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A new world of work: Opportunities for entrepreneurs from the Covid pandemic


Born in Cape Town, Natale Labia lives in Milan, Italy, and writes on the economy and finance. Partner of private equity firm Lionhead Capital Partners. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

What opportunities for entrepreneurs and professionals might come out of this pandemic? We are all aware of the reality that after a global disruption on such a cataclysmic scale as these habits are likely to be broken and the ways the economy and society work all over the globe are likely to change.

It sounds callous, but it’s a question that should be asked: How can businesspeople, particularly in South Africa, position themselves to take advantage of the pandemic?

I recently spoke to an entrepreneur in New York who, having closed half of his office and laying off employees when the pandemic hit, is hiring again. But instead of graphic designers in the US he is taking on South Africans with twice the experience at half the price.

We have all heard about the advent of smart working which has enabled those living in Midrand or Durbanville to avoid the hours spent each day driving to Sandton or the City Bowl and rather work from the comfort of their homes. However, something more drastic and revolutionary is happening on a global and systemic level. Top paying high skilled jobs are being shifted from first-tier world cities to places where talent is abundant and cheaper. 

As Simon Kuper writes in the Financial Times of London, the new mantra is that if you can do your job from anywhere, the inverse is also true that someone anywhere can do your job.

As with many things, this trend started pre-pandemic, in tech. Companies in Silicon Valley and New York have long since looked for top cheap talent in India and more recently Latin America. The pandemic however has seen countless other industries take up this opportunity to diversify hiring patterns on a global level. 

I know many South Africans that were working at top Wall Street banks and law firms in the City of London who relocated back to Cape Town at the start of the pandemic and have just simply never left. Why not continue to work from Goldman Sachs in Clifton?

The question more specifically then is how South Africans can take advantage of this shift. There are three critical advantages that South Africa has which entrepreneurs should be looking to leverage off.

First, in this increasingly global world with people working for global companies from far off countries, English will become ever more critical and with it an appreciation for the Anglo Saxon way of working. As European and American businesses look to use service providers in other countries ease of communicating – especially over Zoom and email – will be essential.

South Africans are lucky, by and large, to speak excellent English – often better than those in South Asia or Latin America – and to have close cultural ties to the US, UK and Europe. This is a massive strength.

Second, our time zone is a convenient advantage. Things become somewhat trickier when you want to call the web designer for some critical last minute changes and suddenly have to calculate whether it is 3pm on Wednesday or 3am on Thursday wherever she happens to be. South Africa is ideally positioned for London and the EU, and also an advantageous few hours ahead of the US east coast.

Finally, while sadly many of South Africa’s top talents might have already physically sought opportunities in other markets, many remain. The country is blessed with world class designers, accountants, lawyers, marketing experts, engineers and medical professionals. All of these are sectors in which there is sure to be enormous disruption of the practices where firms hire staff and seek expertise. 

I spoke to an entrepreneur in Cape Town recently who has returned from London. She has set up an accounting firm to assist small and medium sized businesses. Her entire business is on the cloud, accessing the point of sales and accounting information from businesses anywhere in the world from Cape Town. 

Post-pandemic her business is flying having signed new clients in the UK, EU and the US who are all relieved to be accessing top quality accounting assistance at half the price, and with someone who speaks English beautifully that you can have an easy and informative zoom call with.

With good wifi connectivity and a smart strategy, South African entrepreneurs can now literally access a world of business opportunities from their homes. For those that are willing to position themselves to take advantage of this maybe something good can come out of a pandemic.  BM/DM

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