The Year of Entrepreneurship in AMA 2011

Promoting the economic participation of women is an important theme; it promotes gender equality, reduces poverty and empowers women. Alongside the income generating opportunities, AMA has implemented, through the support of HSP, a series of workshops in 2011 to educate women’s circles about the various aspects of starting up a business. The workships are also an important research mechanism for indentifying the needs and context of each community and for gathering information about what does and does not work and why.

The first of these workshops took place during March and April 2011 and focused on awareness raising and encouraging the women to think about their own skills. At the beginning of each workshop we discussed the term “business” and the benefits that were to be gained from being in business. One of the women from the Espumpuja Women’s Circle said that, “One of the reasons we want to start a business is to have income to cover our families costs and to educate our children.”

Small businesses offer advantages for rural women and as a group we discussed what these might be:

  • personal satisfaction – women can gain confidence and have a greater sense of control over their lives;
  • flexibility – it is possible to combine working and looking after children;
  • community development – playing a more active role in the community;
  • being independent – financially and in decision making;

In fact the women in Guatemala are not so different from women all over the world whose motivations for going into business are pretty much the same. Very few of the women had experience of being in business – a few women had experience of growing and selling their own vegetables and in the villages of Chucutama and Pacutama we talked about their recently opened AMA supported stores and what impact these new businesses would have in their communities. “But how do we choose a business”, one of the women asked during my first workshop in Estancia, Cantel. This was a very good question and I explained that most women start up in business doing something they already have experience of or they choose to learn something new.

This nicely led into the next part of the workshop where the women broke up into groups to discuss, “Our Skills”. I could see that the women really enjoyed working and talking together and their brainstorming resulted in a triumphant list of, “things we can do!” which included: cooking, baking, working with their hands (weaving, crocheting, knitting, tailoring, jewelry making), growing crops and vegetables, looking after animals.

This in itself was a valuable exercise in self- esteem building and getting the women to think beyond the narrow perceptions they have of themselves; I really wanted the women to recognise and value the skills that they have.

BARRIERS TO PARTICIPATION

Women confront a variety of challenges in developing and running a business, some of these challenges are shared by women everywhere and some will be particular to rural women living in developing countries and the additional social or cultural challenges they face.

A friend mentioned that if I make money from my sales I should invest some of it but I don’t know how to do that
— Women’s Circle, Chirijox.
I’d love to have my own business but I just don’t have the time or the money
— Women’s Circle, Estancia, Cantel
How do I find a market for my scarves and how do I make sure that I price them correctly
— Women’s Circle, Llanos del Pinal.

The points below summarize our discussion of the barriers to participation and also include some of my own thoughts after observing the groups:

  • Widespread illiteracy and low levels of education can limit the capacity of rural women to start up in business;
  • In many cases a woman’s primary role is considered to be as wife and mother and these traditional practices restrict women from undertaking other roles.
  • Obtaining the necessary finance to commence in business was considered to be a major barrier by the Women’s Circles. In addition women often lack experience in dealing with banks and as a result have to secure credit informally or through small micro-finance organisations.
  • Women also face obstacles in accessing domestic and export markets because of their small scale of operation, lack of information and time constraints. Selling through local markets may be the only avenue open to women but these markets may already be saturated with similar product lines.
  • Underdeveloped rural infrastructure and lack of resources can lengthen the time needed for household and care work, these constraints added to agriculture work further limits a woman’s ability to spend time on business related activities.
  • Acquiring appropriate training and access to business information and advice was also considered to be a problem.

CREATING AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT FOR WOMEN

In another workshop I explained to the women that through AMA there are opportunities to break down some of these barriers.

Moving into higher value added sectors

Through Project “Pixan” there are opportunities to develop advanced weaving and tailoring skills through workshops on embroidery, dress-making and weaving. The goal of these on-going design workshops will be to teach new techniques which can be incorporated into the current design process enabling the women to create new products while conserving and strengthening their traditional techniques. This will give the women entrepreneurs the skills to produce higher quality goods which bring higher prices in the market. This moves them out of the low quality, low price sector.

Accessing new markets

Assessing new market opportunities with a particular focus on export has also been part of AMA’s Year of Entrepreneurship 2011 activities. Our approach is an integrated one which combines product development, identification of market opportunities and training and skills development. So for example as well as teaching the women about designs and colours which are appealing to international buyers, AMA is helping to facilitate access to international markets through participation in trade fairs and exhibitions. Alongside these activities we are currently carrying out market research to identify markets and the buying preferences and requirements of those markets.

Expanding the skills base

There are opportunities to learn new skills and be enterprising through AMA’s health and nutrition programme. Through this programme there are opportunities to learn to cook and this opens up the possibility of selling healthy food and snacks in the newly opened village stores for example. The women have already made peanut butter and energy bars and the next step will be to teach them new recipes which use the fruit and vegetables that are growing in their greenhouses.

To a certain extent the Women’s Circles have a ready captive market, the AMA store in Quetzaltenango is open when volunteer groups come to participate in community development work through the Maya Viva programme and there are numerous possibilities to sell different types of products during this time.

Money management and business support activities

Improving money management skills has been a focus of micro enterprise training programs for many years and is especially helpful for the Women’s Circles at a time when new business opportunities are being presented. Earlier in the year I ran a workshop with the Women’s Circles on concepts of money and how to money-manage. The aim of the workshop was to teach basic skills relating to earning, spending, budgeting and saving money.

In looking ahead we discussed what would be beneficial next and the women asked for workshops on pricing products and accessing finance. These workshops will take place later in the year.

MUTUAL SUPPORT

I concluded the workshops by discussing the importance of mutual support and working together. The lack of business development services in rural areas has already been mentioned and under these circumstances women rely heavily on friends and family to help them with decisions and other support, for this reason Women’s Circles are an extremely important social and support network for these women.

Mentoring is another important support tool and I encouraged the women to talk with those women in their Women’s Circles who had some experience in business and who could offer them suggestions and advice based on their own experiences.

Social norms often influence women’s opportunities and in such cases it is important to engage both men and women in breaking these stereotypes of women. This could include for example organising special events to raise the profile of women entrepreneurs or using role modes of successful female entrepreneurs particularly from the same socio-economic group to further inspire the women.

I was particularly pleased to find that the Women’s Circles also included the participation of younger women. Introducing younger women to entrepreneurship at an early age is important in expanding their horizons and increasing their confidence and may have long term positive effects in terms of business creation.

It has been a real privilege to work withthese women; I got a genuine sense from the workshops that the women were open and excited about learning new things. Despite their limited economic means and lack of formal education they were resourceful and inspired to think about the ways in which they could create a better future for themselves, their families and their communities.

AMABen BlevinsAMA, Entrepernurship