Cash to Card: The Next Frontier for SA’s Micro-SME Sector

Published: 14 May 2021

South Africa’s informal economy, made up of thousands of small businesses in city centres and townships across the country, represents a massive opportunity for job creation and economic growth, and the move from cash to digital is an important move to unleash the potential of this sector, says Retail Capital GM: Commercial Mandla Khupe.

Khupe says that for the migration from cash to card to gain meaningful momentum it needs to be driven by consumers, and this, he says, is already happening. “GG Alcock’s research for his book Kasinomics indicated that in townships each person has on average two debit cards,” says Khupe.

He says that over the past year Retail Capital has certainly noticed a consumer-led drive to digitisation in the informal sector. Merchants, he says, have little choice but to cater to the choices and needs of their customers.

“This has been accelerated by Covid-19, with people demanding contactless ways of paying for goods. Certainly, we are seeing a marked uptake of QR payments and card machines in townships, most notably in food and beverage and services sectors, including hairdressers, taverns and spaza shops,” he says.

However, there is more to gain from digitising payments than convenience. As more digital payment vendors make inroads into informal economies, those businesses gain access to a host of digital services through their partners that would ordinarily have been out of reach. Most notably, says Khupe, is access to working capital and loans.

“If a merchant uses a partner payment portal, for instance, they can have access to almost instant and guaranteed business funding, because they have built up a digital profile that would otherwise not even have been an option. There’s enough research and anecdotal evidence in SA and abroad that says access to capital is vital for small business owners not only to survive, but scale and take their businesses to another level,” he says.

Khupe says that when he goes into townships one of his first stops is at an ATM to draw money, just in case. If he did not have that cash available, or if he felt uncomfortable carrying cash, there are many services he would forego. “Those that spend most of their time in townships may not find it convenient to go elsewhere to shop, and so they are the ones pushing merchants to make the move,” he says. He adds that a stolen card machine has far less impact than a stolen cash register, for example, so crime is a consideration.

Educating small business owners about the benefits for their businesses is crucial. The three most immediate benefits are:

  1. It professionalises the business. Being able to take QR code payments or offer a card machine immediately takes the business from an informal setup and brings it into the digital age.
  2. Owners can manage their businesses and track turnover better. Often, small, or micro enterprises use the same account for the business and personal use. The lines become blurred. The digital trail enables a business owner to get a clearer view of the performance of the business.
  3. Moving into the digital space opens a host of services, not least funding. A service provider can get a real-time view of how the business is doing, meaning that the entrepreneur can access funding driven by fintech. Access to capital may be the difference between carrying on as they always have and scaling to the next level.

“If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the resilient and competitive businesses fared better. One of the lasting legacies of the pandemic will be the digitisation drive. This is good news for SMEs in the formerly informal sector in South Africa, as they, too will be able to access the kinds of networks and support that their bigger counterparts have taken for granted for a number of years.

“Watch as the potential of these micro-enterprises is realised over the coming years, thanks in a large part to moving from cash to card,” he says.