Empowering Women Entrepreneurs

Empowering Women Entrepreneurs

Across the developing world, farmers are facing increasing challenges in their industry including (but not limited to) market access, profit margins, and regulatory obstacles. In the eastern and southern parts of North Macedonia, the rural population of female farmers particularly experience these ongoing challenges, along with discriminatory and societal pressures that complicate an already uphill battle to success. Within this region, the non-governmental organization (NGO) Women in the Economy (WIE) is on a mission to support these farmers through dignity and empowerment activities and in removing barriers to accessing capital, entering markets, and establishing networks.

What was the problem?

WIE is a relatively new organization and in the middle of a difficult balancing act: trying to grow and support existing members with very limited resources. Up until this point, founders Liljana [add last name] and Vesna [add last name] have primarily focused their efforts on events and resources that recognize and empower the disenfranchised women their organization serves. Their request of Business on the Frontlines was twofold. First, they wanted to gain insights into potential business solutions for small-scale female entrepreneurs working in the agricultural sector. Second, they wanted to improve the long-term sustainability of WIE.  Many of their current business support is offered ad hoc and they want to offer more services besides empowerment activities.

What did we do?

Prior to departing for North Macedonia, the team analyzed potential ways to optimize agricultural product choice, yield, and profitability within the region. Upon arrival, the team met with the partners to learn more about the organizational capacity and then began traveling throughout the country to meet with and learn from the various women farmers in WIE. The team learned about the various products being farmed as well as the technological, financial, and marketing capabilities of each business woman. Over fresh feta cheese and flavorful ajvar generously provided by each host, we learned more about the unique business challenges women must overcome in a traditionally patriarchal society. After meeting with the women, the team spent the remaining time speaking with various NGOs and government officials involved in the promotion of activities aimed to support rural women farmers in their business ventures.

What was the turning point?

Initially, the team was under the impression that the women entrepreneurs had minimal resources to generate income and that WIE’s main contribution was in business development.  However, after several days in-country and numerous interviews, it was discovered that the situation was not that dire. The women of WIE had significantly more assets at their disposal (tractors, irrigation systems, land size) and were extremely industrious. Additionally, WIE’s most significant value-add was not offering business advice but instilling a sense of empowerment amongst the members. As a result, the focus shifted from micro-optimizing crop selection to a broader application of integrating within the organization. For WIE, we realized the organization could be more impactful if they leveraged their existing strengths and sought to coalesce around the intangibles rather than offer business consultation from a weaker position.

What did we recommend?

The team made a set of recommendations to be pursued within varying time horizons. First, to address the urgent economic challenges brought upon by COVID-19 pandemic, the team provided immediate recommendations such as applying for unemployment benefits, scheduling financial consultations with microcredit unions, and participating in digital training to increase familiarity with critical virtual tools. Second, the team provided short-term recommendations to be pursued within the next year, such as developing a Facebook Group and Study Circle events to enhance community cooperation, communication, and peer support. Additionally, we recommended WIE initiate and grow relationships with key development partners in the sector, as well as provide access to training materials on cooperative business models. Third, the team provided medium-term recommendations (12-24 months) designed to improve strategic access to capital by providing beneficiaries with business plan assistance, technical financial training, and investment strategy assistance. Lastly, long-term recommendations (24-36 months) were provided to support organizational capacity building, such as accessing sustainable funding.