Empowering women entrepreneurs across the Indian Ocean region
Over the past century, women around the world have taken dramatic strides forward in voting rights, in social status and as economic actors. And yet they remain less likely than men to have a paid job and when they do, they earn less than men in similar occupations. Gender-based legal impediments and job restrictions too often confine women to low-paying work in the informal sector. Women are 20% less likely than men to have a bank account and less likely than men to belong to formal business networks.
In addition to the consequences for individual girls, women and families, these inequalities have an immense economic cost: by some estimates, achieving gender equality in the economy would add as much as one-quarter to global GDP. The Sustainable Development Goals rightly recognize that eradicating extreme poverty is impossible without substantial progress towards gender equality in the home, school and workplace.
ITC has since mid-2016 been working with the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to tackle the specific barriers experienced by women entrepreneurs. The project focuses on three IORA countries – Indonesia, Kenya and Sri Lanka – with the aim of improving the competitiveness of women-owned businesses and connecting them to markets and investors in the services sector, in particular tourism and information technology. As part of ITC’s global SheTrades initiative to promote women’s economic empowerment, the project has been able to use the SheTrades brand and network to build bridges among women entrepreneurs, international buyers, public institutions and other enablers, such as Facebook.
One key pillar of the project has been to collect gender-disaggregated data by working closely with trade and investment support institutions in the three focus countries to report on the competitiveness of 300 women.
This sort of granular data makes it possible to identify bottlenecks specific to women-owned businesses and to design context-specific policy recommendations and technical assistance to boost their competitiveness.
Business-to-business (B2B) meetings are another important component of the project, to compensate for the difficulties women entrepreneurs in the region have when attempting to connect to prospective international buyers. In addition to identifying promising partners and organizing B2Bs at trade fairs, ITC helps women-owned companies lay the groundwork for success, assisting them with preparing comprehensive company profiles and providing them with tailored capacity support to approach and impress buyers.
The project’s B2B activities generated confirmed sales worth over $1.1 million in 2017, with further deals in the pipeline, as 103 MSMEs owned or led by women connected to 328 international buyers from 66 countries. For example, ORA Dive, an Indonesian company that organizes diving tours around the Komodo National Park, secured close to $150,000 in sales to buyers from Australia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and the United States after receiving ITC training in marketing and negotiation and participating in B2B meetings at major tourism trade fairs in Berlin and Macao. Representatives from Saraii Village, a hotel in southern Sri Lanka, struck $60,000 worth of sales to European buyers.
Tailored capacity-building activities have drawn in a wide range of partners and contributed to strengthening partnerships with the private sector and amplifying the project’s results. Digital marketing and e-commerce training in Sri Lanka, for example, was delivered in partnership with Google. Participants report having broadened their knowledge of e-commerce and upgraded their websites, leading to greater contact with potential buyers.
The SheTrades SME competitiveness studies developed by the project have unveiled country-specific findings about how women-owned businesses operate, paving the way for targeted solutions to help them thrive. For instance, in Indonesia small women-owned firms were found to be twice as likely to use social media as compared to traditional advertising to promote their products. As a result, the project teamed up with the Facebook Asia Pacific #SheMeansBusiness initiative to develop materials on digital marketing and e-commerce for women entrepreneurs. The project has so far supported 411 MSMEs in the three countries to enhance their skills and capacity to connect to international markets.
Technical assistance activities and trade fair participation will continue through the project’s June 2018 conclusion. Women entrepreneurs in the region an continue to use the SheTrades app to find potential buyers, access information on market events and participate in online learning. This allows SheTrades to sustain its positive impact for women entrepreneurs in the region long after the project closes.
ITC will replicate its work in the region through other projects under the SheTrades umbrella as well as through partnerships with the private sector and trade and investment support institutions. The IORA Secretariat has invited ITC to present its work to the group’s member states at its workshop in May 2018.