Mike Tyson once said “everyone comes with a plan until they get punched in the face” meaning you can prepare yourself all you like but reality normally has its own plans so we need to adapt to the times we are faced with. Covid-19 has been that punch in the face for 2020. Whether we should consider ourselves blessed, lucky or give credit to our health system is up for debate but the incidence of COVID-19 in Uganda is very low in comparison to other countries— with 755 infections, 492 recoveries and no COVID-19 related deaths as of this writing. Uganda adopted a number of containment measures to curb the spread of the virus, including the closure of schools, restrictions on internal and international travel, use of hand sanitiser, improved hand washing stations, social distancing, and even lockdown, among others. While these measures may have contributed to the successful reining in of the virus, those same restrictions have hit business operations hard.
On the business side, we are set to be hit as hard if not harder than the rest of the world. According to the Economic Policy Research Centre (EPRC), three-quarters of recently surveyed businesses have laid off employees due to the risks presented by COVID-19 and subsequent containment measures. Indeed, the results suggest that lockdown measures have reduced business activity by more than half. In terms of sectors, we find that businesses in agriculture have experienced the largest constraints in access to both inputs and markets for outputs due to control measures such as transport restrictions, quarantine, social distancing, and bans on weekly markets.
The pressure is on for entrepreneurs. As white & blue collar jobs are being lost, the unemployed are looking in the direction of those who have the ability and courage to not only dream but bring those dreams into reality. There is a need for phoenix companies to rise out the ashes of the Covid-19 pandemic because it has created opportunities for us to solve the glaring challenges that have been exposed by the dawn of this crisis. There are more opportunities than ever for disruptors whether existing businesses pivoting or new entrants into businesses ushering in the new normal. We have identified five opportunities that are begging for attention:
Online and phone ordering with contactless delivery or curb-side pickup has become the modus operandi for millions of businesses. Even as stay-at-home orders are being lifted, there are millions of consumers creating and reinforcing new online buying behaviours and habits. In many families, online grocery, apparel, and entertainment shopping will replace store and mall visits permanently until a vaccine is available. Consumers in most countries are cutting back on discretionary spending as optimism for economic recovery has fallen. Groceries, household supplies, personal care, and entertainment are among the categories in which consumers plan to maintain spending. According to research carried out by Accounts Plus Uganda, 42% of respondents were anticipating a drop in their household income and over half expect the impact on their household finances to persist for four months or more.
Paradoxically, quarantines have helped alleviate the severe time shortages, so many families and friends have had in their lives. Many are reluctant to go back to old shopping habits for fear of getting sick. Consumers are more motivated than ever to stay home and shop online, creating the ideal market conditions to fast-track, test, and launch new experience-driven mobile apps, sites, and touch-points across their platform. This has been especially evident in the food delivery business while the country was in lockdown. Both private and public vehicles were restricted so delivery services were not just the convenient, but the only, way to get some items needed in our homes and just because the lockdown conditions have been loosened does not mean these businesses lose their relevance. Majority of Ugandans dwelling in the suburban areas have been shown how convenient and effective e-commerce platforms can be for not only getting speciality items but essentials such as groceries as well. The profitability of the businesses in this sector may be a reason for some anxiety but we can take solace in the fact that the richest man in the world built his empire on the back of this line of business.
Our hospitals - the trenches where the COVID-19 battle is raging - have become risky places for both patients and healthcare workers. As much as our country is resorting to varying measures of lockdowns, social distancing, and the importation/production of personal protective equipment (PPE) to limit transmission these measures are insufficient to stop the over-stretching of healthcare systems that were already overwhelmed before COVID-19. Since the onset of COVID-19, the healthcare industry, which is at the axis of the pandemic, experienced a drop in elective surgeries, medical tourism and outpatient department footfall among others. This drop saw an exponential boom in telemedicine, which is an established health-tech service line but one that is not very widespread or commonly utilised by most healthcare facilities. Healthcare providers have since adopted and deployed this model of service delivery to patients, and it seems that as long as COVID-19 is still around, tele-health’s popularity will continue to rise.
The only question that begs to be answered is, will this surge in tele-consultations and telemedicine be sustainable post COVID-19 pandemic or will it retreat into obscurity only to appear when the need arises? Well, not only can it be sustained, but it can be a game-changer in patient engagement. After all, telemedicine was here before COVID-19, and it’s here to stay, only this time it is being boosted by the pandemic. Virtual visits are often quicker and have less wait times than sitting in a waiting room at a clinic or hospital. Since prescriptions can be written during virtual visits, it cuts out the commute from a clinic to the nearest pharmacy. That potentially means the patient could start getting better sooner. There is a gradual shift towards use of tele-health services in some western countries but there is need for a step up in efforts in Africa to mobilise digital innovations aimed at developing the ability to deliver healthcare services remotely.
