People involved in small businesses deserve our empathy

When small businesses take a hit, families, communities and the country take a hit. PHOTO: ODT FILES
When small businesses take a hit, families, communities and the country take a hit. PHOTO: ODT FILES
I have been saddened by the lack of empathy for people in business during the Covid-19 pandemic.

People have said to me, but Anna, businesspeople take the risk when they get into business — they have to take the ups and downs. To a certain extent they are right, we do take on the risks — working hard for the ups, knowing there will be downs. What people miss is that being in business is not always about financial reward. Sometimes it’s about flexibility, sometimes it’s about purpose and often it’s about wanting to do things differently, but it’s mighty hard to do that under restrictions and with minimal revenue.

Businesspeople contribute widely across society: they provide services and products to the wider community; they provide export income and taxes (which are used to pay government salaries); they provide social fabric — think of the number of businesspeople who volunteer on sports committees and school boards.

What people also miss is the sheer number of people small businesses employ. In New Zealand, small-medium businesses (defined as businesses which have fewer than 20 employees) make up 28% of employment (Stats NZ) — nearly one in three people. We are a nation of small businesses — in fact there are approximately 530,000 small businesses in New Zealand, representing 97% of all firms. These businesses include your dentist, hairdresser, courier driver, dairy owner, after-school programme operator, cafe owner, food-grower, plumber, electrician, shearer, forester, butcher ... the list goes on.

When small businesses take a hit, families, communities and the country take a hit. When that hit extends for two long years, for many there is no coming back — doors are closing. And when the doors close, it is not over for that business owner. Some will face years of additional mortgages taken out against their homes, as well as the burden of failure. I find it hard to understand the lack of empathy — business closure is a lonely place to be in that I would not wish on anyone.

It’s not all doom and gloom. We are starting to see the light at the end of a long pandemic tunnel. Some businesspeople I have spoken to are travelling internationally again, desperate to renew export connections. Others have done well during the pandemic and some crazies, like myself, actually started a business in the pandemic.

As we rebuild, where should we focus? As a longtime agriculturalist, it’s tempting for me to say "go with food and fibre, milk prices have never been higher". However, the pandemic has highlighted deep fissures in the industry — we’re struggling to pick apples and keep our meat chains open. The industry needs to address inadequate wages and accommodation, shift the product-value dial and diversify what we grow and market.

The pandemic has consumed agricultural leaders and as such, the industry is in danger of becoming short-sighted. Movements towards plant-based diets, cellular agriculture and precision-fermentation are marching on, we must not become complacent in the face of these threats which could quite literally turn New Zealand agriculture upside down, much like a second pandemic.

Do we look to rebuild tourism companies, or do we leave them writhing on the ground, sprouting where they can? What does greater empathy and financial support look like? How does tourism come out of the hole, not only faster, but better? Tourism brings us energy and international thinking and I strongly believe we need a diverse economy. Agriculture, tourism, technology and education, and connecting the four: agricultural-education is a golden opportunity, as is food-tourism. These create prospects for longer, more meaningful stays that mitigate the carbon costs of bringing people here.

The pandemic has shown us what can happen to dominant industries, like tourism, in a short space of time. There will be more disruption — we need to be sitting on a multi-legged chair, not a wobbly barstool that has seen better times. We need to recognise the plight of the small business owner and support local people to climb back to profitability.

We start businesses knowing there will be ups and downs, we start with purpose, innovation, and passion. I don’t want to live in a society where that is not respected or supported. I want to live in a society where we strive to provide better products, services and care and where we contribute to local communities — and therein lies the value of small business.

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company, and a partner of AbacusBio Ltd, an agri-technology company.

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