By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The “lack of progress” made by the Government in enacting the Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SME) Development Bill was yesterday said to have “motivated” the Chamber to launch its Small Business Help Desk.
Edison Sumner, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation’s (BCCEC) chief executive, told Tribune Business that the Help Desk was intended to fill the gap caused by the more than eight-year wait for the SME Bill.
While acknowledging that the initiative was going to be “a great undertaking” for the Chamber, Mr Sumner added that the organisation had just agreed terms and appointed a full-time research consultant to identify grant funding opportunities and other financing for Bahamian small businesses.
While the Government, in the Bill’s continued absence, is helping to finance the Help Desk, Mr Sumner said it remained “a very important initiative” that the private sector wanted to see placed on the legislative agenda “in the next Parliamentary session”.
Explaining that rationale for the Chamber’s launch of the Help Desk, Mr Sumner told Tribune Business: “We were concerned about the progress, or lack of progress, made on the SME Bill.
“We still think it’s a good Bill to bring and will do well for the economy, particularly for small businesses. But the slow movement on that was one of the things that motivated the Chamber to move forward with the Small Business Help Desk.
“We realise small businesses are the ones suffering the most on access to capital, and getting the technical co-operation and expertise they need,” he added..
“Having worked with the Government on the SME Bill, and that not coming into law, we decided to do what we can to assist small businesses.”
The SME Bill’s development has lasted across three administrations, having initially been conceived during the latter years of the first Christie government’s 2002-2007 term.
The initiative carried over into the Ingraham administration, but the FNM government failed to bring the legislation to Parliament before it was voted out of office in 2012.
Thus the second Christie administration was left to ‘pick up the baton’ on a Bill that envisaged the creation of the Small and Medium-Sized Development Agency (SMEDA), which was designed as the co-ordinator and ‘one-stop shop’ for Bahamian entrepreneurs and start-ups seeking technical, operational and other support essential to sustaining their businesses.
SMEDA would also assist with business plan development and gaining access to capital, although it will not originate loans of its own.
While the initiative has been eagerly awaited by the SME sector, Michael Halkitis, minister of state for finance, conceded this week that the Bill “may have receded from the front line”, although it remained on the Government’s legislative radar.
Other legislation, such as Value-Added Tax (VAT) and web shop gaming legalisation, likely took priority for the Christie administration, while Mr Halkitis said “some tweaking” to the draft SME Bill might still be necessary before it is taken to Parliament.
The Government also wanted to ensure “that all of the agencies involved in small business administration were on the same page”.
It was initially envisaged that all these agencies, such as the Bahamas Agricultural and Industrial Corporation (BAIC) and Bahamas Development Bank (BDB), would be folded into SMEDA. The plans subsequently changed, with BDB, for one, now permitted to continue as a standalone agency.
Mr Sumner told Tribune Business that there was “some resistance” to the SME Bill, although he did not specify from whom or what the objections were.
“We understand what some of the resistance to the SME Bill is, but it’s important to pass that as the initiative to grow the SME sector was largely dependent on that Bill coming into law, having SMEDA established and the relevant people appointed to manage that entity,” Mr Sumner told Tribune Business.
“We still think it’s a very important initiative, and given that small businesses are the drivers of the economy, they need the relevant attention to thrive and grow.
“We still think it [SMEDA] is a necessary thing. We still wish to continue working with the Government to make it a reality, and hopefully they can bring it on to the agenda in the next Parliamentary session.”
In the meantime, Mr Sumner described the Small Business Help Desk “as the next step” for the Chamber, with the role of providing back office support, business plan preparation, technical assistance and identifying financing opportunities.
“It’s going to be a great undertaking for the Chamber,” he added, “but we’ve brought in a full-time research consultant to research various grant and financing opportunities for small business in the Bahamas, the region and throughout the world.”
Mr Sumner said the Chamber had agreed terms with Latoya Johnson yesterday, and added: “We want to take this opportunity to research the issue of access to capital, and there is a lot to tap out there for small businesses that we’re going to identify.”
He added that grant financing opportunities were available both in the Caribbean and internationally, and that the Chamber would assist small businesses in preparing applications to access them.
Khaalis Rolle, state minister for investments, told Tribune Business earlier this year that the SME Bill was being reviewed to ensure it co-ordinated with, and did not “duplicate”, any elements in the National Development Plan.
Mr Rolle also indicated there “may be some changes” to the structure of SMEDA.
SMEDA’s main role will be to arrest the relatively high failure rate among Bahamian start-up businesses and entrepreneurs, and aid many more in making the growth transition to medium-sized and larger businesses.