This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on September 16, 2018
I recently came back from traveling in the USA after a long time of not having been there. What struck me was the robust presence of small business. Often sitting in Africa, you only here about massive US corporations, and their achievements. However, while I was there it struck me that there are similarities between small business in the USA and here in Kenya.
First, definitions are required so that the terms being used are clear. In the USA, a small business is one that, depending on industry, has a maximum of 250 employees or a maximum of 1,500 employees. Some say a ballpark definition for small business is one with 500 employees or less. However, Kristie Arslan who worked with the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council in the USA, makes the point that 95 percent of small businesses have fewer than 10 employees. Here in Kenya there are three categories that can be defined as small business namely, micro (less than 10 employees), small (10 to 49 employees and medium (50 and 99 employees). These constitute the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) segment of the economy.
One key point of similarity is that small business in both countries lead in employing people. In the USA, small businesses employ 53 percent of the workforce; in Kenya 83 percent of employed Kenyans sat in the informal sector (which constitutes mainly of MSMEs) in 2017. Further, in both the USA and Kenya, small businesses generate the most jobs. In the USA, Arslan argues that small businesses account for 64 percent of net new jobs created. In Kenya the informal sector, was responsible for creating 89 percent of new jobs in 2016.
The final point of similarity between small business in the USA and Kenya is financial constraints. Whether it was the global financial crisis or the interest rate cap, lenders seem to have a similar attitude to small business, particularly when they are operating in a difficult environment. In the USA, after the global financial crisis, small business access to credit was severely constrained. Fundera points out that small business loans fell more sharply during the crisis relative to the peak—both in absolute and proportional terms—than large business loans, and access has remained relatively constrained during the recovery.
This is exactly what has happened in Kenya when the interest rate cap was introduced. The Central Bank of Kenya report on the cap stated that the number of loan accounts declined significantly between October 2016 and June 2017, and there was lower access to credit by small borrowers. This trend continues and is not without consequence. It is estimated that reduced lending to the MSMEs due to the cap, contributed to a 1.4 percent decline in the growth of GDP in 2017. Clearly small business in both countries are marginalized due to attitudes of lenders, despite the fact that they are the segment of the economy that employ the most people and create the most of the jobs.
However, despite the challenges small businesses face, they aren’t going anywhere. It seems the determination of the entrepreneurial spirit in both countries is alive and well.
Anzetse Were is a development economist; firstname.lastname@example.org