Women being the backbone of rural economies in developing countries and specifically in Africa, play a significant role to ensure their families’ well being. This is seen in terms of providing food, shelter, health and education for the children. Being the majority (about 55%) of the rural population, their role is crucial in bringing about change in their communities. Most of the rural women provide for their families through subsistence farming and other agricultural activities supplemented by petty trade or micro enterprises. Agriculture, which is practiced mainly for home use, takes various forms such as, keeping chicken, growing vegetables, tending the family garden and small-scale horticulture for the market place, among others. A few women keep livestock as part of the family assets as well as savings. Majority (90%) of these women are engaged in these activities out of necessity given that they have limited choices outside their traditional roles. Most have hardly gone beyond primary education and have very limited or no training. As regards marital status, 80% are married and have families. A number of them have absentee husbands, who often work far away from their homes while the rest are either single mothers, separated or widows. Due to the many challenges they face in providing for their families, most of them are now engaged in income generation activities in form of micro enterprises.
Many challenges face rural entrepreneurs. They include: competition from well established male-dominated enterprises, lack of accurate information, support, finance for expansion, risk-taking propensity, domestic commitments, and steriotyping among others.
Competition (markets) and information related factors, are said to be major challenges. Competition is seen in form of the size of market share in the rural setting. Most of these markets are not expanding and new competitors such as mini-super markets with wide varieties of products for those who were engaged in selling household products are emerging.
Lack of accurate information on the new markets and market segments, and the ever increasing demands by clients for variety pose challenges to the rural entrepreneur. This, coupled with lack of knowledge on business management, inadequate resources and support mechanisms from spouses are adverse limitations.
The other challenges affecting the success of rural micro-enterprises include: need for effective communication to negotiate/bargain favourably, management of debtors, proper record keeping and issues to do with domestic matters such as balancing a woman’s role in the home and the enterprise expectations.
The experiences the women entrepreneurs have in running their businesses include such problems as lack of enough capital, difficulties in transportation and marketing, the perishability of some commodities and competing demand related to household chores. They encounter difficulties in licensing procedures and other such constraints.
Most women who venture into businesses in the rural areas and need financing lack the needed collateral to enable them secure bank loans. Responsibility of entrepreneurs for dependants has limited opportunities to make savings or undertake business expansion and diversification.
Entrepreneurship always involves some level of risk taking. For women in the rural areas, gender stereotyped perception of self, lack of confidence and assertiveness appear to be major barriers. The fear to risk is a big hindrance.
The status of women in a patriarchal social structure makes women dependent on males in their lives –husbands or fathers –and family resistance is a major disincentive to business start-up. Other close male family members often make decisions for women hence going against the independent spirit of entrepreneurship.
Lack of sufficient education and training for women is another impediment to micro-enterprise success. Culturally, and especially in the rural setting, the girl child was not given equal opportunity to study like the boys; hence they had limited education and training (if any) which tends to affect effective performance in later life. One woman laments:
“We are isolated socially; we lack previous work experience, and access to enterprise information and marketing facilities which the men entrepreneurs acquire. The excessive demand on our time as wives, mothers and ‘managers’ of the home front due to our chores, make it nearly impossible to successfully operate an enterprise. It is only by God’s grace that we manage to survive. This is besides our position in the family and the structure of power relations. One who ventures out there to follow the entrepreneurial spirit, does so at the expense of her family.”
One other challenge is the responsibility of providing for the extended family and relatives. Most micro-enterprise financial resources are not usually isolated from personal finances and hence these family obligations are met from resources earned in the business. Their demands tend to drain the savings and income made by the business, since such finances would otherwise have been used in the enterprise for expansion and growth. Though some of them do assist in providing services in the enterprise (or in the family), the financial obligations in supporting them usually exceeds the services they provide.
Many rural women are unaware of specific support mechanisms, including sources of funding for the income generation activities. In the absence of coordinated effort among the key stakeholders including the government, these entrepreneurs will continue to suffer ‘eking’ a living at survivalist level only. This is coupled with the reluctance of the formal public institutions to help women in micro- and small-scale enterprises.
The rural women appear not to be driven by profits but rather, by the need to provide for their families. They see enterprises as a means of setting them free from ‘begging’ from their spouses money for the basic necessities of their families – food, clothing and health. What they earn is totally spent for the benefit of the entire family. Another key motivating force for women to become business owners has been identified as interest in helping others. Generally women enterpreneurs in small scale business receive substancial family support at start-up and in the course of running their business. Such support is however, based mainly on social rather than economic consideration.
To fight poverty in Kenya (and the continent as such), the pivotal place of women in society (specifically in rural areas) needs to be accepted and supported. They need capacity building and training in functional areas such as finance, literacy skills, marketing, production and managerial skills. A mind shift among their spouses (and the men in general) should also be encouraged so that they give full support besides embracing the changing role of women in the homes.
Married women should be given support by their spouse in respect of finances, motivational encouragement, advice and actual involvement in the running of business. Access to credit by women enterpreneurs at the level of micro and small-scale enterprises, should be facilitated through innovative programs and financing arrangements that go beyond the convential approaches; which require collateral and capital among other conditionalities.
The public sector and formal financial organizations should be sensitized on the value of gender-balanced participation in the informal sector enterprises. A major goal should be to promote the social and economic empowerment of women, as they constitute a vulnerable social category that is critical in sustainable development endeavors.
** This article is based on a paper presented at the 3rd Africa Resource Bank Meeting, November 27-30, 2005