The vice-president of the Small and Medium Enterprises Chambers (SME Chambers) takes stock of local SMEs in the post-Covid era. Reading the words of Maya Sewnath in the following interview, it is a rather bleak picture that she paints of this sector regularly presented as a real economic pillar of Mauritius. The proposals sent by SME Chambers to the Minister of Finance during his pre-budget meetings perfectly reflect the long road that remains to be covered for this sector to see some light at the end of the tunnel.

How has the recovery been in the SME sector following Covid-19? Which SMEs have been more affected than others by the contraction of the Mauritian economy?
The recovery was very arduous and painful, we had a lot of difficulty getting back on our feet after Covid-19. Whether economically, financially or emotionally. First of all, sales were drastically disrupted, which disrupted all sectors. In addition, there was a huge increase in the price of raw materials, which impacted production costs. Ditto for the interest rate of banks which has increased especially because SMEs are extremely indebted. All of this has not helped us overcome and sustain our businesses. Almost all sectors have been affected: from manufacturing to tourism, including agriculture, education and online.

How is the SME sector doing to date? Is he fully benefiting from the recovery?
Instead of improving, the situation got worse and worse and the wage enforcement did not help at all. Inflation and depreciation of the rupee brought the worst. There is no longer any visibility as to the future. Many SMEs have already closed down and some have reduced their staff and even reduced their production capacities. There have been changes in the recruitment of workers and expatriates, which does not help matters.

Is support from the State and banking institutions of great help to local SMEs?
We talked about it a lot. It was clearly stated that the State must absolutely help the SME sector in collaboration with commercial banks. However, this aid is not sufficient and, moreover, the administrative procedures are very cumbersome to benefit from it. As for the banks, they don't help us.

Some people point out that many operators in SMEs do the same activities, which creates saturation and de facto kills some of them? How to put it in order?
Of course there is saturation. However, the answer is to innovate by investing in new sectors. In this context, economic actors alone cannot go very far, but they would need assistance from institutions and the State. These sectors must be helped through technological support and professionalization, capacity building, provision of financing and other means. It must be emphasized that there are no innovative sectors emerging. We talk a lot about new sectors, but what are we doing to make them visible?!

For more than thirty years – from the time of the National Women Council – we have been talking about training in SMEs, which would increase their employability. Has this concept developed?
Initially, it was a very positive initiative. Women understood that entrepreneurship would be a sector they could exploit. They were given basic training like marketing, finance, etc. However, today, this training is proving insufficient for development. It was necessary to offer training trips abroad, acquire expertise in new sectors, train women and help them with their marketing and provide many other supports so that the SME sector becomes an important pillar of the 'economy. I note that there is a lack of will, imagination and support from the state in general.

Has access to finance been simplified nowadays and to what extent can means such as “fintech”, “fundkiss” or even digital platforms benefit SMEs?
In theory this seems very logical, but in practice it is far from being the case. There are a certain number of forms of financial support, unfortunately there is a lack of information and awareness, which makes entrepreneurs very hesitant to venture into these different methods of financing. There is a lot of work to be done in this context. To date, very few entrepreneurs have taken advantage of this type of support. In general, they converge more towards commercial banks.

Is the level of training of operators in SMEs sufficient to enable them to understand market expectations?
We have done some work in terms of training, but it is not enough. Several institutions such as SME Mauritius, the National Woman Council, the National Productivity and Competitive Council (NPCC) and others have done their part. Even universities have contributed in part, but this remains insufficient. We need to educate young people more about entrepreneurship, supervise them with professionals and support them in terms of financing. There is much to be done for a society to emerge that promotes entrepreneurship.

Have you noted provisions in favor of SMEs among the 20 measures presented by the Opposition platform during its May 1 meeting?
Nothing is mentioned for SMEs. It's funny. Perhaps for them, SMEs are not important or that it does not make political sense. This is not an election measure. I hope that in the other provisions this point will be addressed.
Some people have pointed out that one year's maternity leave, a proposal included among these measures, is likely to discourage women's employment. What is your opinion on this?
Being a woman, I consider this a very positive step, because the birth of a child requires a lot of attention and time. On the other hand, as an entrepreneur, it's a little hard to swallow. This will have a huge impact on the recruitment of women. This measure requires a lot of national reflection. Definitely, companies will avoid recruiting women. In relation to salary, everything depends on what the State will recommend, because the company will not be able to sustain payment in the long term.

How do so-called “traditional” operators adapt to new forms of marketing born from social networks?
This can be seen on social networks: Tiktok, Facebook, Instagram and others. It's in the morals. Little by little, entrepreneurs understand the challenge of technology and I think that over time, especially with the threats of artificial intelligence, we will have to adapt to this type of marketing.

Are there forms of successful subcontracting between SMEs and large conglomerates engaged in particular in tourism, manufacturing, food or even construction?
Not really. An agreement should be found between large conglomerates and small entrepreneurs, however, there is no active will. On the other hand, in large countries like China, India and the United States, many small companies, benefiting from subcontracting from conglomerates, have grown and become large companies. We must find a way to develop this type of relationship in order to encourage and stimulate more entrepreneurship.

To what extent does the “Made in Moris” label help SMEs?
The concept is correct, but in practice, many entrepreneurs do not benefit from this label. There is an administrative order that has been established and the entrepreneur does not clearly identify the advantages from which he can benefit. An awareness and information campaign is imperative.

It has often been pointed out that the “narrowness” of the domestic market is an obstacle to the development of SMEs. Are there opportunities for this sector to export to Africa in niche markets? How do you get there, in your opinion?
The opportunities are vast, but much remains to be done for the entrepreneur to become aware of the capabilities of this market and direct all his energies there. Exporting is the only way to grow economically, because the local market is limited. However, exporting requires preparation so that the entrepreneur knows how to venture into it.

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