“Let them teach women what women want to learn”

Carolyne Kirabo, founder of M-Kyala Ventures, is a gender advisor and a gender specialist working with entrepreneurship support organisations in Tanzania and Uganda as part of EIT Climate-KIC’s gender mainstreaming initiative. Based in Nairobi, her gender work focuses on the nexus of women’s entrepreneurship and access to capital, offering a wide range of advisory services including programme design, financing and opportunities for growth.

What are the biggest challenges that women entrepreneurs face to access capital in Africa and how can this be addressed?

There are several factors that affect women, but in my experience, the first big overarching factor is the cultural perception that still exists which informs capital providers that women as entrepreneurs are “high-risk”. However, this isn’t backed by any data that would show either inconsistent credit repayment or poor performance of women entrepreneurs when they access capital. This narrative is preventing even the start of a flow of capital that could tell us a story of how women truly behave with it.

So, I think even before we go into things like how capital is designed, you need to know how women entrepreneurs are educated and why they are starting businesses. You can only prove the worth or the workability of money if you put it in the hands of the people who need it. And if women are not even accessing the small or the mid-sized or the bigger chunks of capital, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Most women know that without collateral, they can’t get credit. However, a woman is not going to simply invest in an asset she doesn’t need for the sake of getting a bank loan, so a lot of what exists in terms of large-format capital is not designed in the way women practice their businesses. That’s a very big barrier, but not a lot of innovation is going on regarding how to deal with it. A woman who wants to grow their business to the next level, open a new branch, enter a new market, or service a new, big contract will still be limited because that next level of growth for most women entrepreneurs is impeded by the requirement for collateral.

Through EIT Climate-KIC’s gender work, you are supporting two African organisations that are working on gender mainstreaming. Can you tell us a little bit about the work you’re doing with them?

My connection with EIT Climate-KIC is a really interesting piece of work, which is at the nexus of women’s entrepreneurship and access to opportunities and capital, but there’s also an overarching theme which is climate-smart approaches to entrepreneurship for women. With this project, I support two organisations within the EIT Climate-KIC portfolio with key aspects on gender mainstreaming and more specifically to ensure that they are able to support the women entrepreneurs in their portfolios effectively and enable them to grow through the programmes.

What’s interesting is that these two projects are reaching women entrepreneurs in very different contexts. One of them, Love in Action, is reaching rural women in Uganda. Most of them are not even literate. The other one, the Westerwelle Foundation in Tanzania, is working with women who are in climate-smart enterprises, so the type of advice that the project needs is very different.

When Love in Action was designing the programme and the accelerator, women were already using an approach called “table banking,” where a few of them would come together, agree on an amount they put in a sort of collective account and every regular period, one person can take a loan that they would later have to repay. It’s sort of a revolving amount of money, but the idea is that this allows women to have the opportunity for a chunk of money at a period they can plan ahead.

But Love in Action realised that there was a big financial literacy challenge as some of the women didn’t even know the total amount that they had in the fund, and they had selected the head of the group based on trust, but this person did not keep any bookkeeping. It was extremely informal and not as empowering as it could be.

We discussed that they could partner with an organisation that can help with the financial literacy of this table banking group. The idea is to get that group to a more financially empowered position, where they can know that they can do a lot more, how they can start to plan, and make a profit which could culminate in them designing other businesses.

This is now something that Love in Action is going to focus on: how do you let these women see themselves as financially independent and capable of making growth financial decisions? I am starting to find that the journey towards gender equality is going to start with small steps by the people who are willing to take that disruptive, innovative approach.

What about your experience supporting the Westerville Foundation, which created a six-month “AfroGreen Accelerator” for women entrepreneurs?

What’s interesting about working in the social enterprise space with organisations that design an all-women accelerator, is that for them, it’s the hardest programme they have ever done. And I figured out that they were trying to convince the women to fit into what they believed was the path to success for entrepreneurs. But this isn’t what should have happened. They should have listened to who these women are, what they need, and where their thinking on entrepreneurship comes from, and designed a programme around that.

The Westerwelle Foundation have been very open to learning from day one. I told them, ”If you try to  fit women into what already exists, you will have challenges.” African women entrepreneurs for instance do not respond to calls for application online. So you need to go where they already are, sit with them, do an information session and sell the programme to them in a space they trust. Women don’t want to hear about a “six-week programme to advance their entrepreneurship capacity”. That means absolutely nothing to them. They want to know who’s behind the programme, and what capacity you want to build, and they will ask tough questions like: “Why do I need you?” They need to understand the value you are bringing.

One of the Westerwelle Foundation’s goals was to work on financial management, which is very broad. You can’t bring someone to teach women financial management, without knowing what their needs really are. What you need to do is to sit with them and ask them: what do you struggle with when it comes to finance? You need to listen and analyse their answers, and then work with a trainer, and let them teach women what women want to learn.

The other piece for me was to make sure that every session ends with like a tangible takeaway. Women don’t accept just a theoretical session. There needs to be a balance between what is theory and something they can go away with. Take financial management: there might be an app on the phone that has an expense tracker. Have someone sit with them, open those phones, show them and let them do a practical exercise that will make them feel like they can actually do this thing that typically seems really hard. It might be opening an Instagram page for their business, putting together pictures and writing, pitching in a way that makes sense to them, etc.

Resources for Supporting Women Entrepreneurship

M-Kyala Ventures through its participation in the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs Gender Equality Action and with funding from USAID designed and developed the Gender Smart Lending Toolkit. The project objective is to enhance the capacity of financial institutions to increase access to finance for women entrepreneurs by addressing key product and process barriers. Learn more via https://www.gslafrica.org/

To learn more about EIT Climate-KIC’s work around gender mainstreaming, contact us at gender@climate-kic.org. You can also have a look at the gender-smart handbook we developed for climate programmes here.

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