After five years in operation, entrepreneur Ana File-Heather was getting a feel for running her business.
As the owner of Fave Designs – a retail clothing, design, and printing shop in Avarau – she spent years fine tuning operations, getting a grasp of the annual business cycle, and learning to handle peak and off-season periods.
And then it hit. When government ordered the borders shut in March, she expected the worst. The following morning, the order cancellations started pouring in. Days before, she had just put in a big order for new stock.
“I knew we’re going to feel it,” she says.
File-Heather immediately took action, adjusting stock orders and making changes to her workers’ schedule. And at such a crucial time, she had an additional resource to consult with: her long-time business mentor.
The two were connected through the Chamber of Commerce mentorship programme just after File-Heather started out. With a prior background in social work, she admits she knew little about running a business.
“When I walked into here five years ago, I had nothing,” she says. “The first thing I did was call the Chamber and ask for a mentor.
“I always have believed that you should hear someone’s advice, and you can always take away what you want from that.”
The relationship between File-Heather and her mentor now runs about half a decade. And in the eleven years since its creation, the Chamber’s mentorship programme has assisted over 350 businesses.
The Chamber currently operates the programme out of borrowed office space with uncertain funding, but that will soon change. And those involved say the timing couldn’t be better, with Covid-19 creating unprecedented challenges for local businesses of all sizes – from sole traders to large companies.
They will soon have access to a centrally-located business development and co-working hub being set up by the Chamber, and made possible with $20,000 in funding from the government’s Social Impact Fund (SIF), which is administered by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The fund allows civil society organisations like the Chamber to contribute to achieving national sustainable development goals in areas such as gender equality, youth rights, the elderly and disabled, health, and promoting healthy lifestyles.
Government financial support will facilitate the creation and operation of the hub, including securing a location, purchase furniture and communications equipment, and facilitate mentoring visits to the Pa Enua.
The hub will be a venue for business owners to network, meet with local and international mentors, participate in business development workshops, and access additional resources to help withstand the pandemic and eventually, resume their growth.
Chamber chairman Fletcher Melvin says the hub will be located in downtown Avarua beside the RTM International Ltd shop, near the Cooks Corner bus stop.
“My intention is to move the Chamber into an enabling entity for small businesses to grow, whether they be a start-up or someone who is looking to grow their sole trader-size livelihood,” says Melvin.
As the country continues to feel the effects of the economic downturn, Melvin says businesses will need to adapt and access mentorship and support programmes.
“What we’re finding during this time is that there are a lot of sole traders that haven’t been brought up in a business environment,” says Melvin, who also serves as chair of the Private Sector Taskforce, which assists businesses mitigate the effects of Covid-19.
He says the government funding will address what he sees as a lack of business training and financial literacy amongst many sole traders, Pa Enua micro-enterprises, small business owners, and aspiring entrepreneurs. “There is a big gap.”
Day in and day out, Brendon Welsh, the Chamber’s training and support manager, aims to address that knowledge gap by organising workshops for micro-businesses in areas such as business planning and strategy, finance and bookkeeping, marketing, and technology. A dedicated space to run the Chamber’s training programing will be a big boost, he says.
“At the moment, I’m having to outsource locations, and that costs us money,” Welsh says. “Not only do I have to pay for location, but I have to pay for equipment hire for things like projectors and screens, catering, and broadband.”
“Doing it how we are at the moment is quite costly, compared to having our own space where we can do this. The other thing is having our own space means we can do it more regularly.”
There are approximately 600 sole traders in Rarotonga alone, according to the Chamber, and Welsh says there is strong interest by many to access their programmes.
The hub’s creation will also complement other efforts by the Chamber to promote enterprise, which include financial literacy programmes and the YES youth business incubator programme, which is run in partnership with the Ministry of Education.
For more experienced entrepreneurs like Ana File-Heather, navigating Fave Designs through the adverse conditions created by the pandemic will be a challenge.
“It’s been a rollercoaster ride, you don’t know how things are going to be next week,” she says.
Revenues have plummeted with no tourists, and irregular shipping has made fulfilling overseas orders a nightmare. Any additional support at such a crucial time will be welcome.
“It’s very exciting for the Chamber to have their own place,” she says. “And it’s always good to have a mentor, no matter how long you’ve been in business.”