Once upon a time


Nana peered over the balcony’s edge. From his vantage point he could see almost every shop on the street. In the heart of the business district, Makola is always bustling with activity. From the blaring music of anxious salesmen offering ‘buy one, get one free’ deals, to the loud quarrels of customers and vendors as they haggle, there is never a dull moment.

“Good afternoon, Nana,” Awo greeted with a spring in her step.

She did not even notice that her bubbly salutation did not receive a reply. Nana chuckled as he watched her skip to her boutique in the next shop. Looking at Awo going about her day, one would think there were no problems in Ghana.

Awo is one of the youngest business owners on this block. She opened her shop a few months after graduating from business school. Initially, the news of her decision to skip the corporate ladder and open a boutique in the market was not received well by her parents – who strongly advocated that the place of a graduate is in an office. They could not fathom why their only daughter would forsake her degree to become a ‘market woman’. Awo, stubborn as she is, insisted that she would rather sweat under the scorching sun to pursue her passion than sit in an office printing reports and fetching lunch for her boss.

Despite what her parents thought, Awo was not wasting the tuition they paid for her degree. She combined business studies with her interest in social media and the large network she had harnessed on campus to skyrocket her business. She had never even met more than half of her loyal customers. Most of her sales were through her Instagram profile. The convenience of having items delivered directly to their doorstep appealed to most people, especially the younger generation who have become accustomed to the soft life. Although this meant a little more work for Awo, she was more than willing to go the extra mile and charge a little premium for the convenience her boutique offered.

When COVID hit, it was almost like a little vacation for the twenty-four-year-old. Because of the strong skills she had developed from consistently using digital financial services and social media marketing, she could now just sit at home and process her orders. Mobile money fraud was rampant, especially during lockdown – but Awo was vigilant. Whenever she was in doubt about the authenticity of a transaction, she quickly reported to the appropriate quarters.  While other businesses collapsed, Awo thrived.

“Sweet coconut. Get your fresh coconut.”

Nana was pulled out of his reverie by the calls of Kwesi, the coconut seller.

“It’s fresh, it’s sweet. Boost your immunity,” Kwesi pushed his wheelbarrow through the busy streets, ignoring the curses and insults from vendors who had to move their wares to create space for him.

Nana smiled. He was sure Kwesi barely understood the words he was shouting. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Kwesi could not further his studies after basic school. He had lost both parents at an early age and was forced to fend for himself and his little brother, who sometimes accompanied him to work. Although selling coconuts is not a six-figure venture, it is honest work and pays the bills.

Unlike Awo, lockdown was a huge blow to his business. He could not sell his coconuts online; and even if that was a possibility, Kwesi did not know how to do so. He had spent the whole period doing nothing aside from looking for menial jobs to keep himself alive.  When the restrictions finally eased, Kwesi was quick to set up his stand again. He however noticed that traffic to the once-busy market had reduced drastically, most probably as a result of fear for crowded places. He then changed his model and decided to walk through the nearby business district.

That was not the only change he had to make. He also realised that fewer and fewer of his customers were using cash for their transactions. Kwesi was thus forced to activate a mobile money account. Up to now, he still only knew the basics: how to send and receive money. He was not even aware that he could access collateral-free loans just because he had a mobile money account. He had also fallen prey to numerous online scammers who promised get-rich-quick schemes. Kwesi’s ignorance was killing his business.

Nana thought of buying some coconut, but his rumbling tummy reminded him that he hadn’t eaten yet. He needed something heavier. He started the short trip from his shop to Auntie Akua’s chop-bar, as he did every single day. Aside from her delicious food, Auntie Akua is popular for the extra effort she puts into providing the utmost comfort for her customers.

The pandemic was sadly a very unprofitable period for businesses in the hospitality industry. Auntie Akua saw her revenue figures dip. And with all the faceless online food businesses that sprung up in the heat of the pandemic, she knew she had her work cut out for her when the restrictions eventually eased up. She decided to kill a whole fleet of birds with one stone by incorporating digital financial services into her operations.

Auntie Akua accepted all forms of payment including mobile money, debit card and bank transfers. Although she herself did not know how to use these technologies, she saw the value in them and got her daughter on board to help manage that aspect of the business. This adaptation provided her with a safer and cheaper means of performing transactions, as well as free record-keeping. Her customers equally loved it as Ghanaians leaned more toward a cashless economy. Business was booming.

With a large bowl of fufu and palm-nut soup in front of him, Nana thought of the three businesses he had encountered that day. They were all faced with a common problem but had varying results. Of course, it would be unwise to assume that the only factor accounting for the varying levels of success was the digital financial literacy of the traders. Other factors like their firm size, the industry in which they operate, and their experience in running a business also influenced their success.

And, of course, Awo, Kwesi and Auntie Akua are just three business owners in Accra out of over a million. But in line with the dynamic capabilities framework, it is clear that those who have adapted better to our current business environment perform better. Nana sighed to himself. Running a business was already complicated enough. If the use of digital financial services can make it even marginally easier for business owners, why don’t they all learn how to make the most out of this blessing?

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