Entrepreneurship can be a difficult journey for anyone. But women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies face particular barriers in establishing and growing their businesses. Unequal access to financial services is one: around the world, over one billion women struggle to access even the most basic of banking services, such as a savings account. Knowledge is another; women typically have lower levels of financial literacy and less experience of running businesses than men.
But there are other crucial challenges which receive less attention. Difficulty in accessing markets, for example. This is an issue we started exploring in our ‘Women’s Enterprise Development’ project in Lebanon, where we worked with the Lebanese Association for Development – Al Majmoua and the JPMorgan Chase Foundation to support 377 women entrepreneurs in communities in the North, East and South of Lebanon.
As part of this project, we commissioned a policy paper to explore the barriers Lebanese women entrepreneurs face in gaining access to markets, and the potential solutions to these challenges. The paper was discussed at a recent forum in Beirut, which was attended by stakeholders from government agencies, banks and NGOs.
A key finding from the policy forum was that, whilst enterprise development training is crucial to empowering women, training alone is not enough. There are a range of structural barriers which also need to be tackled to expand women’s access to markets.
Many women entrepreneurs, for example, run home-based enterprises in order to avoid the costs associated with formalising businesses. While this gives them the flexibility to balance their work with their household duties, it ultimately limits the growth of their businesses, as clients are confined to a narrow market of friends, family and neighbours.
Simplifying business registration processes, introducing tax incentives and providing critical information on requirements for licensing and exporting, for example, could help to move women out of the informal sector and enable them to connect with new, larger retailers, both domestically and internationally. Policy-makers have a key role to play in breaking down institutional barriers to women’s entrepreneurship.
Some barriers, however, exist much closer to home. During the implementation of another project we run in Lebanon, in partnership with the Lebanese Association for Development – Al Majmoua and the U.S. Department of State, we found that some of the women started to disengage from the project’s training sessions after facing resistance from their husbands. Some men felt that the training was taking the women away from their household duties, and struggled to grasp the dual role their wives were playing as both home-makers and entrepreneurs.
We decided to address this challenge by inviting the women and their husbands to attend a special event in honour of Women’s Entrepreneurship Day on 19 November. At the event, guests were able to learn more about the project’s objectives and network with other attendees, including representatives from governmental agencies. Guests also heard from a woman who had benefited from our previous ‘Women’s Enterprise Development’ project, and who spoke about how her business had grown as a result of the support she received – to the point where she now counted her husband among her employees.
The event was crucial to helping the women’s husbands understand the project in more detail, lessen their anxiety and show them how their wives’ entrepreneurial activities would benefit the whole household. Ultimately, it helped them to see their wives in a new light – as both wives and entrepreneurs. These experiences remind us that resolving the barriers which prevent women entrepreneurs from realising their full potential takes creativity, collaboration and perseverance.