Ready to adapt: resilient women entrepreneurs in the pandemic

Shekhar Anand General

UN Women estimates that during the first month of the pandemic, informal workers lost an average of 60 percent of their income: with losses as high as 81% in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

In low-income countries pre-pandemic, just one in four businesses were owned by women, and their access to financial products and services was often limited  – even though this is key to help entrepreneurs cope with crises. Combined with limited mobility, social distancing, and an estimated 30-40% higher rate of unpaid care – Covid has been a perfect storm to disrupt women’s enterprises.

But what about women-led businesses that have managed to stay afloat? How have they done it and what can we learn from programmes that support women’s enterprises?

Pre-existing digital architecture and know-how 

The Youth Participation and Employment (YPE) programme is a four-year programme begun in December 2018 in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia with support from the Danish Arab Partnership Programme.  It works with a wide range of national partners to mobilize vulnerable young people, increase their skills and address challenges to getting and holding a job (including gender inequality). Prior to the pandemic, YPE supported entrepreneurship and job creation, using digital means to create awareness of new opportunities and training

  • In Jordan, YPE partner Leaders of Tomorrow provided youth and women with access to entrepreneurship e-learning materials through the FORSA platform and supported women artisans to market, promoting their handicrafts through Souq Fann e-commerce platform. Since lockdown, views of Forsa’s motivational course content jumped from 1,500 to more than 29,000 visitors. 271 new products were also added to Souq Fann and four new women-led enterprises were added as vendors.  
  • However, amid the pandemic, sales and income generated through the platform reduced considerably due to limited market demand as well as lockdown restrictions. It is also important to acknowledge that technology can also further entrench conservative social norms, with women staying at home while still engaging in earning some income.

The Empower Youth for Work (EYW) programme, aimed at the socio-economic empowerment of youth in rural, climate affected areas, focuses on co-creating opportunities for young women’s voices in enabling, youth-led environments in Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.  

  • In Ethiopia, a mobile business development service (BDS) brings training and entrepreneurial support directly to youth businesses in rural areas. In conservative communities, where girls are not always allowed to travel far for education or training, the BDS component enabled 408 female youth entrepreneurs to be trained. This amounted to roughly 70% of all the youth participants trained. 
  • In Indonesia, EYW convened youth to discuss how Coronavirus sped up the pace of the “future of work” and to see how well youth were prepared for this quick shift and what we could learn from youth. What they found: youth are ready! Entrepreneurs like Fatma and Sulfani already sell their products on e-commerce platforms. These young women also discussed the importance of leveraging community networks to promote their businesses online while taking advantage of training and workshops to develop the most sought-after technical skills.

During Covid: unintended and positive shifts in market conditions 

With sudden changes to import availability, women collectives and enterprises quickly found that this could be to their benefit.  

The Enterprise Development Programme (EDP), utilizes a pioneering, business approach to provide a mix of loans and technical support to enterprises focused on women’s leadership and enterprise development.  

  • One of the enterprises EDP supports in Ethiopia, a union of cooperatives producing niger seed oil, saw an initial 60% increase in sales revenues because of reduced oil imports. 
  • In Honduras another EDP-supported enterprise producing honey also saw an unexpected temporary increase in their sales, attributed to an increase in consumer purchasing of health-based products. 

During Covid: tailored financial mechanisms and services 

Another EDP-supported enterprise sought to cushion the financial shocks women entrepreneurs faced, through a multi-stakeholder partnership to open up access to formal financing and credit.  

  • In Nepal, with EDP support, the owner and manager of R&D Innovative Solution Pvt Ltd, Sunita Nhemaphuki, successfully launched the farmer’s credit card in October. This was done in collaboration with Mega Bank Nepal Limited and technology partner Infecare Pvt Ltd. This will support 10,000 smallholder farmers (including 65% women) to access interest-subsidized agricultural credit. Furthermore, to increase women’s participation in this initiative, the government will provide a higher interest subsidy for women borrowers (6% subsidy vs 5% for male borrowers). 

These three areas, pre-existing digital architecture, market shifts, and tailored financial services, provide us insights into resilience strategies. The coronavirus pandemic has swept across a world unprepared to fight it, because countries had failed to choose policies to fight inequality. Enterprise development, particularly for women, is one means to address that inequality.  

Today on Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, it is critical to recognize the distinctive and considerable challenges women’s enterprises face.  But it is also critical to recognize what potential solutions and supports we may be already seeing.

This post was originally written for the Women’s Economic Empowerment Knowledge Hub. Find out more about the initiative here.

Learn more about Youth Participation and Employment Programme and the work it does with women

Learn more about Empower Youth for Work Programme

Learn more about Enterprise Development Programme