Digitizing SMEs


Africa is home to a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs). These businesses play a crucial role in driving economic growth and creating employment opportunities in the continent. However, many of these MSMEs operate in offline markets, limiting their potential for growth and expansion. In this article, we will explore the importance of digitizing Africa’s MSMEs, the challenges they face, and the opportunities that lie ahead. By embracing digital transformation, African businesses can tap into new markets, improve efficiency, and unlock their full potential.

The Current Landscape

Africa’s MSMEs comprise approximately 90% of all businesses on the continent. These enterprises operate across various sectors, ranging from agriculture to retail and manufacturing. However, they primarily serve non-digital customers, as less than half of the population in Africa uses the internet, and only 24% engage in online shopping. Cash remains the dominant mode of transaction, accounting for about 95% of all financial activities in Africa.

Efforts to increase digitization in Africa have been underway, with both private corporations and governments taking initiatives. For instance, Microsoft recently partnered with the Nigerian government to develop high-speed internet infrastructure and upskill 5 million workers over the next three years. While these efforts are commendable, it is essential to ensure that the majority of Africa’s businesses, especially those in offline markets, are not left behind.

Creating Digital Solutions

To bridge the digital divide and facilitate the growth of MSMEs, startups, corporations, and policymakers need to focus on creating and encouraging digital solutions tailored to Africa’s unique market dynamics. This involves not only investing in digital literacy and infrastructure but also layering digital products on top of familiar offline activities. By doing so, we can enhance efficiency and scale in MSME operations.

Digitizing Informal Savings Systems

In many parts of Nigeria, small business owners rely on local cooperative and thrift savings associations to manage their finances. However, these systems are predominantly paper-based, making it challenging to access formal banking arrangements and credit. Nigerian startups have recognized this opportunity and started digitizing these informal savings systems. By recording transactions on mobile phones and providing customers with text message receipts, these startups enable business owners to access credit from third-party financiers and banks. This not only streamlines the process but also creates opportunities for better data-driven innovations in policymaking and technology.

Streamlining Inventory Management

Inventory management is a critical aspect of any business, and MSMEs in Africa often struggle to keep up with sales and demand. Many rely on manual tracking systems, which are prone to human error and inefficiencies. To address this challenge, mobile phone-based inventory management systems are emerging. These systems allow merchants to input transactions in real-time, view available stock, and assess sales frequency with a simple tap. By leveraging technology, MSMEs can improve their inventory management processes, reduce costs, and make informed business decisions.

Transformative Opportunities in Digital Fulfillment

Digital fulfillment presents a transformative opportunity for MSMEs in Africa, especially in remote areas. Customers who previously had to travel to cities to purchase certain goods can now pool their efforts and leverage economies of scale for better logistics and delivery. This concept is exemplified by China’s Community Group Buying (CGB) model, where consumers in smaller cities collectively bargain and bulk purchase items. Giant tech companies are investing in CGB, recognizing its potential to connect rural areas to the digital economy. Similarly, Africa can adopt this model to improve access to goods and services in remote regions.

The Role of Legacy Companies and Startups

Both legacy companies and startups have a crucial role to play in digitizing Africa’s offline markets. Legacy companies, with their vast resources, data, and physical reach, can leverage their expertise to drive digital transformation. They can invest in research to identify pain points and develop solutions that cater to the unique needs of African MSMEs. Startups, on the other hand, bring a nimble approach to product development and innovation. They can quickly adapt to market demands and introduce disruptive technologies that address the challenges faced by MSMEs.

Policy makers also play a vital role in supporting these initiatives. They need to engage with stakeholders at all levels, particularly consumers, to gain a thorough understanding of the problems being tackled and to ensure that innovation is not stifled. By studying the behavior patterns of non-internet consumers and the MSMEs that serve them, policy makers can bridge the gaps that keep this demographic offline and accelerate Africa’s digital transformation.


Digitizing Africa’s small and midsize businesses is essential for unlocking their full potential and driving economic growth. By embracing digital transformation, MSMEs can tap into new markets, improve efficiency, and access formal financial services. Startups, corporations, and policymakers must work together to create and encourage digital solutions tailored to Africa’s unique market dynamics. Legacy companies can leverage their resources and physical reach, while startups bring innovation and agility to the table. With the right support and investment in digital infrastructure, Africa’s MSMEs can thrive in the digital era and contribute to the continent’s overall development.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency or organization.

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