The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been as far-reaching as they have been devastating for all sectors of society, worldwide. SMEs are among the most affected of all, as movement restrictions hindered sales and the purchasing power of already vulnerable communities has plummeted.
In a survey by GAIN, WFP and SBN, of food system SMEs in 14 countries in October/November 2020, aiming to assess the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated control measures on their businesses and their support needs, about 30% were from women-owned businesses. Of these SMEs, 98% reported having been impacted by the pandemic and associated control measures
In light of this, 80% and 84% of firms reported taking actions to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on their business and to protect their employees, respectively. One female-led SME in Nigeria exemplifies the many ways in which the pandemic has impacted such enterprises, but is also an inspiring example of how innovation can be harnessed to overcome these challenges and emerge more resilient than ever.
Journey to success
Ifeoluwa Omotayo, remains dogged in growing her business – Soupah Limited – beyond the pandemic. What started as a simple delivery system in 2016, transporting fresh produce to university students on a bicycle, has progressed into a thriving technology-driven social enterprise. This venture works with local farmers, taking their fresh fruits and vegetables and processing them into fortified soup spices which provide for the nutritional needs of families in Ifeoluwa’s community.
The journey to this point demonstrates that Ifeoluwa is no stranger to challenges. “Being a teenager when I started, I had to learn as I went along. I had no funding – I wrote business proposals to some banks, but no one was going to bet on a teenager still in university,” she adds, laughing. “Most people suggested I focus on my educational pursuits. However, as the business matured in terms of sales, brand awareness and innovation, things began to ease out and we have grown to a stage where the business is more stable and blooming.”
The COVID-19 challenge
Ifeoluwa’s determination to make her enterprise a success has been put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Since people were low on cash, and not knowing how long the lockdown would last, many Nigerians opted for staples such as rice, beans and garri, while other complementary foods like spices, vegetables and fruits, went largely unsold.” Unfortunately, Soupah’s processed products were not amongst the produce most consumers wanted to stock up on at the time and, consequently, sales plummeted. Similarly, the lockdown led to low supply of perishables which culminated in higher prices.
In March and April 2020, the business experienced a 34% loss, which increased to a 53% loss in the subsequent two months. Thus, Ifeoluwa furloughed some staff and ran a skeletal operation; just enough to ensure non-furloughed staff were paid salaries, although these came with significant pay cuts.
However, while the impact of the pandemic on the business was severe, Ifeoluwa saw potential to pivot the business into other markets and develop the use of digital solutions as a means to cope with the new reality. Refusing to wait for sales to fall further, she procured USSD codes (shortcodes widely used in developing countries to initiate different transactions, also known as feature codes) to help her connect to customers who lacked conventional internet access.
Soupah Limited in the new normal
The development and implementation of new products and technology has been key to Soupah Limited’s survival. “We noticed that while the processed spices were not selling, fresh fruit and vegetables were in much higher demand, so in April 2020 we started delivering fresh products like tomatoes and peppers at affordable prices to customers in need,” explains Ifeoluwa.
Beyond that, Ifeoluwa saw the need to better connect to customers to drive sales, which the introduction of the USSD codes allowed. “We are using simple USSD technology to provide fresh and/or processed fruit and vegetable produce to our customers, who typically use simple mobile phones, due to their socio-economic status.” The customers can now access Soupah Limited via the USSD *7006*761# and get their products delivered to their doorstep anywhere within Ibadan, Oyo State, Nigeria.
“So far, we have seen positive changes. We are receiving an average of 25 orders each day, via USSD. We have increased our product lines by 20% and sales have increased by 41.8% as a result of the increase in sales of fresh produce, and we hope it gets better from there,” Ifeoluwa enthuses.
While the lockdown may be over, many agribusinesses are still overcoming pandemic-related challenges. “For us, sales have improved remarkably from the onset of the pandemic, but the challenges of running an agribusiness in an emerging economy like ours persist. For example, storage and logistic challenges mean transporting the produce from the farm to the city is difficult, and the movement and social gathering restrictions mean in-person events, like trade shows, are no longer physically possible. Due to this, marketing and branding are more virtual, hence awareness on our new product lines and new technology requires increased budgets and modified approaches.”
Building resilience through innovation
Soupah Limited exemplifies the resilience of entrepreneurship. “Entrepreneurship isn’t a walk in the park, it can get challenging! However, when you do it for the right reasons, it makes the journey worth it. Seeing the impact of our business on the farmers, and on the people now able to afford healthy food, and seeing the smiles on the faces of customers able to purchase 1 kg of tomatoes from us for as low as US$0.10, instead of paying US$1 in other markets, makes the journey worth it.”
Ifeoluwa believes that innovation is key to surviving challenging times as an entrepreneur. “Once things aren’t going forward, your ability to change and be flexible around an idea is a key characteristic needed to drive your SME and overcome the challenges,” she advises.
For Soupah Limited, the coming years hold ambitious expansion plans. “Beyond the pandemic, we want to create another corporate solution that enables our model to scale globally. I aspire for my company to be technology-driven and to harness its potential across the fruit and vegetable value chains. We would appreciate technical support and patient funding that enables us try a variety of innovations across storage and logistics areas of our business.”