Remote working tools
The global spread of COVID-19 has led to a rapid shift of companies moving to working from home and relying on remote work tools now more than ever, in an effort to maintain business continuity. For many companies, this is the first time where teams are having to collaborate, operate and communicate virtually through the power of technology. Many believe that this move towards work from home will be a more permanent change, rather than a temporary one. The biggest factor driving this permanent change may be the cost-saving benefits of working from home — a factor that we have gotten clear insight on during this current outbreak. This comes from the reduction of both on-site technology spend, as well as reduced costs in real estate expenses.
At the same time, there are financial benefits for the employees too: remote employees are spared costs arising from commuting, office meals, and other miscellaneous expenses. These financial gains, when paired with the minimum disruption or effect on productivity levels and staff wellbeing, leaves little reason for many companies to move back to traditional working styles even after the pandemic ceases. Organisations are therefore relying more than ever on technology to enable work to happen seamlessly with employees dispersed. There is a soaring demand for virtual workplace solutions that help teams continue to collaborate, communicate, and operate as usual. As teams move their meetings to conference calls, their workspace to a project management board and their processes to digital workflows, many are seeing the huge benefit in efficiency, convenience and transparency that comes from bringing work online. As a result, there’s an increased usage of remote working tools like Slack, Zoom, Time Doctor and Dropbox in affected countries. All the solutions out there have detractors so the space is still open for new players to disrupt the status quo in this crucial phase.
Lack of sanitation is a major risk factor, especially for people in developing countries. Problems with sanitation services have led to the increasing awareness that the private sector is needed to tackle sanitation service problems. Sanitation business is about investing in solutions for sanitation problems by offering different sanitation products and services at appropriate prices. Improved sanitation is considered to be a huge market for private businesses, since 2,6 billion people or 41% of the world population until now do not have access to services (WBCSD 2008). Covid-19 has magnified the need for businesses in this space that can plug the gaps that have been brutally exposed during the pandemic. Opportunity-savvy entrepreneurs have been able to react to the crisis at hand and start manufacturing face mask, hand sanitisers, hand-washing units and other much needed PPE equipment but the opportunity doesn’t stop there: clean water provision, affordable toilets and many more areas still lack the drive to make them a reality. Sanitation is a profitable business and the market is easier to penetrate in developing countries because of little competition so you can make money while making a contribution to decreasing the global lack of sanitation. Don’t get me wrong, there are risks as t might require high investments both in terms of finance and competences and since the clients are mainly poor people, they might not afford to buy high quality products and services at the offered price and it raises the issue of privatisation and exploitation of basic needs of the poor. There are resources, though, to help you navigate investing in or starting your own sanitation business to make use of this business opportunity.
Micro-Finance Institutions (MFIs) serve 140 million low-income people worldwide with savings and credit service. As of 2018, the value of their credit portfolios was $124 billion. Their customers are 80 percent women, and 65 percent live in rural areas. They are among the poorest and most vulnerable segments of many societies. While MFIs play a critical role in supporting the income-generating activities for the poor, these numbers under-report the range of credit services poor people rely upon. Cooperatives, fintechs and pay-as-you-go (PAYGo) companies also play important roles. The economics of micro-finance require high repayment rates. A slip in repayment rates from 95 to just 85 percent would render many MFIs insolvent in less than a year, and we see significant risk that repayment rates may fall by more than this as borrowers struggle to make ends meet in the face of a precipitous income shock. Microfinance crises of the past have an important lesson to teach: when repayment rates drop, they do so rapidly. Beyond this, high-touch business models may face additional challenges as social distancing measures are implemented. Crucially though, the disruptors coming out of the ashes of this crisis present a fresh crop of clients for the MFIs whereby businesses that are pivoting as well as the newly jobless who are turning to micro-enterprise need financing to bring their ideas to fruition so the sector is worth investing in provided there is a competent team in place to manage the process.
Two things you need as an investor, entrepreneur or management level employee are patience and persistence so this is a time to be strong and resilient. The ability not to allow others to project their negativity on your life or you what isn’t possible is a big strength but in order not to be foolhardy in making investment decisions, it is best to have professionals on your side. At Hutland Capital Africa, we have lined up a healthy cocktail of high growth, high impact businesses that are disrupting a variety of industries including micro-finance, health, energy, agribusiness, transport, sanitation and real estate among others and we are opening up our house for private investors looking to make a decent return of no less than 12.5% annually.
I personally believe that we go through the hard times in order for us to appreciate the good times when they arrive so let Hutland Capital Africa be a part of your journey.