How are women entrepreneurs coping with COVID-19?

Sharmini Thiyakaran is a coir manufacturer in Sri Lanka: “Coronavirus hit us hard at the start. I feared that my business would completely collapse. Now we are diversifying and developing new products for the local market.”

Despite the disastrous impact of COVID-19, this is not the first time many of these women have faced a crisis. Many have coped with civil war, the Ebola epidemic or natural disasters. Women entrepreneurs are resilient and are already identifying ways to adapt and diversify their businesses to get through the pandemic.

Here’s how 6 businesswomen are responding to the pandemic

Portrait of Basma Nazer in Jordan

Basma Nazer runs the social enterprise Khoyoot (‘Threads’) in Jordan. Basma received business training and a grant from CARE’s Women in Enterprise programme, supported by H&M Foundation. Khoyoot works with women in a refugee camp to produce hand embroidered products. Before the pandemic, the initiative was selling to 15 countries worldwide, using fabrics sourced from overseas.

Many women in the [refugee] camp are the main source of income for their families. This has tremendously affected them because currently we have a tremendous drop in sales, thus we cannot produce many products by the women.

The women [in the refugee camp] currently are asking for loans or they go to charities to see if they have any food supplies specially during this period. I am trying my best to work on that.

To cope with the situation, we are now trying to produce two product lines that will use fabric and material that is available in Jordan. For me to try to let the women [in the refugee camp] work as much as possible, I shifted the design work for those two product lines for the women so they can be paid daily or weekly on the designs they are doing for the new collection, which can be done with material available in Jordan.

Portrait of Maria Julia Ancajima Prado in Peru

María Julia Ancajima Prado is president of the beekeepers’ association Adonai, in northwest Peru. She received a wide range of training from CARE including: business planning; financial education; self-esteem; setting up a collective brand; marketing; e-commerce; and more.

My family’s fine for now. I have been able to pay for food with savings.

The main risk we have is contracting the virus and bringing it into our community. It would be devastating. We don’t have a health centre nearby. There is no 24-hour doctor. There are many children, many pregnant women. It’s a vulnerable area.

We are also afraid of losing income, of not being able to pay the loans. Since the start of the restrictions our sales have completely declined and we have no income. We are exploring setting up an online store with other beekeeper associations.

I want to encourage my colleagues and friends. Let’s keep going. This time of COVID-19 teaches us to be stronger, more courageous women.

Portrait of Gilda Ixen in Guatemala

Gilda Ixen is president of a women’s cooperative in Guatemala.

(COVID-19) has affected us economically, healthwise and emotionally. We haven’t been able to sell our products and our income has decreased. It has greatly affected our family life; for example, my mum can no longer go out to the market to sell [her wares]. Other members of my family have been laid off or suspended from their work.

We have a lot of farmers here who sell their products both locally and overseas and those markets have fallen. Local unemployment has increased and we will see in the next weeks when food products start to run out, as women that worries us a lot because we don’t know how we will provide for our children.

The worst case scenario is that we will have to shut down the business or suspend the cooperative. That worries us so much. We are looking at the possibilities of making a different type of product or services that the community needs right now.

It is very important to be part of this type of organisation, not just in these times of crisis, but in every situation. It allows you to combine strengths to find collective alternatives, for us and for more women, and identify new needs and support [each other] with food. We are a group of women and we support each other. Together we can look for projects and arrange other types of support.

Our cooperative started 5 years ago, we started slowly and we knew it would not be easy, and this situation is not easy, but there will be a new way to continue on and find projects and alternatives and to activate our businesses. As women we need to support each other and believe in ourselves.

Portrait of Narcisa Cruz Sosa in Peru

Narcisa Cruz Sosa, from Chulucanas in the north of Peru, set up her association producing ceramics in 2008. She says: “We started out with eight women and now we just keep on growing.” The association has won multiple awards and the group uses clay techniques inherited from the Tallán and Vicús cultures.

CARE offers a lot of training for women entrepreneurs covering leadership, self-esteem, how to work with buyers, developing business ideas and more. Thanks to the training, my self-esteem has really grown and I now have a bigger voice to speak out. Before, I was afraid of being a business woman, but now I value my own work. The training has been a really good opportunity for our members to know that they can progress and get their products to more people.

