Digital Dividends: Nigerian Businesses Leveraging Technology in the Age of Social Distancing 

Four months after the first new coronavirus infection was confirmed in Nigeria, small and large businesses are coming to terms with the challenges that the measures to curtail the pandemic present to even the simplest commercial activity. For businesses, social distancing is far more than a new buzz word. It is a reality that could make the difference between surviving or hitting the rock. Businesses are responding to the challenge of creating new operational models that allow them serve customers with little or no physical contact.  This invariably has meant learning to deploy or intensify the use of digital technology platforms. 

There are many examples of small and middle-sized organisations that are adapting to doing business on digital platforms with impressive creativity. Gym operators are now offering services via Zoom. Music teachers are doing the same. Entertainers and event companies are not left out. Zoom parties have become a source of revenue for those in the creative industry. Until a vaccine or treatment is found for the new coronavirus, mastering digital delivery will be a critical competitive strength for SMEs.

Some businesses are better prepared. According to Segun Abiona, the founder of Nicole and Giovanni, the company had embraced digital channels from its inception. Sales generated through the company website and via social media platforms accounted for 70% of sales even before the coronavirus pandemic. “During the height of the lockdown in March and April, LinkedIn was our number one platform to engage customers based on our target market, followed by Instagram and WhatsApp. This helped us weather the storm of a drop in sales over those two months. WhatsApp is particularly useful to engage existing customers. It is such an effective way to engage and meet the needs of hundreds of customers real time”. Abiona said that Nicole and Giovanni has also used data analytics to assess trends in consumer demand. “We recently launched a new product line of Flat Caps popularly known as Newsboy hats via a pre-order strategy. The product design is in line with the current informal customer expectations”. Using data analytics to understand the trends in what people are wearing as they work from home and socialize in new ways has thus helped Nicole and Giovanni expand its product lines and boost sales.

Entrepreneurs in the food business have been particularly hit by restrictions relating to the operations of eateries and similar outlets. Toyin Akinrinmade, the co-Founder of Unickchops says that social media has become an essential part of her sales strategy. “We are deliberate about putting up alluring pictures and messages about our food products on Instagram and Facebook. We have also put up sponsored ads on these platforms. We certainly receive a lot more enquiries and orders today compared to what we got before we did this” Akinrinmade said. Despite the government’s directives on social distancing and the ban on table service, Unickchops recently opened its first outlet on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way in Ikeja, Lagos. Sales generated via digital channels, even if a significant portion are old customers, have given the confidence to prepare for when current restrictions are lifted.

Adenike Adeyemi, CEO at FATE Foundation, an Enterprise Support Organisation, has been studying how several alumni and entrepreneurs currently on their programmes have been leveraging digital channels to do business during the pandemic. “Baby Grubz is a great example of a business that is adapting to the times. The founder has been using social media, particularly Instagram, to expand the business’ reach and amass  greater appeal by creating content to teach mothers who are weaning babies to make food combinations” said Adeyemi. Baby Grubz also collaborates with established retail stores that serve as pick up points for those making orders online.

Another interesting story of collaboration is the innovative EdTech site ClassNotes.ng which collaborated with the school-listing platform Edusko Africa to deliver complete curriculum-specific secondary school education to students online.

ClassNotes.ng provides junior and senior secondary school students the freedom to learn curriculum-specific subjects and topics for a token fee. “Serving as a very affordable supplementary education resource during and post Covid-19 lockdown, ClassNotes.ng offers students flexibility to study at their unique pace and the resources to prepare for examinations like WASSCE, JSSCE, SSCE, GCE and UTME successfully” said Adeyemi.

In addition, according to Adeyemi, FATE Foundation had seen entrepreneurs find ways to manage their virtual team members in multiple locations by using Microsoft Teams. This has enabled better performance reporting and management of employees.

Many small and medium-sized enterprises have been using digital strategies to expand their businesses locally and internationally. But the coronavirus pandemic is accelerating this pre-existing trend. According to a study by financial software giant Intuit and consulting firm Emergent Research, 80 percent of U.S. small businesses will be using cloud computing by 2020, compared to 37 percent in 2014. In Nigeria, the coronavirus is opening the possibilities of digital strategies anew to so many SMEs. 

The coronavirus pandemic has been a wake-up call for many SMEs. It is revealing inherent weaknesses that not only elevate operating costs but expose the vulnerability of businesses to the loss of market share to companies that are willing to use technology to disrupt the marketplace. Businesses must be willing and able to adapt to changing customer needs and behaviours. To win in an increasingly digital world where individuals and organisations are looking to transact online or remotely, businesses must adapt quickly to offer convenience at an affordable price. Lessons learnt during the pandemic will stay with Nigerian SMEs and make them more efficient.