The West Africa Trade and Investment Hub’s gender expert discusses women and COVID-19

By Rebecca Sewall

May 4, 2020   |   0 comments

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Creative’s Senior Advisor for Gender and Social Inclusion, Rebecca Sewall, sat down (virtually!) with Chioma Ukwuagu, the Gender Advisor for the USAID-funded West Africa Trade and Investment Hub, to talk about how the project’s goals of providing female entrepreneurs greater access to capital and jobs, breaking down cultural barriers in the business world and the potential impact of COVID-19 on women’s advancement in the region.  

Rebecca: Why is empowering female entrepreneurs and business leaders a key objective of the West Africa Trade and Investment Hub and how is the project addressing the disparity between male and female entrepreneurs? 

Chioma: First, entrepreneurship is important for job creation and economic growth, and this task should not be left in the hands of men alone.  

Though we know that supporting women entrepreneurs can help promote gender equality and spur economic growth, because female entrepreneurs are often stuck at the micro and medium sized level businesses and unable to grow due to a range of factors, we are still far from achieving this. These factors include deeply rooted social norms, limited access to productive resources, such as land, credit, capital and information, and exclusive networks.  

Chioma Ukwuaga, Gender Specialist for the West Africa Trade and Investment Hub

More recently, the technology gender gap further widens and cripples the growth potential of women entrepreneurs. The Trade Hub has extensively examined these factors inhibiting women entrepreneurs and is working to address them. 

The Trade Hub as a grants and co-creation facility presents a platform for equal opportunity access to applicants by designating a participant target of 50 percent women both for the catalytic grants and for the technical assistance. The Annual Program Statements (APS) call included a mandatory criterion on gender/youth accountability for potential grantees to show how they as companies will implement activities that promote women’s participation and leadership.  

Rebecca: How is the Trade Hub ensuring that female-owned enterprises and female producers benefit from project activities to the same extent as men?  

Chioma: We are aiming to address this gap from the onset of the project’s lifespan by specifically targeting women-led firms and business ventures that have a high potential to facilitate women’s economic inclusion.  

The Trade Hub liaises with women’s associations, influential women’s networks and groups, as well as government agencies to raise awareness about the fund and to encourage women businesses to get involved. The Trade Hub participates in external meetings with stakeholders with similar agendas in advancing womenowned businesses, such as the She Trades Program of the International Trade Centre (ITC), Nigeria Export Promotion Council (NEPC) and the Federal Ministry of Women’s Affair and Social Development. More importantly, the APS language strongly encourages female-owned enterprises and producers to apply for any of the Trade Hub’s activities. The Trade Hub developed a short-list of female-owned firms, women’s business associations and networks and directly shared the APS call with them. 

Rebecca: What are some of the biggest challenges facing women in the region and how is the Trade Hub addressing them?  

Chioma: The experiences of female entrepreneurs are similar across West Africa. Women-led businesses are largely characterized as having less capital, less technology, fewer employees, lower production, more limited market relations and are less likely to export than firms owned by men. These disparities are often caused by: 

Social norms and unpaid care work. Social norms exert strong influence over the strategic choices that female entrepreneurs make and can constrain their ability to grow their businesses. 

Limited opportunities for business development training. Few training programs and technical support for technological innovations, finances and organizational development involve women. Developed approaches and training conditions do not often consider their work calendar, roles and social status. 

Access to networks and information. Women often do not have the same access as men to large and diverse social networks that can support the growth and competitiveness of their business. They are faced with constraints that limit their opportunities, mobility, and time for productive work. 

Legal discrimination. Women entrepreneurs cannot have equal economic opportunity if a country’s laws restrict a woman’s ability to own and run a business. Women often face barriers from customary law.      

Risk of gender-based violence. Widespread gender-based violence (GBV) takes a toll on women’s health and well-being, which hinders their ability to run their businesses effectively. Working outside of the home may put women at risk, while some women may view self-employment as a way to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace.  

The Trade Hub is prioritizing grants that demonstrate the potential to engage sizable numbers of women and youth. Through the co-creation process, the Trade Hub is negotiating with partners for the types of changes that need to be made in proposals in order to address identified gender constraints. For companies that have not worked with many women or vulnerable groups, during the co-creation process, the project explores ways to ensure a more equitable representation, including products and services offered by women 

The Trade Hub also ensures that the applicant companies have policies related to representation of women on their boards, handling issues around discrimination and treatment of sexual misconduct complaints.   

