Last month, IBA and network partner IBA Hub Accra Ghana attended the 2017 SEED West Africa Symposium in Ghana. As part of the event we co-facilitated a practitioner dialogue with the Business Development Service Providers that are active in the business development field in Ghana. Here are some of the outcomes.
Both SEED and IBA believe in the need for capacity building and connecting of business advisors to create a large impact on entrepreneurs and the (inclusive) business environment. The BDS Practitioner Dialogue brought together different organisations that work with BDS providers: SEED, IBA, MDF West Africa, BoP Innovation Center, Reach4Change Ghana, and the Inclusive Agribusiness Accelerator.
Participants were divided into four round tables: Partnerships, Service provision, Portfolio innovation and Financing of services. The session brought out some of the most pressing challenges that are experienced by the BDS providers, such as designing a sustainable business model for BDS service providers: how can they sustain their business and get entrepreneurs to pay for the services, and not remain donor dependent? Indeed, BDS advisors face competition from large organisations and free services. In addition, it is challenging to convince the entrepreneurs of the added value of BDS and that their company is not yet ready for investment.
From another perspective, the general quality of BDS has been mentioned as a challenge. Many BDS providers offer more general services, but entrepreneurs often need more specialised advice, for example in recruitment or financing.
Below we have outlined the challenges and solutions defined in each of the round tables.
Partnerships – hosted by Saskia Rotshuizen (IBA):
As the BDS sector grows and more actors are involved, cooperation becomes essential. Some of the key challenges outlined here included the difficulty on aligning when pursuing opportunities in a partnership, how to find quality BDS providers and the inherent cultural and communication challenges that can emerge in a partnership.
The roundtable participants concluded that a network approach as well as an online/offline combination would benefit the creation of viable and impactful partnerships, as it would enable assessment of BDS quality as well as pursuing larger assignments in a coalition.
Service provision – hosted by Kwame Ntim Pipim (BoP Innovation Center):
As mentioned above, service provision is still very donor dependent. Furthermore, individual BDS providers face increasing competition from big players who are able to offer free services. Participants also highlighted the lack of technical know-how as a growing challenge, especially for the agribusiness sector.
To overcome these challenges, BDS providers can increase collaboration with and sub-contracting by big parties. Furthermore the private sector would do well to support small BDS support businesses under a CSR umbrella. Finally, BDS providers should seek further specialization, for example via peer-learning.
Portfolio innovation – hosted by Susanne Roelofsen (MDF West Africa):
The increased demand for BDS in emerging markets creates a need to diversify the services offered. Training and workshops are no longer enough, BDS providers must also be able to lead ventures via handholding and individual coaching. This requires a combination of soft skills and hard skills.
A key tool for innovating on one’s service portfolio is to conduct a detailed needs assessment with the target company – this enables the BDS provider to design a tailored solution, and creates a logical pathway towards testing the new service. Such an approach further enables the advisor to manage the entrepreneur’s expectations. The roundtable also recommends for additional skills development to take place in the formal education system, to ensure a combination of soft and hard skills.
Financing of services – hosted by Solomon Twum (Reach for Change):
Many BDS providers are experiencing donor fatigue – budgets are shrinking, and advisors need to look for alternative sources of funding. Advisors lack a business model for themselves, and face an incomplete regulatory framework, where there is no policy for social entrepreneurship.
The roundtable participants recognize the need for advisors to start charging entrepreneurs for their services. For this they need to re-think their business model and lobby for a social entrepreneurship framework.
It is evident that the BDS sector is still cementing its foundations. That is why testing new solutions now is critical for the long-term success of this sector. It is through events like the SEED West Africa Symposium that practitioners are able to exchange and re-energize around new ideas.
IBA’s main takeaway is that partnering and collaborating is a driver for moving the sector forward – it is our hope and ambition that the IBA platform provides a valuable network for BDS providers to do so.