital technology is exponentially widening the divide between the digitally advanced and those without any digital skills. This leaves millions of small suppliers at risk of being left behind, frustrating the vision of a transformed, economically empowered and equal society.

Catherine Wijnberg of Fetola, growth specialists in the supplier development sector observes: “The digital divide is real and growing. It needs to be tackled if we are to deliver transformation in the supply chain and enable small suppliers to survive into this new future.”

Evidence from Africa indicates that the dearth of top-level IT skills, fear, lack of access to technology and language barriers are widening, not closing the gap.

Successful South African entrepreneur, Audrey Mothupi, CEO and self-proclaimed Chief Hustler of Systemic Logic, has grown her business rapidly using the power of partnerships, building networks and accessing lasting relationships across the ecosystem. She strongly believes in the power of confidence: “If an entrepreneur is brave enough to start a business, they can be brave enough to transition into the digital economy.”

Closing the gap globally

In South Africa and beyond, large companies acknowledge their long-term responsibilities to work with suppliers to establish policies and provide solutions that close the growing digital gap. Constraints that challenge their efforts with small emerging suppliers include affordability, low literacy, infrastructure and lack of finance.

Lorenzo Bell of Ernst & Young believes: “It really boils down to policy and investment to create a digital transformation in Africa. Corporates will benefit as they build their supply chain, expand and penetrate markets, and build an ecosystem that enables viable businesses and builds communities.”

Creating solutions together through partnership and learning

Africa is the continent with the youngest population in the world and with a population projected to double by 2050, the future of youth and digital cannot be ignored by governments wanting a secure future and corporates chasing this growing market.

Prof Barry Dwolatzky, founder of the Wits University’s Digital Innovation Precinct, is passionate about investing in Africa’s unique personality.  The digital precinct links SMEs with corporates, innovators and mentors, providing a platform for youth to collaborate, exchange learning and create partnerships. Initiatives such as this provide a bubble of digital innovation and energy with which to explore solutions to the numerous problems in Africa. There is potential to develop this innovation and unique African skill-set capacity to scale and support to enable these to enter the corporate supply chain.

Supplier Development impact

At a national level, many individual corporate initiatives are doing great work in supporting small supplier success but in the greater scheme of things, these strategies are not touching sides. Unemployment is growing, economic growth is stagnant and social unrest is a looming concern. The question is how do corporates and suppliers work together to achieve greater things?

The starting point is recognising the gap – not only between small suppliers and corporate, but between corporates, the government and the future. Collaborative initiatives such as shared market access platforms that suppliers can access to contribute to the virtual marketplace shorten that gap.

As co-founder of the Business Day Supplier Development Awards, Catherine Wijnberg says: “We are on a shared journey. And if we don’t recognise the challenges across Africa and commit to solving these together, we will all face a challenging future.”

The challenges SMEs face are well known. They include lack of data, limited internet coverage, data costs and devices, language (and digital language) limitations, historical exclusion from meaningful relational partnerships and networks. What is often missed is the gap in understanding between the mechanisms of the corporate world and those in small business, especially in youth that have no working experience.

The solutions available to corporate leaders are those that take them into the future: long-term relationships with suppliers, collaborative strategies within and across industries, provision of meaningful training, as well as support and guidance to enable small suppliers to become trusted partners in their future. Now, more than ever, corporate Africa needs the courage and humility to reach out embrace a shared future.

To join the 2021 Absa Business Day Supplier Development Awards, an initiative of Arena, Cold Press Media and Fetola, and be part of this dynamic network of people changing the future of South Africa visit or email today.

Key learning points

  1. Smart phones are Africa’s device of choice. Africa has largely skipped the laptop generation
  2. Mobile phones already provide widespread access to technology, information and game-changing low-tech low-data solutions
  3. Uniquely African creativity opens the door to digital opportunities such as animation, gaming and innovative digital business solutions
  4. Partnerships are pivotal. Good partnerships support rapid scale, build capacity, pool knowledge and leapfrog growth challenges
  5. Speed in the digital world is tantamount. Small suppliers can respond rapidly – paving the way for their larger corporate partners to benefit
  6. Access to growth finance is critical to company growth. Supplier Development relationships that enable this create a win-win outcome
  7. Easy access platforms such as marketplace, learning portals, communication and supplier management systems underpin future growth. Good ones are value-adding to SMEs and large suppliers alike
  8. Digital security and corporate compliance are barriers that need shared vision to be overcome
  9. Inclusive growth requires a collaborative, symbiotic journey that includes SMEs, corporates and stakeholders. The basis of this is a common language, shared vision and mutual respect