Rebecca: The private sector can play an enormous role in advancing women’s economic participation. In West Africa, not all businesses have taken up that call. Why do you think this is, and what will the Trade Hub do to grow the private sector into an area in which women can thrive economically?

Chioma: The private sector is and should be an essential ally in advancing the women’s economic empowerment movement. The private sector has an extraordinary leverage that can help balance the equality scale because they employ a significantly higher proportion of the labor force than the public sector, and their value chains touch all strata of the economy. They have enormous power to bring about transformative change through inclusive hiring and promotion policies, market expansion, workforce development, and procurement spending, but in West Africa this idea hasn’t yet taken off. Depending on the context, the private sector is faced with unique challenges, such as limited access to resources, cultural bias and limiting regulations 

Rebecca Sewall, Senior Advisor for Gender and Social Inclusion at Creative Associates International.

Rebecca: Do you think given the current COVID-19 crisis is going to make more female-owned firms vulnerable to going under? 

Chioma: The general sentiment is that whatever the impact of COVID-19 on businesses, it will be even greater for those owned by women. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is not gender neutral, as it affects men and women differently.  

But because women have historically faced difficulties in running businesses whether because of cultural norms or other factors, they will be left with even fewer options and thus are at a higher risk of bankruptcy. As schools and childcare facilities close in response to COVID-19, women are further burdened with increased childcare responsibilities. And when quarantines are in effect, the risk of domestic violence against women increases while support services for victims decrease. In my opinion, the coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo much of the progress female entrepreneurs have made over the years.  

There is an ongoing national survey on the impact of COVID-19 on women-owned businesses in Nigeria managed by Nigeria’s SME Impact Investment Platform and the Nigerian Association of Chambers of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture, in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. The survey examines how the crisis is affecting women entrepreneurs. It also provides the opportunity for SMEs owned by women to make policy recommendations for considerations by relevant authorities such as the Small Medium Enterprise Development Agency of Nigeria (SMEDAN), Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and the Bank of Industry (BOI). The Trade Hub is collaborating with the organizers to get data that can better inform interventions.  

Rebecca: If so, what makes female-owned firms more vulnerable? 

Chioma: Women entrepreneurs are often discriminated against when attempting to access credit. This will be a challenge as credit will be of paramount importance in the survival of firms and businesses in the wake of the pandemic. Without open and favorable lines of credit, many female entrepreneurs will be forced to close their businesses. 

In a recent webinar hosted by the Lagos Business School (LBS) with the theme Maintaining supply flows through disruption, a financial analyst opined that inflation will rise to about 19 percent given the devaluation of the Naira and the government’s inability to manage it. The implication is higher interest rates, decreased purchasing power by citizens and another wave of poor revenues by companies.  Because the government does not have bailout capacity, I do think that many companies will go under, including womenowned companies and small holder farmers 

Rebecca: How can the Trade Hub pivot its planned activities to be more responsive to the immediate needs of female-owned businesses to ensure that they don’t go under at a faster and higher rate than male-owned firms?  

Chioma: As stated, even without the pressure of the pandemic, women still experience serious challenges when seeking capital, loans and other financing that they need to start and grow businesses. When it comes to finance, women face hurdles from the lack of collateral to discriminatory regulations and gender bias. The Trade Hub will continue to ensure that it upholds its mission to empower women during these uncertain times.  

For instance, the Trade Hub is continuing to support initiatives that foster collaboration and networking opportunities among women entrepreneurs. Collaborating with other women, being part of networks and communicating more with others is vital to helping women gain the confidence to start their own businesses. In Nigeria, networking and non-profit organizations like Women in Management and Business and Public Service (WIMBIZ) among others are playing a strategic role in supporting and boosting female entrepreneurs.  

Rebecca: In economic downturns in the past, women often have been the first to leave the labor force. But when the economy picks up again, men assume women’s jobs and women aren’t able to regain the status in the labor market they once had. Do you envision something like this happening in the countries where the Trade Hub works? 

Chioma: Knowing that economic downturns have disproportionately affected women in the past, in West Africa with the Ebola crisis and others, we do expect COVID-19 to impact women’s economic gains. While the Trade Hub may not be able to predict the extent of the fallout from the pandemic, it will ensure that partners retain women’s productive participation in the labor force. 

Through the co-creation process, the Trade Hub is negotiating with partners for the types of changes that need to be made in proposals in order to address identified gender constraints and will consider COVID19’s impact on the private sector when making these assessments and recommendations in the future. 


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