Intersectional and flexible COVID-19 support for the diverse young entrepreneurs of Botswana


Botswana’s commerce, like many countries, has been greatly challenged by COVID-19 travel restrictions, facing businesses with a choice between quickly adapting to the digital market or closing their doors.  

We interviewed Othata Phale, Assistant Project Manager at the Botswana branch of Young Africa, on the work they are doing to  support marginalised entrepreneurs in Botswana through the aftershocks of the pandemic via our programme Supporting the survival and recovery of youth-led MSMEs in the wake of COVID-19, funded by Standard Chartered Foundation

What is Young Africa Botswana (YAB), and what do you do? 

Young Africa Botswana is a local trust which contributes to talent development by providing training on various skills that help people hone in on their God-given talent, so that they can do business and truly earn a living from it. 

We realised there's a major gap in the Botswana's formal education sector, especially in terms of curriculum content; it doesn't speak much to talent development, which we address in our campaigns. YAB is a Plan B for artisans, and artists who couldn’t do their painting at university or learn from the fine arts, etc. We also teach our entrepreneurs how to penetrate the business or corporate industry and create value from their talent. 

What is the COVID-19 situation in Botswana, and how has it been affecting entrepreneurs?  

I think in Botswana the biggest issue we’ve had is the tiny population. It’s very difficult not to stress a lot about COVID-19 as a result, be it in decision making offices, policy development, or even with entrepreneurs.  

We have also noticed that there are some entrepreneurs who are maybe in their early to mid-30s and are just naturally doing business in a very bricks and mortar type of way, who need to do a lot more business on social media platforms because of the restrictions that we have, preventing people from easily travelling from one zone to another. A lot of the older population in entrepreneurship are really struggling to adapt to doing business transactions and negotiations via Facebook, as is now popular in Botswana, because they never really thought it necessary to adapt to digital platforms or technology in that manner, or to rely on it. The fact that this change happened so suddenly leads to some people gradually losing their grasp on entrepreneurship and their business; they don’t even make a profit like they used to before. That leads to them also not being able to employ younger employees who are more tech savvy and who could take control of or help alleviate the challenges they’re facing, because they don’t have the finances to support and pay them. 

I think the ones who are actually pioneering in these difficult times are the younger entrepreneurs, especially those starting their careers, who are much more tech savvy and already have some kind of following and understanding of digital platforms. Now it's easier for them to just dive into it. Others need to transition and gain the training and development necessary for them to acquire those skills. 

What activities has YAB been able to do as a result of YBI’s and Standard Chartered Foundation’s support?

Oh, my goodness, we've been able to do a whole lot! It's done wonders for our organisation. Obviously, we have increased the human workforce capacity and employed more people, and we’ve purchased new equipment to support our training, skills development, and campaigns. Also, now we are not just assisting entrepreneurs in terms of giving them information and letting them go; now it’s a process and journey. This way, even after the training we're able to walk with them a little while longer, and through activities such as mentorship we're able to connect them to people that can help them use the information they have just acquired from our trainings to better benefit their businesses. The application of the knowledge they have acquired is a bigger part of our work now, allowing us to be confident every entrepreneur highly benefits from the four weeks of training and is actually implementing and applying the learning they have received, enabling them to grow their businesses and even survive during COVID-19. I think that's the biggest achievement we've managed to secure. 

What is your new version of the Futuremakers programme, and who is it targeting? 

Right now, we’re taking Futuremakers to a much broader aspect than we had before. Before, we were doing a lot of aspiring entrepreneurship development training. Today, we also offer aspects of consultation and mentorship, as well as incubation, or access to information resources. We just wanted to create a more holistic journey for Futuremakers, both with us and Standard Chartered Foundation. 

A typical Futuremakers journey would involve either a masterclass or a conversation with one of our consultants. The latter provides entrepreneurs with a more detailed business diagnosis, in which the consultant may recommend our 4-week aspiring entrepreneurship training. Also, entrepreneurs can use our registered centre to access the internet, and workstations with desk space for people who don’t have a computer. From there, entrepreneurs can register their business, do research, access visibility analysis and studies, and so forth. The Futuremakers team also check in on the entrepreneurs using these spaces in case anyone needs assistance or any concepts explained to them as part of starting their business. 

We’ve also introduced a signposting station, where we can easily connect you to relevant information which can affect your business, including legal frameworks, governance issues, access to funding or any other opportunities currently out there for aspiring entrepreneurs. 

What kind of entrepreneurship support are YAB offering to marginalised young people in Botswana? 

We provide development, training, and consultation specifically to women in the creative sector and industry. We prioritise (?) women when we accept and select applications, but, of course, that does not mean we're neglecting our fellow brothers. 

We also have this project, Educating and Protecting High Risk Communities, where we have given them skills development on basic sewing and then a little bit of entrepreneurial development. This is for young entrepreneurs who are already doing business, but who we wanted to help understand and tap into COVID-19 opportunities, where they can. We trained about 100 people to make masks, and those 9000 masks were donated to high risk communities hit hardest by COVID. 

We have also made an agreement with BABPS, the Botswana Association of the Blind and Partially Sighted, to include the people they have selected who want to do business, in our aspiring entrepreneurs training programme in the next three cohorts. The first cohort has just finished on May 28th, and the second is starting near the beginning of July. Which also means we will obviously be altering our programme delivery so they can be included, and not feel left out as a minority. 

What are some of your most inspiring young entrepreneur stories from the pandemic and beyond? 

We have a young entrepreneur named Michelle, who joined Future Makers because she wanted to run a decorations company for the low-income bracket, mostly targeting students in their accommodation, people who just bought their first home, or anyone else with a limited budget. During the course of the programme, she secured a contract with the government to produce care packages for people. When COVID started, she continued her work, and has made over 2000 care packages by now.  
She also managed to partner up with a Member of Parliament in a more remote region of Botswana. As a result, they have opened up a business clinic where they offer consultation and technical support to entrepreneurs; similar to what we do! We appreciate the fact that she managed to reach out and partner up with a government official to show there's a need to assist people who want to do business, especially during this time when employment is not as secure as it used to be. We are really proud of that, and we continue to encourage her. 

What do you think the future hold for small businesses in Botswana? 

I think now is an opportunity for people to realise business is not just sitting next to another person and exchanging things for money head to head – no, business can be done virtually. Ecommerce is not a monster. Ecommerce is not a myth. Ecommerce is possible and can be trusted. A global market exists, and it's a great opportunity and a great way to grow your business. Somewhere out there is someone who's going to be interested in what you're doing, and will be willing to pay for it.   

In Botswana, entrepreneurs were so fixated on the idea ‘I can only trust you with my product or service if I can see you, or touch you, or call you, or reach you at any time’. It’s very traditional, but there’s a new way; there’s a new dawn, and as much as we can try to resist the fourth industrial revolution, we need to realise it’s happening and is very important. I think COVID in a way is kind of enforcing that. You cannot avoid the internet and ecommerce and going digital, so this is the best time for businesses to learn as much as they can about things like online payment platforms, online partnering, and creating customer loyalty and value online. 

I think this will also help in the long run even after COVID, so whatever happens you cannot say ‘I don’t have customers’, because you have opened yourself up to an entire global market; you always have customers eventually. That’s the highlight of this time right now. 

To find out more about Young Africa's work in Botswana, visit their website.

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