AirSME redefining access to market for small SA businesses

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South African startup AirSME has launched an on-demand platform in order to help small businesses access and compete in the country’s valuable tender market by providing instant access to trusted, skilled individuals to attend meetings on their behalf.

Launched in 2015 by Damian Michael, AirSME is designed to help SMEs access South Africa’s lucrative tender market. 660 South African government entities post tenders, yet bidding for them is often out of reach for young businesses given the high cost of regularly travelling to the necessary tender briefing sessions.

“Since we operate in a highly political environment and due to the BEE legislation, the South African government wants to level the economic playing field and help previously disadvantaged people and businesses to access tenders,” Michael told Disrupt Africa.

“However, there has been an immense amount of tender aggregators in the market whereby you can access private or government tenders for a fee. The mandatory requirement is that you have to be present at the tender briefing session. SMEs do not have the resources and funds to travel nationally to attend these meetings.”

AirSME looks to solve that problem by helping SMEs attend these meetings by providing a platform of skilled resources, professionals and non-professionals who can attend the meetings on their behalf.

The first product of its kind, AirSME is accessible via a widget on tender websites, offering its service. An SME then signs up for the platform, and books an individual to attend a meeting using the app. They can then also review these individuals after the meeting.

The startup is partnering universities, colleges, FETs and other partner organisations to obtain access to graduates and professionals looking to make some extra money by attending tender meetings on behalf of SMEs, while it has also partnered Bquest to vet individuals by verifying qualifications, education and work experience.

Revenue is obtained through AirSME retaining 25 per cent of the transaction fee, as well as providing other services such as a CRM platform and courier-type services.

The startup initially raised ZAR500,000 (US$32,000) to build the app, while Microsoft paid for the Windows platform. Michael is confident the self-funded startup has identified a large enough gap in the market for it to prosper.

“To grow, small businesses need access to large-scale projects, which, in South Africa, are typically made available through an official tender process. Many SMEs don’t consider competing for these projects, as they do not have the requisite nationally distributed workforce to even attend the initial meeting,” he said.

“While, small businesses are capable of delivering large-scale projects, they are often unable to compete for the business as they do not have a national infrastructure. AirSME enables small business to fully participate in tender processes.”

Uptake has been positive, with many universities partnering with the startup and tender aggregators liking the idea. Michael sees opportunities for expansion outside of the South African market in the near future.

“We plan to scale into the African markets once we have reached our organisational objectives. Plans to scale globally are part of our long-term objectives,” he said.

“The idea is extremely scalable, which is why we are in talks with people from Ghana and Nigeria to formulate a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to rollout there.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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