Creative’s Senior Advisor for Gender and Social Inclusion, Rebecca Sewall, sat down (virtually!) with Chioma Ukwuagu, the Gender Advisor for the USAID-funded West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, to talk about how the project’s goals of providing female entrepreneurs greater access to capital and jobs, breaking down cultural barriers in the business world and the potential impact of COVID-19 on women’s advancement in the region.
REBECCA: WHY IS EMPOWERING FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS AND BUSINESS LEADERS A KEY OBJECTIVE OF THE WEST AFRICA TRADE AND INVESTMENT HUB AND HOW IS THE PROJECT ADDRESSING THE DISPARITY BETWEEN MALE AND FEMALE ENTREPRENEURS?
Chioma: First, entrepreneurship is important for job creation and economic growth, and this task should not be left in the hands of men alone.
Though we know that supporting women entrepreneurs can help promote gender equality and spur economic growth because female entrepreneurs are often stuck at the micro and medium-sized level businesses and unable to grow due to a range of factors, we are still far from achieving this. These factors include deeply rooted social norms, limited access to productive resources, such as land, credit, capital and information, and exclusive networks.
More recently, the technology gender gap further widens and cripples the growth potential of women entrepreneurs. The Trade Hub has extensively examined these factors inhibiting women entrepreneurs and is working to address them.
The Trade Hub as a grants and co-creation facility presents a platform for equal opportunity access to applicants by designating a participant target of 50 percent women both for the catalytic grants and for the technical assistance. The Annual Program Statements (APS) call included a mandatory criterion on gender/youth accountability for potential grantees to show how they as companies will implement activities that promote women’s participation and leadership.
REBECCA: HOW IS THE TRADE HUB ENSURING THAT FEMALE-OWNED ENTERPRISES AND FEMALE PRODUCERS BENEFIT FROM PROJECT ACTIVITIES TO THE SAME EXTENT AS MEN?
Chioma: The private sector is and should be an essential ally in advancing the women’s economic empowerment movement. The private sector has extraordinary leverage that can help balance the equality scale because they employ a significantly higher proportion of the labor force than the public sector, and their value chains touch all strata of the economy. They have enormous power to bring about transformative change through inclusive hiring and promotion policies, market expansion, workforce development, and procurement spending, but in West Africa, this idea hasn’t yet taken off. Depending on the context, the private sector is faced with unique challenges, such as limited access to resources, cultural bias, and limiting regulations.
REBECCA: DO YOU THINK GIVEN THE CURRENT COVID-19 CRISIS IS GOING TO MAKE MORE FEMALE-OWNED FIRMS VULNERABLE TO GOING UNDER?
Chioma: The general sentiment is that whatever the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, it will be even greater for those owned by women. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender-neutral, as it affects men and women differently.
But because women have historically faced difficulties in running businesses whether because of cultural norms or other factors, they will be left with even fewer options and thus are at a higher risk of bankruptcy. As schools and childcare facilities close in response to COVID-19, women are further burdened with increased childcare responsibilities. And when quarantines are in effect, the risk of domestic violence against women increases while support services for victims decrease. In my opinion, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo much of the progress female entrepreneurs have made over the years.
There is an ongoing national survey on the impact of COVID-19 on women-owned businesses in Nigeria managed by Nigeria’s SME Impact Investment Platform and the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. The survey examines how the crisis is affecting women entrepreneurs. It also provides the opportunity for SMEs owned by women to make policy recommendations for considerations by relevant authorities such as the Small Medium Enterprise Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and the Bank of Industry (BOI). The Trade Hub is collaborating with the organizers to get data that can better inform interventions.
REBECCA: IF SO, WHAT MAKES FEMALE-OWNED FIRMS MORE VULNERABLE?
Chioma: Women entrepreneurs are often discriminated against when attempting to access credit. This will be a challenge as credit will be of paramount importance in the survival of firms and businesses in the wake of the pandemic. Without open and favorable lines of credit, many female entrepreneurs will be forced to close their businesses.
In a recent webinar hosted by the Lagos Business School (LBS) with the theme Maintaining supply flows through disruption, a financial analyst opined that inflation will rise to about 19 percent given the devaluation of the Naira and the government’s inability to manage it. The implication is higher interest rates, decreased purchasing power by citizens, and another wave of poor revenues by companies. Because the government does not have bailout capacity, I do think that many companies will go under, including women-owned companies and smallholder farmers.
REBECCA: HOW CAN THE TRADE HUB PIVOT ITS PLANNED ACTIVITIES TO BE MORE RESPONSIVE TO THE IMMEDIATE NEEDS OF FEMALE-OWNED BUSINESSES TO ENSURE THAT THEY DON’T GO UNDER AT A FASTER AND HIGHER RATE THAN MALE-OWNED FIRMS?
Chioma: As stated, even without the pressure of the pandemic, women still experience serious challenges when seeking capital, loans, and other financings that they need to start and grow businesses. When it comes to financing, women face hurdles from the lack of collateral to discriminatory regulations and gender bias. The Trade Hub will continue to ensure that it upholds its mission to empower women during these uncertain times.
For instance, the Trade Hub is continuing to support initiatives that foster collaboration and networking opportunities among women entrepreneurs. Collaborating with other women, being part of networks, and communicating more with others is vital to helping women gain the confidence to start their own businesses. In Nigeria, networking and non-profit organizations like Women in Management and Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ) among others are playing a strategic role in supporting and boosting female entrepreneurs.
REBECCA: IN ECONOMIC DOWNTURNS IN THE PAST, WOMEN OFTEN HAVE BEEN THE FIRST TO LEAVE THE LABOR FORCE. BUT WHEN THE ECONOMY PICKS UP AGAIN, MEN ASSUME WOMEN’S JOBS AND WOMEN AREN’T ABLE TO REGAIN THE STATUS IN THE LABOR MARKET THEY ONCE HAD. DO YOU ENVISION SOMETHING LIKE THIS HAPPENING IN THE COUNTRIES WHERE THE TRADE HUB WORKS?
Chioma: Knowing that economic downturns have disproportionately affected women in the past, in West Africa with the Ebola crisis and others, we do expect COVID-19 to impact women’s economic gains. While the Trade Hub may not be able to predict the extent of the fallout from the pandemic, it will ensure that partners retain women’s productive participation in the labor force.