One large business vs. 1000 little ones

Possibly, the most important question in public policy is “who benefits”.
In answering this question, not only can distributional outcomes be assessed, but often the underlying power structures. The recent reporting on the Public Investment Commission investing R1.5 billion of government employee pension funds in CAMAC Energy raises just this question: “Who benefits”.
Three features of CAMAC Energy are important. First, the company has several investments across the African continent, mostly in oil and mining. Second, it is regarded as a high risk penny stock in New York. In fact, reports show that the first tranche of PIC investment staved off its liquidation. Third, the owner of CAMAC Energy is described as well-connected to political leaders, including those in South Africa.
Now, imagine if the PIC decided to spend this money on businesses in South Africa. For arguments sake, let‘s remove the question of patronage from the equation. The exercise is to explore the possibilities of spending R1.5 billion on venture capital for smaller businesses.
The simplest option would be to divide the total into equal stakes of R 1.5 million each given to one thousand small businesses in South Africa. Assuming that each of these businesses employ the founder and create an additional two jobs, this would yield 3000 jobs. However, we know that business failure is high, so something in the region of 1500 jobs could have been created. More to the point, even in a pessimistic scenario 500 new businesses would be created, with substantial impact on the asset holdings of the owner and her family. The broader social good would be served not only with broadening ownership, but also with small impacts on economic growth.
Another option would be to limit the selection of companies for venture capital to those working with successful franchises or incubators. The investments decision are more cautious aiming to scale currently successful experiments. The number of jobs could easily reach between 5000 and 10000 new jobs, assuming that small successful franchises runs two shifts a day.
The possibilities are however even wider. In one of the tech incubators, a company is conjuring up an open source solution to a problem facing businesses, and in so doing establishes in addition to the software cloud services. This company supports the businesses of 200 South African companies, who provide extensions and maintenance around the software that has been created. The impact on direct and indirect jobs would multiply quickly, and a guess of around 10 000 jobs would be plausible. This is not as farfetched as it seems, as research suggests that South Africa could create 145 000 jobs from cloud computing.
A more adventurous option of matching funding would expand the funds available and test the plans of entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs would be required to receive matching funding to access government funds. This is common today in American cities. Entrepreneurs would proposition venture capitalists, banks and invest their own cash to access government funding. The total available funds would now be R 3 billion, and the potential gains for economic growth and employment much greater. More importantly, the small number of angel investors could grow rapidly, thus supporting an ecosystem for entrepreneurs seeking smaller sums of equity investment.
The mind could run wild with possible options. For instance, imagine investing R 500 million into manufacturing companies in the “East Rand”, to support the Ekhurhuleni initiative to create a aerotropolis. Or investing R 200 million into the burgeoning tech sectors in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Or, investing in logistics to support smallholder farmers to bring goods to market.
The possibilities are in fact endless, and in each of these policy options the distributional impacts on opportunities, jobs and economic growth would be greater than investing in CAMAC Energy.
These proposals should not be construed as suggesting that all pension funds start investing in risky startup activity, or that the success of any of the ideas mentioned here is guaranteed. Rather these ideas are meant to show in the world of investment opportunities, spending R 1.5 billion on a single company raises substantive questions. This is especially true given that the investment in Camac is comparable in size to investments in agencies like the Jobs Fund and the National Empowerment Fund, which have larger mandates.
In answering the question “who benefits”, it is certainly not small business. The ANC has in its explanation of the term “radical economic transformation” argued that it means amongst other things, an expansion of economic opportunity and equal ownership of assets. It is a certainty that this agenda is not aligned with an investment of R1.5 billion in CAMAC Energy.
The investment in Camac begins to shed light on the underlying power structures that guide investment decisions. However, the important conclusion is that we have prioritised one opportunity with limited gains for our society, over possibly starting one thousand small businesses.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times : Business Times 
 

One thought on “One large business vs. 1000 little ones”

  1. small business is still a joke. are we serious??
    we need to have focus…a one stop shop. seda ,khula, ggda etc is not working. what a waste of time.
    when will we get it right.
    *****thats what small bus guys want. not talking and visiting 100 centres/people
    lets talk sometime. thanks naveen

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