By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)
A study launched in Freetown on Friday 13th March 2015 by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) reveals that an estimated 1.5 million Sierra Leonean business women are in the micro or small business sector.
Yet, according to the study, most of these market women struggle to access finance and training they need to develop, including saving, credit, leasing and pension facilities.
The study, titled ‘National Study on Women’s Access to Financing in Sierra Leone’, says Sierra Leone women, as with women in most other countries in sub Saharan Africa, face great difficulties in accessing even the most basic financial opportunities, with far-reaching implications for their own economic empowerment and the overall health of the national economy.
“We cannot move forward if we can’t put serious policies in place to capture this important segment of business women and try to graduate them,” said Leah Fatmata Suma, consultant author of the study.
Describing the study as a working final document which can be a basis for further research, Leah says it is biased towards the micro business segment.
The study, which was commissioned by IFC (the private sector arm of the World Bank Group), the African Foundation for Development and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, was conducted across nine districts in Sierra Leone and interviewed 222 women engaged in various types of businesses.
According to IFC’s Country Director, Mary Agboli, the objective of the report is to make it happen for women business owners in Sierra Leone. However, she says Sierra Leone business women face a lot of constraints socially, culturally, economically and politically.
In addition she says a key constraint is time.
“Women don’t have the time to deal with government regulations that deal with them. They don’t have time for training; they don’t have the time to fill lengthy forms of financial institutions because they run their businesses as well as the ‘business’ at home,” says Mary.
Generally, she says women feel they are not part of the debate of policy making relating to their own issues, and when most laws and regulations are put in place they are not often consulted.
“Sierra Leone business women need the right support to help their businesses develop to another level. They need help to put the right structures in place- management structures, risk management, human resource and accounting structures for example,” says Mary.
Similarly, CEO of Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, Sevi Simavi, says financial inclusion is key to empowering women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies around the world and it’s a priority for the Foundation.
“This report will help us understand how we can connect more women entrepreneurs to the capital they need to realize their market potential and play a role in the development of their communities and economies,” says Sevi.
Apart from limited access to finance, another key barrier to business growth is the inherent gender cultural bias evident in the Sierra Leonean society, says Leah.
“Even from the homes, we make the boys our No.1 priority in everything we do. This practice leaves the girls, and eventually the women, with little or no opportunity to reach their full potential, not only in business,” she says.
According to the study, the impact of women’s limited access to finance impedes their ability to grow their businesses, and restricts the types of business they begin and their future potential.
Women make up 52 percent of the Sierra Leone population, and to exclude this percentage from the economic growth of the country undermines the very growth aspiration itself.
Therefore, a key recommendation of the report calls for the expansion of financial inclusion as an important policy goal if women in Sierra Leone are to reach their maximum capacity alongside their male counterpart.
Another recommendation is the mainstreaming of gender issues to leverage the untapped potential of both women and men.
The study also reinforces the need for increased and continuous engagement to develop the profile of women entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone and to identify intervention strategies and policies to mitigate the underlying issues impeding the economic growth of business women in the country.
“Access to financing goes beyond just giving finances,” says Leah. “It also involves providing business support services such as regular monitoring and technical guidance.”
Most women involved in micro/small businesses in Sierra Leone secure start-up funds from micro finance institutions, an indication of the importance of these institutions to the local business economy.
However, there are sometimes allegations of corruption in such micro credit arrangement which often leads to default in paying back. According to official reports a good number of women in the national correction center have to do with failure to pay back micro credit loans.
In addition, officials at some banks that give out micro credit facilities say women beneficiaries often divert the loans to buy personal property rather than investing in the business they are supposed to engage in. This often leads to payment defaults as well.
Worse, the Ebola outbreak has crippled most small businesses, especially in the provinces.
In Kailahun, in Eastern Sierra Leone, for example, a local based non-governmental organization called SEND Foundation (Social Enterprise Development) claims they have more than Le212 million as outstanding micro credit loans given to the district’s business women, as of February 2015. In post-Ebola period some of these women will obviously face difficulty repaying these loans as the Ebola outbreak disrupted their businesses.
“Now we have to decide on the next step: how we can address some of these constraints, as government, as private sector, donors, other players and even the business women themselves,” says Mary.
Meanwhile, IFC’s Coordinator, Advisory Services, F. Sese Gadzekpo, says that’s the essence of the study.
“We want to share our findings to the key players- the government, donors and financial institutions, in the hope that together we can discuss the way forward in the financing for private owned businesses generally,” says Sese.
Credit: Development and Economic Journalists Association-Sierra Leone (DEJA-SL).