Small- and mid-sized businesses play a crucial role in economic progress in the world’s poor countries. MSMEs, as they are called, for “micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises,” create jobs – including in urban areas, which are expanding rapidly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. They serve as incubators of new ideas. And they adopt and expand local uses of technology.
They also offer something else that is important: hope.
When someone starts a business and succeeds, neighbours see that this avenue for escaping poverty is feasible. When a woman does so – often overcoming social and cultural obstacles in the process – the example is especially encouraging.
On 23 April, 10 women from developing countries who have founded and expanded their own enterprises will be in Doha, Qatar, as finalists for the third UNCTAD/Empretec Women in Business Awards.
All are graduates of the Empretec programme, which offers training in entrepreneurship through centres in 33 developing countries. The Investment and Enterprise Division of UNCTAD administers the programme in cooperation with national partners. The basic entrepreneurship course runs from 6 to 10 days and focuses on practical steps – identifying good business opportunities, developing effective plans, setting realistic goals – with a solid dose of emotional fortification. Many of the more than 240,000 entrepreneurs who have been trained at Empretec workshops say the motivation and encouragement offered are every bit as vital as the professional skills imparted.
The number of women who found businesses is still smaller than the number of men who do so. And the challenges – such as attracting financing and balancing work with family responsibilities – can be greater for women. The Women in Business Awards were established in 2008 to raise the profile of women’s entrepreneurship in the developing world and to inspire others to set up their own firms.
The awards are presented every two years. This year’s presentations will take place during a ceremony at the gala dinner that will conclude the “Women in Development” events and the UNCTAD World Investment Forum, at the UNCTAD XIII quadrennial Conference in Doha, Qatar.
Following are brief profiles of the finalists and their businesses:
• Barbara Zoe Nyika, Barbara Nyika Mbira Academy, Zimbabwe
Ms. Nyika’s firm manufactures and sells the mbira, a traditional musical instrument that has a central role in Zimbabwean culture. It also offers lessons in playing the mbira, and several of its employees tour as a band, performing mbira music in Zimbabwe and in neighbouring countries. The business began with two employees in 2008 and now has 12 full-time and 8 contract employees.
• Bisrat Debebe Negese, Bisrat General Construction, Ethiopia
Bisrat General Construction began when Ms. Negese, lacking the collateral needed to obtain bank loans, won advance payment from customers for several small projects such as single-family houses. The firm has developed a reputation for working quickly and efficiently and completing projects on time. It provides frequent short-term work to numerous labourers and subcontrators, 30 per cent of whom are women. The firm now has five permanent employees.
• Funmi Victor-Okigbo, No Surprises Ltd., Nigeria
No Surprises creates, stages, and manages events – often with creative content and themes -- for Nigeria’s burgeoning corporate community, entertainment industry and population of non-profit organizations. It books musicians and other performers, arranges catering, rents furniture, provides security and manages transportation, insurance, and licensing. Founded 6 years ago, the business has grown from 2 to 10 permanent employees and regularly hires as many as 50 temporary workers for staging events.
• Maria Carlota Guevara, Aurora, El Salvador
Aurora collects solid inorganic waste from 20 Salvadoran businesses and institutions, prepares it for commercial re-use, and sells it to recycling firms. It provides documentation showing that its clients dispose of their waste in a responsible manner and can be certified as “green enterprises.” Aurora also provides courses on environmental responsibility to Salvadoran companies. Begun with $15 in capital, the firm now has 6 permanent and 10 seasonal or temporary employees.
• Jane Frances Nakato, KinderKare Pre-School, Uganda
KinderKare now operates three schools in the suburbs of the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The pre-schools cater to the country’s growing middle class. An innovative approach is used that stresses parental involvement and reading and writing from a young age -- each student keeps a diary, for example. Teachers are extensively trained. The first pre-school opened in 2004 with 5 employees. Now KinderKare has 57 permanent and 10 temporary employees.
• María José Vicuña, M&S Compu Solution, Aso mujeres Lumbisi, Ball Three, Criader Artesanal de Cerdos, Ecuador
Ms. Vicuna has established four businesses in an Ecuadoran village: an Internet café that is open for extended hours; an organic farm which employs 26 local women, most of whom are elderly and several of whom are disabled; a recreation firm that manages and rents two soccer fields; and a farm where pigs are raised organically and the meat is prepared, processed, and sold. The businesses combine profit with an emphasis on social benefits such as health and local employment. Revenues have climbed 35 per cent over the past three years.
• Melissa de León, Tropical Panamá Gourmet, Panama
The business produces gluten-free food products for export made from locally grown tubers. Gluten-free flour is increasingly used to provide healthy nutrition to diabetics, persons with celiac disease, and persons with digestive problems. Ms. de Leon devised a flour that uses the entire tuber, thus enabling Panamanian farmers to sell a greater percentage of their crops and to earn steadier incomes. She began by working alone in her kitchen and now has a commercial facility with 10 employees, 8 of whom are women.
• Patrícia Paz Silva Giordani, Moura e Paz - Soluções Ambientais, Brazil
This business, operating in one of Brazil’s poorest states, provides the safe transport and treatment of dangerous industrial and medical waste. It owns its own incinerator and gas cleaner and certifies to clients that their waste is handled in accordance with Brazilian legislation. It also provides firms with on-site emissions monitors. In addition, it offers training to businesses and municipalities in how to meet environmental requirements. Since its founding in 2008, Moura e Paz has grown from 2 to 22 employees.
• Raghda Kurdi, Advanced Pharmaceutical Services, Jordan
This firm provides services to independently owned pharmacies in Jordan. It enables them to negotiate as a group with suppliers and insurers, to purchase goods in bulk, and to employ other economies of scale that help them to compete with chain pharmacies. It also provides member pharmacies with accounting and tax services and sophisticated software for ordering and keeping inventories. From 2008 to 2010, Advanced Pharmaceutical Services grew from 10 to 24 employees, half of whom are women.
• Nguyen Thi Thu, SANDA Ho Bin, Viet Nam
SANDA Ho Bin manufactures traditional handcrafted products such as brooms, rattan and bamboo baskets, and embroidered fabrics for domestic sale and export to the Russian Federation, Malaysia, China, and Thailand. The firm is located in one of Viet Nam’s poorest regions. Handicraft work is taught to employees in hands-on fashion, making it suitable for workers who often are illiterate, and the predominantly female staff includes members of impoverished minority groups as well as abused women, former drug addicts and former prisoners. The staff has grown to 10 full-time and 700 part-time employees.