The figures range between 17 and about 40 million. That is the widely estimated number of registered SMEs operating in the economy. Disregard the fact that many are moribund and good plenty are mum and pop operations. The fact still remains that they are the bastion of the economy, indeed, any economy.
They provide jobs, create income and keep the wheels of supply and demand churning, ensuring effective distribution of goods and services and maximizing capacity utilization in the economy. They remain very critical to the economic resurgence of our nation.
Their goings-on impact on the rate of unemployment which, although now in the double-digit, would have been worse without their activities. This is why government and international multi-lateral agencies always devise policies and initiatives to support and keep propping them up.
But what we don’t see are the young ones, especially females who slave under very intense conditions to keep these businesses churning.
The demography represented by the 15 to 32-year-old young females is the unsung heroes of the SME revolution. They are the ones who slave to keep the business running, working long hours with little or no welfare packages and mostly below minimum wages.
They are the sales girls, the marketers, the front desk officers, the operations people, the dispatch, etc. They are never seen, not protected, and exposed to the vagaries of the tough workplace.
Exposed to illicit work ethics, they risk their health both psychologically and physically to continue to grind at work.
Government policies don’t get to them; they have no access to protection or support and worse, no corridor for redress in the case of injustice.
I once saw the case of a 25year old who lost a jacket in the store she was working and was arrested and kept in a cell until her family paid the N50,000 cost of the Jacket. The proprietor at this time forgot that she worked 9am to 9pm all days of the week, with no leave, no break. Nothing!
The bright light in all these is that a new crop of leaders is emerging from this lot. Falling back on their hard-won experience, they are building their own businesses, concentrating on services, entertainment, logistics, fashion and the like; they are emerging as a strong force in the markets.
The story of Wunmi (Not the real name) must be told. At 22 she graduated from the university, worked a myriad of small jobs from printing to real estate to investments. Long arduous work, not earning up to N100,000 a month despite graduating with a second class Upper in Economics. Exposed to the vagaries of the Nigeria workplace, especially at that level – sexual harassment, no medical, no insurance, no leave- she continued to toil and push.
Finally, she got a job with an International conglomerate but the spirit of entrepreneurship had entered her body and she felt the need to build her own business, falling back on the experience she garnered on the field.
She went into thrift business, leveraging on social media and a vast network created a huge market. With over N5m in actual sales and about 4,000 pairs sold, she has created a platform for wealth redistribution at the mass retail level not only for herself but also for other stakeholders who have created feeder business around her business.
So a vast ecosystem has been built around her nascent thrift business, which is core. This ecosystem has the logistics people, the network providers whose data is very crucial for the social media penetration, social media platforms and its influencers, printers, mechanics who maintain the bikes, and all sort.
Now multiply this by the number of young female entrepreneurs who are selling all sorts from hair, to sex toys and everything in between you will begin to see a huge force in the labor market that are unemployed but cannot be in the real sense of the word.
So if you ask Lara what she does, she will tell you she is looking for a job even though “I sell hair on the side.” Lara’s hair business has a staff strength of 12, operating out of two locations in Bariga and a logistics team of four bikes with full-time riders under her pay. The business bought her a car, plus paying for her accommodation and giving her a lifestyle, yet she is ‘looking for a job’.
I think the relevant authorities should look closer at this grouping with a view to seeking ways of better supporting them with things like grants, capacity building, and enhancement, tax rebates if at all, and the rest.
The Lagos State Government with their LESTF and other such initiatives is doing a lot in that aspect but more can still be done.