Small and medium enterprises (SMBs), which represent two-thirds of global jobs and over half of global GDP, remain resilient and confident in the face of current challenges.

They warn of rising costs and the need for more government support and better financing options to weather these conditions over the next 12 months.

The confidence of SMEs is examined in the Sage-commission “Small Business, Big Opportunity” research, a global study into how SMEs survive and thrive despite current public health, economic and societal challenges, including rising costs of living and the ongoing impact of the pandemic. The survey polled more than 13 000 businesses in eleven countries worldwide, including more than 1 000 in South Africa, to understand their experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and their outlook for the future.

In South Africa, the research found that:

Rising costs and concerns about inflation are keeping South African businesses up at night, much like the rest of the world

* More than half (51%) of South African businesses are still not operating as they did before the pandemic.

* 43% of South African respondents expect rising inflation and cost pressures to persist and worsen in the year ahead, significantly impacting growth prospects.

* Nearly half (48%) expect the inability to operate as before to pose the biggest risk to their success in the next 12 months, compared to 31% of global respondents.

Business confidence remains strong, despite ongoing pandemic pressures

Most South African businesses feel more resilient and better prepared to overcome major barriers now than before the pandemic because of their adaptations over the period, including investment in technology.

* Three quarters (75%) of South African SMEs are confident about the success of their business right now – 10% higher than the global average (65%), while 80% feel confident about their success over the next 12 months compared to 69% globally.

* Optimism is starting to filter through into profitability, with 81% of South African SMEs expecting to be somewhat back to pre-pandemic levels of profitability within the next 12 months. Two thirds (66%) expect their business revenue to increase over the next six months.

SMBs expect to increase hiring and remain optimistic about staffing over the next 12 months

* More than half (56%) of South African SMBs surveyed expect to hire more people in 2022. Thirty-nine percent saw their workforce shrink in the previous year, but 70% are confident they will be able to meet their staffing needs over the next 12 months.

Government and financial support are crucial to business survival

* South African SMEs identified financing and government support as the most important resources contributing to SME growth over the next 12 months.

* 34% highlighted a lack of government support as a key challenge affecting their business today.

A majority want to seize the opportunity for more sustainable development

* Out of the markets surveyed, SMEs in South Africa were most likely to say they will become more sustainable as a business in the next year (51% versus 28% globally). They expect to make changes such as developing more sustainable products to sell (35%) and reducing waste and recycling materials (34%).

* They named a wide range of benefits that becoming more sustainable could bring to their businesses, most notably attracting customers with more sustainable products and services (46%), creating a better working culture (42%), and boosting employee motivation (40%).

Covid has accelerated technology adoption

* SMEs in South Africa were more likely than SMEs in the other countries surveyed to increase their technology investment in the next year. Seven out of 10 (71%) expect to increase investment, compared to a global average of 51%.

* A similar proportion (71%) said the pandemic has permanently increased their reliance on technology.

Viresh Harduth, vice-president: small business at Sage Africa & Middle East, says: “SMEs are the backbone of the global economy and supporting them to grow will help create economic equality. Our survey shows incredible resilience by SMEs in South Africa and their commitment to creating employment and wealth for the benefit of their communities. They hold the key to resolving the unemployment crisis and creating much-needed tax revenue to support social spending. Providing the right infrastructure and reducing red tape will unleash their potential.”

Sage Group CEO Steve Hare comments: “SMEs have demonstrated incredible resilience throughout the pandemic. But their confidence cannot be mistaken for invincibility. The government must do more to safeguard their prosperity against a backdrop of continued uncertainty and rising costs – or we risk forcing them to choose between protecting people or protecting profits. Overlooking smaller businesses endangers the recovery and thousands of jobs; we all have a role to play in futureproofing their success.”

Generation Covid: a new generation of confident business owners

On a global scale, the research found that businesses founded during the pandemic report larger than average barriers to success but remain more confident about the growth they can achieve in the upcoming year.

* 64% of businesses founded during the pandemic were by young people (aged 18-34).

* Generation Covid businesses are much more adaptable to Covid-19 restrictions, with less than a third (29%) stating the pandemic negatively impacted their operations in the past 12 months.

* These companies are more confident they will generate revenue growth in the next six months (57%) versus those founded pre-pandemic (48%).

* However, these businesses still feel there are significant barriers to success, with relatively low levels of satisfaction in various areas of their business, including staffing levels (56%), ability to recruit talent (51%) and productivity (58%).