Digital makes the difference for SMEs in Africa – Perspectives from Ezana Raswork, CEO of Africa 118

Africa 118 is a local start-up that offers marketing services to SMEs in Africa. Their vision is to be the digital Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for SMEs in Africa – helping organisations who don´t have a marketing person with resources to grow their business using digital services.

Microsoft 4Afrika first met Africa 118 back in 2014, when we awarded them with an innovation grant. Since then, we have continued to follow their journey and provide ICT support.

Katherine Heumos, Partner Business Evangelist from Microsoft Germany, is currently in Kenya to support Africa 118 with a marketing strategy, as part of the MySkills4Afrika volunteer programme. Here, she chats to Ezana Raswork, CEO of Africa 118, about their vision for Africa.

blogpost2Katherine Heumos: Ezana, looking at the SME landscape in Africa, where do you see the challenges? And where do you see the opportunities?

Ezana Raswork: The SME landscape in Africa is very dynamic. It’s widely acknowledged by both governments and the private sector that SMEs play a critical role for employment, covering up to 90% of employees. This has been verified by a study of the United Nations Development Programme conducted in Kenya in 2015. Growing the SME landscape is the answer for sustained and significant growth on the continent. Because of this, there is a lot of activity to put infrastructure in place to enable SMEs to be successful. We embrace the fact that SMEs have potential and that they need support. It may sound a little bit pretentious, but we believe we are the missing link.

Katherine Heumos: Can you elaborate on this? What is it what business owners are lacking?

Ezana Raswork: For many business owners, one of the reasons they don´t succeed is because nobody knows or finds out about them. You may be a good fashion designer, but only your family and friends may know about you. There are, of course, other challenging factors like finance or expertise. However, one of the key components is: How do I make sure that people find out about and discover me? That´s where the mission of Africa 118 begins.

Katherine Heumos: How can digital help SMEs with their marketing?

Ezana Raswork: We recently did research on how SMEs are doing marketing and found out that no one has a specific formula. Often, business owners rely on word of mouth, which is a good thing. Depending on the budget, SMEs are working with flyers, or advertising in newspapers, radio or even on TV. Surprisingly, very few businesses have a Facebook fan page.

Most of the business owners we spoke to don´t have a clear understanding of exactly how marketing can work for them. There is no understanding of the return on investment. That´s where digital comes in. Digital marketing gives you the possibility of a more targeted approach with a higher and measurable return.

Now is the time to invest in digital, with over 80% mobile penetration in many African cities. As a business owner, there is one thing you can be sure of: You have potential customers browsing mobile every day looking for your service. That wasn´t real three years ago, but it´s real today.

Katherine Heumos: What would your recommendation(s) be for an SME starting its business in Kenya now, from a marketing perspective?

Ezana Raswork: Let me mention a couple of things. First, educate yourself. Before you make a decision, learn about the basics of marketing: who are your target customers and what are the different ways you can reach them? Second, ensure that you are present digitally. For this, you may consider a free online directory, such as the one we are offering through You could also consider social media, such as a Facebook or Twitter fan page. But you need to think it through and commit to social media, ensuring you have the time and resources to actively engage.

The most common currency of your digital presence is a website. A website, at least how we think about it, is like your telephone number. You need to have it to be contacted. A website doesn’t need to be very complicated. Simply make sure it describes who you are and what you offer.

Katherine Heumos: As a Microsoft partner and start-up, what are your thoughts on cloud-based solutions for SMEs? How have you yourselves benefitted from the use of tools like Azure?  

Ezana Raswork: We are big believers in cloud solutions. In fact, we could not run our operations as efficiently across our three markets without using the cloud. For example, we do some of our web development work for Uganda from our Nairobi office. We use an Azure-hosted web development platform, which enables our Nairobi-based web developers to work seamlessly with our Uganda-based content team.

We also recommend the reliability of the cloud to our SME customers. By using cloud hosting, your online presence will not be at the mercy of power outages, which we face so often in our markets.

Katherine Heumos: Thank you for these insights.

If you are an SME looking to develop an online presence, or use cloud services to enrich your offering and reach new customers, you can explore the following resources: