Riversands Incubation Hub CEO on the Challenge of Supporting Entrepreneurs During COVID-19

Updated on 6 July 2020

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Tafadzwa Madavo Riversands Incubation Hub
Tafadzwa Madavo, CEO of Riversands Incubation Hub. (Image supplied)

Tafadzwa Madavo describes himself as “Purpose Driven CEO At Riversands Incubation Hub” on his LinkedIn profile. COVID-19 has solidified his purpose in unexpected ways.

Madavo took leadership of Riversands in February this year.  He previously held the position of hub COO since March 2017.

The Riversands Incubation Hub was established in 2015 through an infrastructure investment partnership between Century Property Developments and National Treasury’s The Jobs Fund.

Located north of Fourways, Johannesburg, it  provides support through business development programmes and support services to over 160 small businesses.

Entrepreneurial roots

Madavo grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Originally from Zimbabwe, Madavo remembers growing up in several towns between Victoria Falls and Harare. “I did the majority of my secondary education and various small business projects in a small town about 100km west of Harare.”

He was 26 years old when he opened a butchery business from his family’s garage.

“I eventually graduated to a small shop closer to the market. Interestingly, I started the business by borrowing an industrial sized refrigerator from friend of mine who was no longer using it and getting meat on credit from a local supplier. I knew that I had to keep it simple.”

Like many first-time entrepreneurs he bootstrapped the business.

“I started by borrowing from family and also used some of the little income I was making from my job.”

He had some success with the business.

“At a certain point I employed about 10 people. Yet as the business built some traction and with the other entrepreneurial endeavours I had started, I felt I could no longer give the business the attention it needed, so I sold the business off to one of the two employees I had initially started the business with.”

Today he credits his early experiences running businesses with helping him to cultivate an important entrepreneurship trait – resilience.

After closing shop, Madavo went on to open a small consulting business assisting small businesses access funding, financial management, and general business advisory services.

He went on to also work for Agribank and The Awethu Project before joining Riversands in January 2016 as a SME Development Manager.

Madavo shares how Covid-19 has impacted work at Riversands Incubation Hub and the survival strategies he is sharing with their entrepreneurs. 

What challenges did COVID-19 present to the Hub?

Considering the novelty of the pandemic and the global lockdowns, the challenge as with most is figuring out how to quickly adapt to the changing circumstances and to continue working towards the vision no matter how difficult it gets.

During times like this the basics within your business [is what] matters most

The small businesses we support are facing an unprecedented level of disruption which as you can imagine has a serious financial and emotional impact on the business owners we support, their employees and us as the Hub team.

For the Hub, we decided to find the right balance when supporting small businesses in this context, balancing hope, empathy, pragmatism, uncertainty and the fluidity on the situation is really important.

We are also conscious that although as a team we have a deep desire to assist as much as we can, we also cannot imply even in the slightest that we have all the answers in this unique situation brought about by the pandemic.

In light of Covid-19 and the current lockdown, how have you been able to run the Hub?

In my current role of CEO of a large-scale business incubator, the pandemic has negatively impacted certain elements of our operations. I’m sure I am not alone when I say the lockdown period has not been easy, but as the Hub team we stepped up and decided to focus on driving any and all operations that could be done virtually and would add value to our primary clients – the SMEs.

This lockdown period put us in a position where we had to accelerate the development of our virtual platforms and begin having conversations as a team and with SMEs on how to monetise virtual platforms where possible.

Ask yourself, what are the absolutely critical elements in my business, and what are the nice to haves?

Besides the Hub’s own challenges, the fact that we support over +160 small businesses has been the priority, especially when we considered the range of challenges being faced by the SMEs.

My suggestion to business owners is to firstly acknowledge that the level of uncertainty has been exacerbated and to realise quickly that during times like this, the basics within your business matter most.

Basics should in no way imply a lack of creativity, but it’s more about making sure the business’s foundation is solid and prepared from the oncoming storm. It’s time to press that internal reset button and ask yourself, “what are the absolutely critical elements in my business, and what are the nice to haves”?

There are no easy answers to these questions because as a small business owner everything seems critical and important, but if you make a conscious decision to be pragmatic and unemotional about your business, you will find ways of navigating this period.

