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Businesses struggle to pay up



The Experian Business Debt Index (BDI), which reflects the relative ability for business to pay their outstanding suppliers and creditors, reveals deteriorating business debt conditions in South Africa.

The Index, a reflection of the overall health of businesses in the economy, improved marginally in Q2 compared with Q1, to -0.388 from -0.419, but still reflects tough times for businesses: when historical revisions are included, the Q1 BDI reflects the weakest business debt conditions since the global financial recession in 2009. 

Despite the small improvement in Q2 2019, these readings still reflect a significant worsening of the financial position of companies in South Africa in relation to conditions which had prevailed in recent years.

 Q2 2018Q3 2018Q4 2018Q1 2019Q2 2019
Index>0=  Improving business conditions<0 = Deteriorating business conditions-0.018*0.228*-0.099*-0.419*-0.388
  • Revised

“The impact of poor domestic economic conditions on the financial state of companies has been further exacerbated by growing signs of a slowdown in the global economy as well,” said Thabo Hermanus, chief operating officer at Experian South Africa.

GDP lower than expected as a result of load-shedding

In the wake of the historical revisions, the BDI has fallen into significantly negative territory in Q1 and Q2 2019. The main deterioration of inputs relates to South African Q1 GDP.  The Q1 GDP quarter-on-quarter annualised growth rate of -3.2% turned out to be considerably worse than all consensus forecasts. Expectations of stronger GDP growth in Q2 2019 (based on early high frequency data) contributed to an improved BDI in the latest release.

The relative improvement in the Q2 BDI was however slightly hampered by US GDP which fell back in Q2 to 2.1% on a quarter-on-quarter annualised basis from 3.1% in Q1. Additionally, the differential between the producer price index (PPI) and the consumer price index (CPI) inflation rates increased in Q2, suggesting a squeeze on corporate profit margins. Long-term interest rates also fell quite sharply relative to short-term interest rates, indicative of an increasingly gloomy view of longer-term economic growth conditions.

Debt age ratio

The outstanding debtors’ days in the 30:60 days ratio increased to 33.49% in Q2 from 29.03% in Q1. The deterioration in the 60:90 day ratio was less marked, rising to 11.76% in Q2 from 11.33% in Q1.

While the overall number of outstanding debtors’ days improved slightly from 56.7 to 54.6 in Q2 2019, the age profile of these debtors’ days worsened, with the ratio of outstanding debt owed of 30 to 60 days relative to that owed of less than 30 days increased further to 33.49% in Q2 from 29.03% in Q1.

Hermanus says, “It is apparent that the cumulative effect of weak economic activity extending over several years now, with economic growth less than 1.5% per annum in each of the past four years, has finally begun to compel businesses to hold back from meeting their debt commitments for as long as possible in order to survive.”

Agriculture improves, but construction, mining and transport deteriorates significantly

Analysis of the BDI by sector displays considerable variance from sector to sector. The most dramatic improvement was recorded in Q2 by the agriculture sector, in line with a normalisation of domestic agricultural conditions following the severe droughts in the north-eastern regions in 2015/16 and that of the Western Cape in 2017/18.  The BDI for agriculture shot up from a heavily negative -0.456 in Q1, to a positive 0.236 in Q2. 

On the other hand, severe deterioration in conditions was reported in the construction sector, where the BDI fell from an already significantly negative -0.381 in Q1, to -1.280 in Q2. There was also a significant further deterioration in business debt conditions in mining and transport, with both sectors affected negatively by industrial action. 

Small Businesses are battling to survive

Whilst the overall debt situation amongst businesses might not have been favourable in the first half of 2019, that of SMEs posted a significant further deterioration. Whereas the total number of outstanding debtors’ days decreased slightly in Q2, to 54.6, from 56.7 in Q1, it worsened in the case of small businesses with SME outstanding debtors’ days rising to a record 66.4 in Q2, from 65.5 in Q1 and levels of below 60 a year ago.

“SMEs are struggling to sustain cash flows with which to survive in the face of tardiness on the part of their bigger counterparts to pay them for work done. It would seem that the brunt of the impact of the weakness of domestic economic conditions has been borne by small businesses, with many of these being forced to close down after struggling to remain in operation for as long as possible,” said Hermanus.

Looking forward

The slump in economic conditions in South Africa experienced since 2014 represents the longest sustained period of economic weakness in almost a century.  Per capita GDP growth will have been negative on average for four consecutive years.

“Although the slump in economic growth has not taken the economy into a deep recession, it has been sufficient in its duration to impact the ability of businesses, especially smaller ones, to survive,” says Hermanus. 


Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK



This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Location data key to transforming SA’s transport system



Location technology can transform South Africa’s transport system – but don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads any time soon. What’s more relevant is the need for the public and private sectors to work together more closely to unlock the significant social and economic benefits that more efficient transport and mobility systems would bring to the country, including less congestion and fewer road accidents. 

That was the message from Michael Bültmann, Managing Director, in charge of international relations  atHERE Technologies, a global leader in mapping and location platform services, at an event hosted by the international law firm Covington & Burling in Johannesburg last week, to discuss how digitization could support better mobility, safety and integration in South Africa. 

“Society needs to solve some fundamental challenges, and relevant location data can play a key role in creating a better future for mobility in South Africa. If we know where the goods and people are, and how and why they move, we have the basis for a system that matches demand and supply far more closely, and uses our transport infrastructure more efficiently,” saidBültmann.

“But no company, government or individual can do it all themselves. It’s all about collaborating. If we get real-time data use right, it would have a profound effect on the way the entire economy works: less congestion, fewer accidents, more efficient use of vehicles and public transport, less air pollution, greater quality of life, and potential savings of billions of rands in fuel, time and safer roads.”

Speaking at the event, the CSIR’s Dr Mathetha Mokonyama said that despite the billions of rands pumped into the country’s mass public transport network in recent years, 90% of commuter seats available are still provided by either cars or taxis.

“We have the right to dignity. If you want to see indignity, look at people getting up at 2am to get unreliable transport to a job that only pays R3500 a month. In our country, access to transport is critical for people to make a living, and our focus as a country should be to implement an equitable and just transport system that caters to all sectors of society,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to support the event that brought together so many viewpoints on the question of the effective use of data and location intelligence to enhance the mobility of goods, people and services,” said Robert Kayihura, senior advisor in Covington’s Johannesburg office.  “While the harmonization of regulatory regimes around the continent will take time, a key takeaway from our discussions is the critical need to build a shared vision of the future through consistent public-private dialogue and collaboration in order to accelerate and ensure the sustainable and safe digitization of Africa.”

Paul Vorster, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA), said the effective sharing of data between metros, government and the private sector would ‘go a long way’ to improving the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure.

“The starting point is to improve what we already have. Once we know what we have – that is, data – we can start solving real problems, like knowing where the demand and supply are. But to do this, metros will need to learn from each other, and they often face political hurdles in the process,” he said.

Bültmann said increasing levels of urbanisation across the world were creating the need for cities to better predict, manage and plan future urban movement. Combining and analysing data from different, complementary sources could help South African cities to improve urban planning, relieve congestion and curb pollution for better quality of life.

The event was also attended by Presidential Investment Envoy Phumzile Langeni, the National Planning Commission’s Themba Dlamini; SANRAL’s Alan Robinson; and Dr Rüdiger Lotz, the Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy. The guests were welcomed by Witney Schneidman, the head of Covington’s Africa practice and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) in the U.S. Government.

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