[With COVID-19] my business has completely stopped, we are not producing anything. We cannot buy the materials for our business and nobody is going to buy ceramics at the moment, the most important thing is food. Thankfully, CARE taught us how to save, so I have a little nest egg to keep us going for now.

Portrait of Marie Conteh Robuya in Sierra Leone

Marie Conteh-Robuya is from the Bombali district in northern Sierra Leone. She runs a small food business which she set up with a loan from her VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association), supported by CARE.

There has been a drastic drop in sales and this has led to a decrease in household income. I cannot trade freely due to restrictions on social gatherings and this has scared customers from coming to my place to get food.

I was able to overcome the Ebola crisis as a business woman. I am planning to cope through embarking on vegetable farming and through my savings with my VSLA (Village Savings and Loan Association).

The VSLA has been an important source of livelihood for many families. It is the VSLA we run to when we want to take loan easily during crisis or no crisis time. The VSLA gives us the opportunity as women to sit together and talk on issues affecting us and at the same time advise ourselves about health-related issues.

Portrait of Soro Naminata in Ivory Coast

Soro Naminata is a peanut and cotton farmer in the Ivory Coast. She received training from CARE and is a member of a VSLA, set up with support from CARE.

Previously, I would spend all my money meeting expenses as they arose, whether they were useful or not, and I found myself with no products and no money. Now I can prioritise my income and not waste any of the money I earn.

I now have my own bank account and I feel very strong and different from my life a few years ago. CARE encouraged us to build a good relationship with the bank for the future and to deposit the income we earn.

I am proud of how much my life has improved. The money I earn through my business helps me to support my family and send my children to school.

COVID-19 has affected our life so badly that we are afraid and worried about the future. We can no longer sell our peanuts at the market to earn money for meals. In the future I see starvation and misery. But we are thinking about cultivating other crops, like beans, so we can eat better.

Women Mean Business: A Global Report on Women’s Entrepreneurship

CARE’s Women Mean Business report calls on decision-makers to support women-led micro and small enterprises as an explicit part of international COVID-19 responses.

The COVID-19 crisis risks losing decades of progress on women’s economic justice and rights. It creates an even greater urgency for investing in women entrepreneurs. Here’s what has to happen:

  • Provide immediate financial support, including cash grants to meet basic needs.
  • Ensure women’s voice, co-leadership, and balanced representation in decision-making bodies and processes.
  • Collect sex and age disaggregated data. Collecting this is essential to making informed decisions and providing gender responsive support to business owners and economic recovery.
  • Integrate gender analysis throughout the economic response to ensure relief packages reach women and meet their needs.

CARE’s recommendations for providing long-term support to women entrepreneurs:

  • Include low-income communities: When funding or supporting women’s enterprise development, ensure this includes women in low-income communities. Enterprise development in these communities provides a pathway to ending (extreme) poverty, advances gender equality and improves women’s economic justice and rights.
  • Invest in skills development: Support women with effective business, management, and life skills training to help them advance their businesses and provide a valuable contribution to their families, communities and economies.
  • Listen to women: Strengthen women’s visibility, collective voice and representation, for example by supporting role models. Take a participatory approach with women in the development of programming. Invest in redressing harmful social norms that restrict women.
  • Invest in peer support: Support the development of women’s groups and networks to help strengthen women's agency. Peer support can also increase access to finance, knowledge and skills.
  • Improve financial inclusion: Develop gender-specific financial products and services, for example by removing collateral requirements or offering alternative solutions, such as loans based on savings group transactions and activities.
  • Engage men and boys: Men are critical partners in increasing women’s agency by sharing unpaid care responsibilities, supporting enterprise development and increasing women’s access to markets, products and services.
  • Improve the business environment: Work together with local, regional and national governments to: allocate funding; increase participation in decision-making; improve accessibility for women, such as more accessible business registration processes and better access to markets.
  • Support the business case and knowledge base: Gather evidence on value generation and business development, and collect sex and age disaggregated data on enterprise development.

Read the full report:

Women Mean Business: A Global Report on Women’s Entrepreneurship

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News and stories are provided by CARE staff working to support our emergency responses and long-term development programmes.