In fall 2011, the Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Network (PREM) Gender and Development unit launched the Women's Leadership in Small and Medium Enterprises (WLSME) program, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). This initiative aims to promote a better understanding of the key determinants of successful women-led SMEs in developing countries—in terms of both entry and profitability.
The results of the call for proposals in May 2012 yielded an interesting mix of interventions, each of which will be subject to a rigorous evaluation. Descriptions of the projects being funded and evaluated follow:
Measuring and Reducing Regulatory Uncertainty and Discretion for Female Entrepreneurs in Central Asia
- The Challenge: In Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, a number of de jure reforms in the regulatory area have taken place, yet the unequal and discretionary implementation of the rules undermines the returns to regulatory reform. The gaps between laws and implementation are often due to a number of factors: (a) corruption; (b) lack of knowledge of entrepreneurs of how to use new systems; (c) lack of knowledge of government officials on how to use the new systems; (d) lack of capacity of the government (IT, human capacity, etc.) to implement the laws; and (e) lack of dissemination of reforms. These gaps are often anecdotally reported to be larger for certain disadvantaged groups, such as women entrepreneurs.
- Proposed Intervention: This tasks aims at piloting a number of small interventions aimed at reducing the implementation gap between de jure and de facto business environment regulations and their discriminatory impact on female entrepreneurs in a specific area of investment climate reform, namely tax inspections. The project will aim at (i) understand the main drivers of the gaps between laws and implementation in the area of tax inspections; (ii) develop and implement policy responses that would help reduce these gaps; and (iii) measure the impact of such interventions.
Haiti — Fostering Women's Involvement in Argo-Enterprise for Improved Food Quality and Household Food Security
- The Challenge: Underinvestment in women as enterprise and producer group leaders in Haiti’s agribusiness/post-harvest sector inducing low innovation and thus low profits. This has led to a very low availability of local produce nutritious food in a country with one of the worst malnutrition indicators in the region.
- Proposed Intervention: The project will strengthen women in agribusiness/post-harvest through training in business administration and in food quality improvements, where financial constraints (such as access to credit and knowledge in financial literacy) and technical knowledge are barriers to success. The project will also build a network of women-owned small enterprises to grow their production levels and develop female leaders in the agribusiness community. The goal is to gain a better understanding of how these trainings will impact post-harvest activities in Haiti’s rural economy.
Egyptian Women’s Leadership in Micro and Small Enterprises Project
- The Challenge: Unemployment in Egypt has skyrocketed, especially for women, increasing the need for more sustainable private sector jobs and innovative small businesses, including those led by women.
- Proposed Intervention: The project will provide training to prepare female entrepreneurs for success through planning and seed financing, while developing innovative loan products that cater specifically to women. An impact assessment will assess the impact of the line of credit provided to MSEs, on poverty eradication, job creation, and gender mainstreaming (equal opportunity for women). The findings of this assessment will inform the design of a new MSE Project that focuses on the economic empowerment of Egyptian women in critical times of transition, post-revolution when there are concerns of reversal on women's issues.
Improving Market Access of SMEs in Africa Through Innovative Programs
- The Challenge: Women-led businesses in Africa lag behind those led by men in earnings and productivity because of poor business-to-business networks, locking them out of more lucrative markets.
- Proposed Intervention: A project focused on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mozambique and South Africa will test a business-to-business infrastructure through an online marketplace connecting buyers with smaller merchants in South Africa and market linkage programs connecting large investors with SMEs in DRC and Mozambique.
Africa — Innovative Approaches to Develop Entrepreneurial Capacities of Female-Led Business
- The Challenge: Gap in performance and productivity between male- and female-owned businesses.
- Proposed Intervention: A project focused in Togo, Ethiopia and Nigeria will study alternative approaches to business development services to promote productivity and start-ups of women and young lead enterprises through managerial or entrepreneurial training in Togo, business and technical training coupled with access to finance in Ethiopia and start-ups grant coupled with training and mentoring in Nigeria.
A New Generation of Women Entrepreneurs in Pakistan
- The Challenge: Up until now, efforts to support women entrepreneurs in Pakistan and globally have had mixed results. Typical products or programs to support women-owned businesses include addressing access to finance gaps through microfinance loans, or matching grant schemes. Programs focusing on skills and capacity have been built around training for women clients. Some programs have addressed mobility constraints by working through third party intermediaries to help bring goods and services to markets and eliminating the need for women to have interactions outside of their communities. The development of business incubator programs has also been explored as a way of addressing mobility barriers. Unfortunately, the few rigorous impact evaluations that exist on these programs highlight that these interventions are not having desired impacts, and raise questions about the need to change course and look more carefully at designing interventions that can push the productivity frontier for women-owned businesses in Pakistan.
- Proposed Intervention: The project will provide comprehensive support programs covering the spectrum of assistance needs—from business education, mentoring and networking to financial access—to women entrepreneurs with high growth potential. Business education curricula have been developed with leading global business schools to provide Ivy League-designed business education skills to women entrepreneurs, incorporating experiential and gender-based course delivery. Mentorship between mature and emerging entrepreneurs is important, and will create complimentary and customized business solutions and learning to beneficiaries. Communities of women entrepreneurs who are committed to ‘paying it forward’ ensures a virtuous, self-sustaining cycle, while simultaneously opening up more opportunities for access to capital which can have multiplier effects on productivity and job creation.
Testing the Relative Impacts of Training and Access to Finance for Fostering Entrepreneurial Success in Sierra Leone
- The Challenge: Since the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war in 2002, unemployment and underemployment among youth has remained very high.
- Proposed Intervention: The WLSME-funded Youth Employment Support Project works to increase the number of viable small businesses owned by youth, improve their skills to make them more employable and provide a financial safety net for the most vulnerable youth, while studying whether the provision of training and microfinance facilitation impact female and male entrepreneurs differently, and how.
Linking Graduates of the University Entrepreneurship Track in Tunisia to Integrated Support and Incubation Services
- The Challenge: An entrepreneurship track in universities in Tunisia effectively increased self-employment of graduates from 48 to 81 percent, but women entrepreneurs had a lower success rate and continued to have problems accessing credit.
- Proposed Intervention: The WLSME is funding further evaluation efforts to understand constraints faced by female program graduates and how they can be linked to existing additional entrepreneurship and business development services, such as incubation and access to credit, to address this gender gap.
The WLSME is part of a larger initiative managed by USAID.