‘How we support SMEs amidst COVID-19 pandemic’

Ademola Adesina is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Rensource, a leading provider of merchant infrastructure to SMEs in Nigeria. In this interview with NIYI OYEDEJI, he speaks on how the organisation is helping SMEs to navigate their ways amidst the current pandemic.

 

WHEN was your business established?

Rensource is Nigeria’s leading provider of critical merchant infrastructure. We do this by building and operating solar-based microutilities in economic clusters such as markets and providing tools and services to support the digitalization and productivity growth of these SMEs.

Prior to starting Rensource, I worked globally in investment banking and then business development – building or turning around early and growth stage enterprises on behalf of institutional investors.

I began my career in the financial derivatives team at JP Morgan,  before taking up roles at Capricorn Investment Group, the Skoll Foundation, Aquifer and the Rockefeller Foundation, as a founding member of the Innovation for Development & Impact Investing initiatives team. This later evolved into the Global Impact Investing Network. I have lived and worked in Africa, the USA and Europe.

Rensource began commercial operations in 2016 initially providing power-as -a-service (Paas) solar hybrid systems where customers pay to use and not own. In 2018, we pivoted to B2B, launching Nigeria’s first solar microutility project at the Sabon Gari Market in Kano, Nigeria. Rensource was the recipient of The Financial Times / IFC Transformational Business Award for Climate and Urban Infrastructure Solutions in 2019.

 

What inspired you to establish Rensource?

There are many economic and social benefits to improving access to power across Sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria, with a population of more than 200million people, has untapped potential in economic development but up to 40% of the nation does not access power via the national grid. Those that do are faced with low transmission capacity – 30 watts per person compared to the global average of 900 watts per person.

Nigeria is also one of the largest decentralized energy markets in the world and home to an abundance of markets where many small and medium sized enterprises operate sub optimally due to the difficulties of accessing reliable power. We believe that by powering productive use cases in our markets, we are enabling SMEs focus on their core businesses and grow. This also has a knock on impact on their families and communities.

 

Tell us about your newly launched platform?

Merchlist is a digital platform that helps small and medium-sized retailers get discovered quickly while enabling servicing and fulfillment of customer orders online. With so many businesses impacted by the unanticipated global pandemic, this is a solution to keep SMEs viable during the lockdown.

 

What do you want to achieve with Merchlist?

We want to maintain the connection between consumers and businesses, to minimise the operating challenges presented by the lockdown, and then beyond. Our mission as a company has always been to enable access to critical services: initially to energy, and now through the supply chain.

When considering why it is so difficult for SMEs to maintain their businesses in the long term, you quickly realise that a lot of it is to do with the amount of time they spend on things that are not core to their main business activities – trying to ensure they have power, marketing, logistics, and so on – generally coordinating activities that are distracting. Our aim is to remove some of those burdens so they can focus on gaining traction and growing.

 

How do you think this platform would be beneficial to SMEs in this lockdown period and beyond?

For SMEs who don’t have an online presence, this is a way to access the online retail space. For those SMEs who rely on people coming into their store to purchase from them, being listed on a platform that takes care of their orders and deliveries helps mitigate disruption to their operations. This also potentially is a way for SMEs to combine their physical spaces with a steadily growing online retail market once the lockdown is eased.

 

What are the major challenges you’ve encountered since the launch of Merchlist?

Our main focus over the last few weeks has been balancing out demand versus our structures and the learnings we are gaining. While the platform is still in beta, we work to ensure customers have the best experience possible so we continue to develop our processes and technology to ensure we maintain customer experience levels as demand grows.

 

How do you plan to navigate your way through these challenges?

We continue to listen to customer feedback of their experience on the platform as well as continually adapting our technology and processes so that we offer an optimal experience at any given time.

 

Which other ways has your organisation been helpful to SMEs?

We have waived the energy usage fee for two weeks in our markets even before the government ordered the lock down. During the lockdown, we have also provided free power to our merchants on the days there are open market hours. We have donated PPE and funds to governments and communities we are involved in and have also partnered with a number of NGOs to set up a fund for families of merchants who may be affected by the slowdown of business operations.  You can access the link to donate via the Merchlist homepage.

 

How do you think SMEs can stay viable in this lockdown period?

We are seeing businesses innovate and pivot their offerings especially as their usual market may have shrunk or is difficult to fully serve at this time. SMEs need to consistently think creatively about what they offer as a business and evolve their solutions – finding new uses for existing capital and business collateral.  Finally, review your operations and improve processes where possible. These are adaptations that will sustain the business beyond this period.

 

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs out there?

Being an entrepreneur is one of the most rewarding experiences. It is also extremely difficult. No one can prepare you for the amount of volatility involved. Many things will happen outside of your control – I advise trying to maintain focus on solving problems and moving forward at all times. COVID-19 is the rarity rather than the norm of business challenges but I think it is a great teacher in not just how to prepare for the absolute worst of situations but also how to innovate in a slightly different direction in order to survive.

 

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