When it comes to the pandemic, no one really knows what is going to happen next

In my opinion, it’s about building the business’s level of agility. Agility in this context is the ability to absorb the disruptive shock and the capacity to adapt to changing market dynamics.

It’s also important for business owners to realise that when it comes to the pandemic, no one really knows what is going to happen next, and what the economy will look like after the lockdown, but the best way to handle this situation is to prepare themselves and their businesses for change.

This will require business owners to quickly adjust their mindset from the “business-as-usual” attitude, to an entrepreneurial, opportunity-driven attitude. Again easier said than done, but it’s possible.

How is Riversands Incubation Hub itself adapting to the changing landscape?

Our service co-ordinators are in regular contact with their respective portfolio of SMEs and we have daily virtual engagements whilst also delivering support where we can.

As a team the first thing we decided to do was to keep our communication channels open, because it’s during difficult times like these, that business owners want a sympathetic ear and quick responses to support requests and someone to bounce ideas off of for the future.

As a result, the majority of the Hub activities have not necessarily lost momentum, it’s been mostly a recalibration of priorities and driving on those priorities.

We have daily virtual engagements whilst also delivering support where we can

We are also consciously working to further develop elements of our incubation model in anticipation of the long term disruption brought about by the COVID 19 pandemic.

The businesses we support are very much at the core of our plans and it would be irresponsible for us not to think ahead.

Interestingly, we had already started developing our online platform Lynx which is proving its worth as a resource for managing and monitoring progress.

We also have a number of our SMEs who have essential services permits and have permission to access the campus and are actually operating and doing well during this lockdown period.

How are supporting entrepreneurs during this time?

This is the ideal time for business owners to focus on the bigger picture and upskill themselves on those functional elements within their business they haven’t had time for before. So we have accelerated our online virtual support framework for the SMEs.

We are also aware that the priority for a small business owner at this time is liquidity, as a result we made the decision to provide an additional subsidy on the rental for the business owners currently on campus, which should translate into considerable reduction in their businesses operating costs.

Considering the potentially long term impact of the pandemic we are also working on a number of other initiatives that will reduce their operating costs and help them on the road to recovery.

We also have a number of our SMEs who have essential services permits, have permission to access the campus

What’s your advice for small businesses who are in need of financial assistance at this time?

The first thing I would say is be careful, although there are a lot of amazing funding initiatives out there right now, I am concerned that business owners are not fully aware of what they are applying for.

One has to ask themselves, “what is likely to be the short to medium term impact on my business if I get this loan?”, “was I in a position to pay loans prior to the pandemic and am I sure that the business will have the capacity to pay back the loan after the lockdown?”

Risk is part and parcel of what it means to be an entrepreneur

I fully appreciate that these are unprecedented times and that the future is uncertain for everyone. Risk is part and parcel of what it means to be an entrepreneur and you learn very quickly to manage risk and not lose hope, but you also need to be pragmatic and take calculated risks.

Take the time to analyse each offering, read the Ts and Cs and draw up projections that account for the disruption caused by the pandemic.

It’s also becoming clear that, moving forward,  to access funding you need to have all your business administration and compliance up to date for a smooth application process for financing or funding.

If you were behind on compliance related concerns don’t delay, it’s never too late to get these things up to date and correct.

I’m anticipating that there is likely to be a lot more funding opportunities being made available to SMEs over the next 12 months, but a key condition as we have seen recently is compliance.

To access funding you need to have all your business administration and compliance up to date

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs navigating current challenges?

The first thing is I would encourage business owners to build on their sales skills. Sales is the lifeblood of any business.

I was having a conversation with a business owner from the Hub who is using the lockdown period to go through all the business cards he’s collected and calling the people, knowing that they don’t have the excuse ‘I don’t have time to talk to you’. He’s made several sales appointments for after lockdown. I actually learnt a thing or two from him.

Another business owner is refreshing his website and our marketing team is online to support him should he need help.

I truly believe we will all find innovative ways to overcome the challenges we face

All businesses need financial administration services especially in times of crisis. Our dedicated finance coach is doing virtual sessions with business owners to keep their bookkeeping up to date.

Also, as noted above, clean accounts are a prerequisite when applying for any type of funding or grant.

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