MELITTA NGALONKULU: Hello, and welcome to the Small Business Conversations podcast, Episode 5. My name is Melitta Ngalonkulu, and this week we discuss the importance of ensuring that your business is future-fit. With the economic landscape changing every day, managing a business has its challenges: as an entrepreneur, you must ensure that your business is operational and profitable and ready for the evolving environment. So how does one ensure that the business is better prepared for the future and implement the correct decisions, enabling it to last for decades?
In this week’s podcast, we are joined by Dr Rethabile Melamu, general manager of the Green Economy at the Innovation Hub. Rethabile, thank you for joining us. I hope you’re keeping warm and safe?
RETHABILE MELAMU: Thank you. I hope you are warm too.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Rethabile, would you please start by defining the concepts of being future-fit and innovative for businesses in these times of the global pandemic?
RETHABILE MELAMU: In my view, a future-fit business is one that acknowledges and embraces the fact that today’s business models may not be suitable for tomorrow. But a future-fit foundation basically provides a more succinct definition of what a future business is. It’s defined as a business’s ability to create value which delivers social, environmental and financial success, especially as it pertains to issues around sustainable development built into the shared vision by all countries that are signatories to the United Nations. I believe that the world needs more of these future-fit businesses, given that there is a lot of change, uncertainty and a number of complexities.
One thing that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown us – not just in South Africa, but globally – is that things can indeed change in the blink of an eye, and change necessitates us to innovate.
We have seen examples where even businesses that were not traditionally innovative have been able to adopt some innovative ways of selling a product online or even meeting. I think some of the companies have remained afloat and remained operational because they were able to meet virtually.
So we are beginning to see innovation, not just in business, but in other institutions – including government institutions. There is a lot that can be done, definitely, but we have seen how a crisis can lead to business and the public sector [being] innovative.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: How does one even begin to apply these concepts into day-to-day entrepreneurial ventures?
RETHABILE MELAMU: …a future-fit business … is a business that is designed to add value socially [and] be environmentally restorative.
Therefore there are tools that are available online, Open Source tools that are able to assess what a start-up business is in terms of future-fitness. Therefore the first step would be to assess yourself – where are you? And, once you know where you are, you are able to then craft a plan on how to implement some of these concepts.
I’ll give you an example of environmental restoration: … a company can assess where it’s getting its energy from, and whether there are ways in which a company can save energy, ultimately save on the overheads, but also contribute to environmental sustainability, but also issues around social justice. Is the business addressing issues around social justice? Is it meeting the basic needs that are prevalent around the society within which the business operates? Those are some of the concepts around environmental restoration, social inclusivity, which even the small companies can begin to think about.
But the starting point is obviously to understand where you are. And then, once you understand, you can put some of these measures in place to make sure that you prepare yourself for the future as the business.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Rethabile, you have been one of the judges of the Premier Business Awards. So, from your understanding, would you say South African entrepreneurs are serious enough about ensuring that their businesses are future-fit, especially in the development stages of their ventures?
RETHABILE MELAMU: South Africa is not doing badly. There’s a lot more that can be done. I think some of our corporates have done really well…. Let me talk to some of the companies that I have personally worked with through my organisation.
We have seen companies that are beginning to deal with issues around environmental sustainability, such as companies that are dealing with waste issues, water-access issues, energy issues, but also health issues.
As much as there is a lot that needs to be done to get our companies future-fit – there are good portals of excellence in South Africa that are worth commending – we still have a long way to go. But I’m hopeful. I think I’ve said before that I think the Covid pandemic has enabled us to think outside the box, to be creative and to embrace innovation a lot more. So there’s a lot to be done; but there are pockets of excellence that we can talk about. I didn’t mention specific companies, but our companies are beginning to deal with things that are important to our National Development Plan, for example, which is our own interpretation of the sustainable development goals at a global level.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: What tips do you have for small business owners to grow future-fit thinking?
RETHABILE MELAMU: I think there’s a lot they can do, but let me just mention three here. One of the important things that businesses can do is to fully embrace innovative technologies in their day-to-day operations. I don’t think small businesses need as much real estate anymore, since we have seen people can work remotely and therefore save on overheads. And they can definitely run some of their operational processes such as accounting, procurement and HR online, and therefore, as I said, cut on their overheads.
They can also embrace technologies around efficiencies [such as] water efficiency. They have taps with sensors, so that they don’t have running taps, thus saving the company’s overheads. They also play a secondary role of being environmentally restorative, as we mentioned earlier. An example would be around saving energy by increasingly using renewable energy in their operations. That would be the first one.
The second one is to really develop businesses that explore and tackle the pressing global challenges….Research says there is $12 trillion worth of value, market opportunity, in addressing those global challenges [in the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals]. And, as you will remember, initially I said a future-fit business is one that addresses social and environmental challenges. And most of those are businesses that do that.
There is an opportunity for small enterprises to play and exploit opportunities within that space.
There is a great deal of money and market opportunity within those spaces. So that would be the second advice or recommendation for our small companies.
The third one would be around leadership – whoever is leading these ventures needs to be future-fit themselves. So it’s not just about a future-fit business, or for future-fit leaders. We need leaders who are able to ask themselves questions like “How did we get here?” and “How will we get to the next page?” – and really be comfortable about asking themselves uncomfortable questions.
Those would be the three issues – embracing innovation, probing business opportunities, and tackling the most pressing global challenges that are reflected in the sustainable development goals at a global level.
But our own National Development Plan outlines some of these opportunities – in fact, even continentally we have our own Strategy Vision 2063, which talks about the Africa that we want to see, and which also maps out some of the opportunities that require innovation, and that require enterprises that are future-fit to exploit these opportunities.
And the last one would be that there is no need to develop a future-fit venture if the leadership is backward. So the last one would be around making sure that the leadership itself is future-fit.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Lastly, Rethabile, would you say that being future-fit and being innovative are trends? Or are they a necessary, ongoing process to be implemented in a business for the foreseeable future?
RETHABILE MELAMU: Thanks for that question. I don’t think we have any option but to embrace these principles of future fitness and innovation because, in these uncertain and complex times, we need businesses that are resilient, that are adaptive. Those are the elements of what a future-fit business is about – an adaptive business, and a resilient business that embraces innovation. And so I truly believe that we will see that in the future.
To close, let me quote one of the social philosophers [Eric Hoffer], who says in times of change it turns out that learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that doesn’t exist any more.
I also believe in innovation and continuous learning; if we think we are comfortable and we are fine where we are, we really will not be able to adapt to the challenges that the future is going to present to us.
MELITTA NGALONKULU: Thank you so much, Rethabile, for your time.
That was the general manager of The Green Economy, Dr Rethabile Melamu, talking to me, Melitta Ngalonkulu, giving us a few tips to ensure that we make the right decisions to build a solid business that will last.
Previous episodes of Small Business Conversations can be found here.
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In the next episode of Small Business Conversations, we talk to Black Business Council CEO Kganki Matabane on the pressing challenges in township economies.