The Sunday Mail
The importance of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and the internet can never be over emphasised.
Picture this, following spirited efforts to market Zimbabwe as the source of quality and organic products, a buyer based in Dubai decides to source horticultural produce from this country.
The buyer has never been to Zimbabwe and has limited contacts.
As such, the buyer makes his mobile phone or computer the first port of call to search, online, for reputable suppliers to meet the demand.
Following multiple attempts to locate suppliers online — especially those that have recognisable websites with detailed information on their supplies — the buyer fails to connect with local exporters and gives up on trying Zimbabwean produce.
In this case, the limitations of local farmers and exporters to reach the global market is not entirely about quality of produce or capacity to produce and deliver, but inability to tap into information and communication technologies (ICTs) to increase their visibility on the export market in order to reach the global audience.
Arguably, online presence of South African companies is higher than those in Zimbabwe. In some cases, local companies have more information about suppliers of products and services in South Africa than what is available locally.
So, what does this mean?
Companies that have a better online presence have bigger chances of connecting with potential buyers.
In addition, companies that have more employees connected to the internet have better chances of getting those employees to market the products — in some cases unknowingly — to potential buyers in other countries.
For example, employees who are connected on internet are more likely to engage in e-marketing, even beyond their scope of duties.
A study on the ICT usage by the Zimbabwean SMEs in manufacturing sector and its effect on export performance revealed that ICT usage enhances export performance of local companies.
Results of the study show that SMEs are likely to enhance their export performance when they use ICT for relationship building or improving relationship with customers, suppliers and partners.
According to the study, “SMEs using ICT to cultivate relationships with customers, suppliers and partners are realising benefits in terms of better export performance.”
Therefore, as local companies are putting into action their export strategies for the year 2020, it is important to consider the critical role of ICTs in driving exports.
Undoubtedly, ICTs have bridged the gap between distance and reduced time of connecting; and companies that have been quick to adapt have potential to seize markets faster than those lagging behind.
By establishing online presence, local companies increase their chances of connecting with customers from across the world, thus improving brand visibility.
Presence on the virtual world also creates better sales platforms and enhances conversation during the sales effort as well as increase reach, direct marketing and online responsiveness.
Further to this, online platforms allow local companies to create virtual branches in many countries, with almost no cost on physical assets such as office space.
For SMEs that are seeking a substantial share of the export market, strategic use of ICTs can ease market penetration by working around challenges associated with establishing marketing teams in all countries.
For example, e-commerce — which refers to the activity of buying or selling products and services through online services or over the internet — is allowing companies to connect directly with customers in locations they are not physically represented.
One of the challenges that local companies face when considering export options is failure to consider the advantages of modern technologies and online connectivity when exploring new markets.
This is despite the growing number of cross-border business-to-consumer e-commerce transactions that are taking place around the world.
The major cause is that manufacturers or exporters of goods and providers of ICT solutions exist in isolation, thus failing to take advantage of the openness of the virtual world, particularly in increasing the presence of local products beyond borders.
Going forward, local companies should invest in modern ICTs that will make it easy for them to connect with customers abroad.
This will also make it easy for Zimbabwe’s diaspora to market local products, by referring potential buyers to websites, blogs and even social media pages.
Given the costs that may be associated with running an individual website, one of the ways local companies, especially SMEs, can improve their presence online is to organise themselves and establish sector-based or value chain based websites. These can work as online directories for suppliers.
Currently, ZimTrade — the national trade development promotion organisation — is developing a web portal that will increase the exposure of packaging industry players beyond borders.
The portal will feature a directory of local suppliers as well as provide useful information to local manufacturers on areas such as packaging technologies and types.
Based on the successes of this portal, the initiative will be rolled to other sectors and value chains.
The packaging portal is an addition to the Trade Information Portal, developed and maintained by ZimTrade to address national entrepreneurs’ information needs on issues to do with trade regulations, export procedures, market access requirements and business opportunities.
At the same time, the platform showcases Zimbabwean export potential to the international business community and provides essential information on how to do business with Zimbabwe.
Sector associations can also mobilise their members to develop modern online platforms that can be used to connect with potential buyers.
The mobile platforms can also be used to distribute reliable information – such as market prices and window periods to all members.
Here, as the local player contributes towards hosting and maintaining the website, the return on the low-cost investment is that they will be easily reached from far ends of the world and have quick access to up-to-date information. At the same time, as companies are mobilising themselves, ICT sector players should be encouraged to provide desired services in a cost effective and sustainable manner.
The win-win situation is that as local companies earn more, following increased sales, they can source more services from ICT companies to improve their efficiencies. Key areas that local companies should start investing in include improving online presence, use of online transactions as well as improve the number of employees with access to fast internet capacity.
Other areas of digital marketing such as search engine optimisation can improve competitiveness of local companies through increasing the quality and quantity of website traffic, which is made possible by increasing the visibility of a website or a web page to internet users.