Trade and Industry

The Impact of Rising Food and Fuel Prices on Small Business

  • Year: 2008
  • Organisation: TIPS
  • Countries and Regions: South Africa

TIPS was commissioned by FABCOS (The Foundation for African Business and Consumer Services) to undertake a study on the impact of fuel and food price increases on small business. As FABCOS has a large constituency of informal or previously informal businesses, a strong emphasis was placed on the impacts for informal businesses. Some key outcomes are highlighted below:

Fuel Prices

The main effects of high fuel prices can be observed within the macro-economic framework. The first impact reflects the role of transportation in determining the price of goods: South Africa is a large country, and highly dependent on the transportation of goods by road (given the currently very poor state of the rail network). Most micro enterprises are dependent on hired transport to fetch items from wholesalers and/or manufacturers. Although the cost of these services increases as the fuel price increases, there is good evidence to suggest that these prices are both downwardly "sticky" (i.e. that they do not go down when the petrol price declines) and that transport service providers take advantage of general perceptions about rapidly rising fuel prices to increase their margins. The result is that small business owners who are dependant on these forms of transport probably face disproportionate transport costs increases, compared to bigger businesses that control their own logistics. This reduces the competitiveness of the smaller businesses.

The second impact is through the regulatory response to inflation. Higher interest rates reduce the disposable income of consumers, by raising debt service costs. As consumers spend more of their disposable income on servicing debt, so they have less to spend on other items.

The third issue for small businesses arising from higher inflation is that, generally, they are not in a position either to negotiate price concessions from manufacturers or wholesalers or to pass inflationary costs on to their consumers. While it is, of course, true that lower consumer expenditure affects all business; small businesses are generally in a much weaker position to ride out periods of reduced consumer spending. The smaller the business, the more vulnerable it is to this.

To date, the ability of many small retail enterprises to survive has been based in large part on their proximity to their clients (convenience), and the (rising) cost of travelling to shop at a large retail centre. However, the official development policy of most Metros in South Africa is to encourage large retailers to penetrate enter the townships, and this is having a considerable impact on the ability of small traders to survive. These small businesses are not opposed to anti development in the townships per se, but they do feel a certain level of resentment towards economic planners who trumpet the necessity of encouraging small business development on the one hand, whilst but on the other hand encouraging development that puts those enterprises at considerable risk.

Food Prices

According to Statistics South Africa, food's weight in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) is just under 21%. As such, an increase in food prices will have an impact on general price levels. However, we should not confuse the official weighting of food in the CPI with the actual role of food in monthly household expenditure for many South Africans. Given that South Africa has one of the world's worst distributions of income, there is really no such thing as an "average" consumer. In general terms, the poorer a person, the greater the share of their income that they will spend on food, and the greater the impact on their disposable income of food price inflation that exceeds the rate at which their wages are increasing. Data indicate that the very poorest South Africans spend as much as 80% of their income on food.

Whilst general prices have increased steadily over the past five years, the data show that food inflation (CPI-F) generally increased faster than general inflation, but has done so in particular since the end of 2005. Except for the periods between August-October 2005 and the same period in 2006, food inflation has tended to be higher than the general price level (CPI) of all items. In particular, for the period between September 2007 and 2008, the gap between the two has been widening, implying that more price pressure is being observed in food than for other items.

Another key issue is that for the period between November 2005 and 2006, price increases in rural and urban areas were similar. However, since early 2007, rural prices have tended to grow faster than urban prices. The fact that rural populations spend roughly double (IES, 2006) on food compared to urban groups leaves rural populations at a disadvantage since generally have less disposable income than urban populations.

The two main impacts of rising food prices on micro enterprises are a direct impact (through the erosion of purchasing power of their clients) and an indirect impact (through the erosion of the businesses own purchasing power).

In terms of the direct impact on business through the erosion of their clients' purchasing power, the first point to be made is that the small enterprises that we are considering tend to have lower-income people as their main clients. When food prices are rising more rapidly than the "official" rate of inflation (which sets wage and social grant increases) then these people will have less non-food disposable income and may be forced into actually purchasing less food. Both of these are bad news for small business.

The indirect impact of rising food prices on small businesses comes via the reduction in the disposable income of the business owner. Most of the small businesses under consideration are owned by people who do not fall into the high-income category. Therefore, they tend to spend a relatively high portion of their income on food, and higher food prices mean less income available for other items. The reason why this is important is because most of these small businesses finance their expansion and cash flow requirements from their own savings, and are not able to source other types of finance. Therefore, a reduction in disposable income means less money is available for investing in the business or helping to ride out adverse business periods. This makes small businesses relatively more vulnerable than other type of businesses to adverse price changes.