Over a coffee with Abigail Mamo

Reading Time: 10 minutes

by James Vella Clark

CDpro Interviews ABIGAIL MAMO, CEO of the SME CHAMBER on how businesses fought the war on Covid and how they are now facing the challenge of a raging war on our doorstep. She also opens up on her personal experience over the past months: “We must work very hard to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on others for our own survival.”

What would you classify as the main challenges for today’s businesses in Malta?

I would say businesses are facing some of the most challenging times ever experienced. The most difficult challenges are the ones you have to live with and have no control on. Doing business in Malta is always more challenging due to the limited market and the insularity issues and Malta now is experiencing the perfect storm. Just when we thought the worse of the pandemic was over, another very worrying catastrophe was created, throwing the whole world into great difficulty and uncertain times once again. Such global issues are impacting Malta significantly, and couple with this, there are also the challenges of over-regulation in many respects since Moneyval’s work started and the eventual greylisting. 

Covid seems to be over. What were the main lessons learnt?

Most of us don’t want the word ‘Covid’ uttered ever again but Covid is still somewhat present. As the country deals with fluctuating cases, there is always that lingering thought that a new variant could sprout. Several of our members are still highly impacted by the effects of the pandemic and there is a growing fatigue as businesses attempt a return to ‘business as usual’ whilst having to still adhere to health regulations. Covid taught us how global problems need to be tackled by a united front and a greater effort should be made to stick together to implement a more harmonised system. Whilst nothing can be taken for granted anymore, we must work very hard to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on others for our own survival. This could sound conflicting, but it is possible to act smart and take care of ourselves whilst taking care of each other.

How do you expect businesses to react if a similar crisis had to repeat itself?

It was fascinating watching Maltese SMEs react so quickly by investing to get back quickly on their feet. Many have amplified and continue to invest in digitalisation to perfect their online presence. This is very important and needs to be maintained. In fact, businesses that already had a good online presence when the pandemic hit, fared much better than others who tried to catch up as fast as they could. So, any other crises should find most businesses ready on this front. Similarly, many businesses discovered the positive aspect of being diversified and not being dependant on just one income stream. The Covid crises left a huge impact on businesses, but it was also a very important and unforgettable learning experience. 

We have seen businesses rely heavily on government subsidies over the past two years. Indeed, many were on the brink of closing down. Have businesses become lazy? Did the pandemic highlight who was robust and who was not?

Some businesses were already on their own future proofing journey, and these did markedly better. Others caught up and continue catching up in order to increase their resilience. We were lucky that Malta was in a good financial situation to be able to support the jobs where this was needed. Funds were also quickly put in place to support businesses in their own advancement, transformation, and journey. This maintained a level of serenity which was especially important. I do not believe it is in the nature of any business to rely on handouts even though these were important! Government covered only part of the wage of a segment of businesses but no business left its workers on the minimum covered by the government for this stretch of time. Businesses went into essential digital investments and running costs increased. The element of fighting for survival was therefore always there. Our recent surveys show that lack of strong consumption, low consumer confidence and low tourism numbers are the highest concerns. Businesses do not want to have to rely on support, it was however an unavoidable circumstance.

How have you personally lived these past two years of the pandemic? What were your lowest moments? And what were your highs?

The pandemic was very trying for myself and the organisation as a whole. It was also a time that gave us space to rise to the occasion and show what we are made of and so we did. The lows were getting to terms with a situation that went south overnight. The members’ own situation degraded fast and needed immediate and constant support. At the same time, we all had to work from home, caring for our young children and home-schooling. I recall many endless days and very little sleep. The highs start from the appreciation our members have showed us in being there for them when they needed, to being rewarded with both EU level and national awards for the work we did with businesses during the pandemic. 

What is the current situation with regards to the shortage of human resources? How are SME’s being urged to counter this situation?

