Women’s economic empowerment through starting small businesses, sometimes referred to MSMEs, is one of the big trends in international development and community development work, and there are many interesting discussions in the social entrepreneurship, or triple-bottom-line-thinking movement (people, planet, profit) which combines business growth and social goals. Community development projects focused on economic empowerment and entrepreneurship are similar to other kinds of development projects in that you need to understand the socio-economic, cultural context and physical geography context of the project. For example, poor infrastructure and roads, or seasonal weather patterns, can affect accessibility to project participants, and their accessibility to markets. But regular contact is important to ensure projects continue moving forward, so these practical details need to be taken into account when planning and evaluating project expenses and outcomes (e.g. buying a 4-wheel drive car may be necessary, or reducing materials to something a person can carry on foot may be necessary, or you’ll visit with fewer project partners in the rainy season or figure ways to communicate or do training via cell phone, etc).
In terms of entrepreneurship projects, and particularly women’s entrepreneurship, a few additional issues may come into play. There are classist and tribal societies which allow greater and lesser access to resources based on your group, similarly some areas have religious or cultural norms which ‘protect’ women and encourage them to stay home, unless they have a purpose for going elsewhere. In order for your project to succeed, you must recognize that you’re shifting power dynamics, so must identify and try to work with all stakeholders and potential stumbling blocks. By all means focus on the women, but recognize and attempt to address stumbling blocks (whether logistical or personal).
3 Core Tasks: Align Incentives – Identify Leaders – Communicate!
Whatever your context, there are three basic tasks to help you to succeed:
1. Find your stakeholders and align incentives: For instance, find ways to get husbands and community leaders to be supportive of the concept of women’s entrepreneurship, or to see the positives of reproductive health and rights (and while you’re at it, dispel some misconceptions, and there are many who believe being macho= making babies vs caring for them, or birth-control begets loose behavior, or an IUD causes cancer – yes, some people believe these things).
2. Identify natural leaders among the women, those who inspire the others! They will be the best teachers, encouragers, role-models for the others in the programs and whether in formal or informal leadership positions, they are the greatest multipliers for making confidence contagious.
3. You need to be able to communicate with people in ways they understand – and this goes beyond knowing the local language. It also pertains to understanding how the particular person learns, and to making sure the examples or images used in communicating make sense (eg in a business plan workshop in southern Jordan, I made the mistake of creating an illustrative example using an organic spices export business, but the marketing strategy didn’t really compute because, while they were very familiar with importing and exporting, that in/organic distinction didn’t exist there!).”
…And the Ultimate Task: Ask Questions!
Just as in developed countries, not everyone is built to be an entrepreneur, so support and encourage, but do not force people. That said, people in the developing world generally have to live with such perseverance and hardiness that much about execution is easier for them than those of us from the developed nations might expect. Be aware that they have been promised things and let down so often by their governments, campaigning politicians, aid agencies, that they lose trust in promises of potential and have little time to waste on them; so most will continue to do what was always done. Sincerity and follow-through are key. Support services, for example training in product development, in recognizing customer segments and their desires, in financial management, even things as tactical as developing labels, and so on, can really help.
In sum, your most important task is to ask these two questions:
• What can people become comfortable with?
• How can you help them come to their own, culture-adapted and resources-available-locally solutions?