Access to funding and market continue to be the main challenges facing small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME’s) in South Africa. It is often not the lack of a quality product that hinders their progress, but an inability to prioritise the activities that will enable market access, and to secure funding for business growth.
Despite the abundance of entrepreneurship training on offer from various institutions, there is a dire need for mentoring of entrepreneurs. Further, lack of coherence among the available support instruments leads entrepreneurs, in many instances, to waste valuable time and energy on pursuing too many avenues at once.
SMME’s that approach the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are often not aware of the other instruments in the national system of innovation that can provide entrepreneurs with business support and funding for purchasing equipment and conducting product and technology development. But the converse is also true, with many entrepreneurs being assisted by the various facilities on offer yet failing to capitalise on this support. There is a real need for alignment and engagement between the instruments to maximise the outcomes in the form of successful SMME’s.
We often hear that small businesses must be the engine of our economy and provide employment. In the bio-manufacturing sector, there are numerous entrepreneurs that are attempting to do just that. These range from the home baker who realises the potential of a humble vegetable and expands her idea to high-quality processing and analysis for the retail market, to the biotechnology company that has in-licensed international intellectual property and is attempting to validate and scale up that technology for local production. The CSIR’s Bio-manufacturing Industry Development Centre (BIDC) is assisting such entrepreneurs by lowering the barriers faced by so many SMME’s, such as access to scientists and engineers, as well as world-class facilities for product and process development.
We are extremely encouraged by initiatives by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) to support the development of quality and standards for essential and fixed oils in South Africa and foster the growth of SMME’s in the natural products sector, with a focus on indigenous plant ingredients and finished products. These initiatives stimulate the involvement of stakeholders and help with identifying barriers and devising mechanisms by which these can be overcome.
The bio-manufacturing sector is a space characterised by plenty of enthusiasm and a high entrepreneurial spirit. Moreover, the multiple support instruments in the sector, and assistance from government departments – notably the Departments of Science and Innovation, Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Small Business Development, and Trade and Industry – have created an environment in which entrepreneurial success is not just a possibility. Accessing funds from investors to build manufacturing facilities and purchase equipment, and launching products in retail spaces, have become a reality, and we have seen real success stories and growth among the SMME’s supported through our programme.
The CSIR, through the BIDC, will continue to attract support from stakeholders and funders to develop the bio-manufacturing industry by enabling small businesses to convert their novel concepts into products through the application of science and innovation. In the six years since the inception of the BIDC, we’ve seen more than 220 unique applications from SMMEs in bio’-manufacturing, including specialty chemicals, eco-friendly cleaning products, nutritional foods and cosmetics, with a focus on indigenous product-based ingredients and bio-pharmaceuticals. From these applications, the BIDC has to date supported 31 companies by developing and validating manufacturing technologies for products, including scale-up, piloting and techno-economic assessment, as well as initial contract manufacture to enable companies to test the market. Most of these companies were located in Gauteng, with a smaller representation from other provinces, and were mostly in the micro to very small range. They include Lighthouse Healthcare, Professional Laboratory Services, Marple Skincare, OptimusBio, JVS Biotech Solutions, and Phepisa Natural Products Institute.
Through the BIDC’s support, 92 products have been developed together with these SMME’s, tested and transferred to the companies. These products can be purchased online, in retail stores, or through agent-based sales, or are being sold to larger companies for re-packaging and on-selling. This support was made possible by funding from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the Jobs Fund, as part of the national drive to create jobs and achieve a sustainable socio-economic impact through innovation.
*Lara Kotze-Jacobs is the CSIR Project Manager of the Bio-manufacturing Industry Development Centre.