This is another major challenge and a very frustrating one. Our members have already learned to work with the least resources possible and they continue to invest to be able to do more of this. With all the challenges at hand, dealing with the human resources issue is not easy. Human resources have become the most precious and the costliest resource. Members already know how essential it is to care for and cherish employees. However, we are working a lot to make the recruitment of third country nationals a smoother process. Malta is dependent on this segment simply because we do not produce enough human resources locally. The process should therefore not be at par with a one-off requirement but of a continuous one that needs to be facilitated.

Is there room for Maltese SMEs to reinvent themselves to remain competitive and relevant in a world that is becoming more globalised?

Very much so. Maltese businesses have advanced greatly, and new generations of businesses are starting with a very innovative outlook and are continuously eager to overcome challenges and reinventing themselves. I believe that with better support, Maltese SMEs would be able to do much more. If we want our SMEs to be competitive on a global level, we must address our market inefficiencies and make up for Malta’s handicaps. There are several small businesses who managed to be innovative and successful, but they all share the same struggle to succeed with the limited infrastructure and support there still is in Malta. 

The environment remains a prime concern and businesses are constantly being expected to adopt more environment-friendly processes. How easy it really is to strike a healthy balance between cleaner operations and productivity?

It is not easy at all. Many businesses want to contribute positively to the environment but when this costs money, it becomes a commercial decision that is never simple or easy. There are challenges such as a lack of technical knowledge of how businesses can think outside the box and look into their processes with fresh eyes in order to change and invest to work smarter and more sustainably. It is a known fact that upgrading processes and being more sustainable improves the bottom-line and investments are eventually recouped. The homework takes time and needs to be done diligently to achieve a good level of success. This is why incentives are very important, because, with effective outreach they can bridge the gap and the necessary encouragement for businesses.

How is the current Ukraine – Russia crisis affecting some of the businesses here in Malta?

We are all experiencing the increase in prices first hand, which started before Russia invaded Ukraine, driven mainly by Covid which led to a dramatic increase in logistical costs. Before the Russia-induced war started, businesses were already at a loss, trying to come to terms with a 10-fold increase in the import costs related to freight charges and eagerly awaited things to calm down to perhaps regain some form of stability and normality in prices. Instead, besides global logistical problems, the war led to further increases in the price of raw material and outright shortages in areas where Ukraine and/or Russia were the main suppliers. Maltese businesses are also seeing supply shortages from countries who have opted for a protectionist approach and prefer to keep certain basic needs for themselves. Businesses are telling us that they do not see how they can increase prices further, but they are not seeing any options. 

What is the role of the SME Chamber today and how do you plan to ensure the Chamber remains relevant in future years?

The Malta Chamber of SMEs is a social partner and that is our main thrust. We are partner to the administration in our bridge with the business community and we are close to our members in whatever we do. I would not like to say that we have moved from being just representatives, but it would be more correct saying that we have strengthened our representation of businesses and widened our services to be more of value to our members. 

Our members know that they can come to us with anything, and they will find a knowledgeable partner who will understand them and who will provide them with the support they need. Members also know that we are a resourceful organisation that provides them with many opportunities and possibilities for advancement. In terms of our future, our plan is to grow an even closer relationship of support with our members and to continue developing our services and work process according to their priorities and needs. 

Abigail Mamo, beyond her profession

How do you like to spend your free time? Taking care of my community of indoor and outdoor plants, while listening to music and going on small adventures with the family.

What would classify as an ideal holiday? Exploring a fascinating country with all its landmarks and attractions, eating well, making memories, snapping out of the routine.

Which countries would you like to visit in the near future and why? Morocco – I find it intriguing and rich.

Favourite music? I like all types of music; I am a music enthusiast. My favourite is probably symphonic rock music.

Favourite food? It used to be ravioli or baked macaroni, but since I have been on a Keto diet, my highlight now would be a nice piece of meat. 

Favourite Colour? Red.

One very overwhelming life experience? Amongst the many, I think having my kids would be the most important one.

Your weak spot? I overburden myself sometimes and carry too much.

The quality you like least in people? Arrogance.

The quality you look out for the most in others? Empathy.

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