Skillpower showcases the incredible stories of women entrepreneurs around the world who have fought against the odds to succeed. Behind the scenes, CARE is working hard to support and encourage these women to be the best that they can be. Guillaume Aguettant is the Country Director of CARE in Ivory Coast and shares his own reflections on these inspirational women.
Guillaume in Ivory Coast
I first started working for CARE in Ivory Coast back in 2002 when I was asked to set up the CARE Ivory Coast operation. A lot has changed since then and we are constantly having to adapt and change to local need.
Ivory Coast is a beautiful country in West Africa and one of my favourite places to work. It has a population of over 20 million and gained independence from France back in 1960. Following independence, it was one of the few countries in West Africa that prospered and it is now the biggest producer in the world of cocoa. The people are kind and welcoming and over 30% of our population are immigrants from neighbouring countries, who mostly came to farm cocoa or to look for jobs during the economic growth. Since the 1990s, however, there’s been quite a bit of political unrest.
In Abidjan, the capital city, if you walk in the Plateaux quartier you could almost imagine you were in a modern city like New York, but as soon as you head out to the rural areas it’s like entering another world. Here you’ll find a traditional picture of West Africa. The infrastructure is very limited, in particular the roads, health centres and schools.
Ivory Coast is a patriarchal society and the women face many barriers, especially in the rural areas. Women are often taking care of the kids and the household, holding down two or three jobs and trying to get an education. There is not enough recognition for this. I want what these women want, for them to be valued and recognised.
One of the biggest problems is not being able to access any formal financial services, so they can’t build up bank savings or take out loans. One of the issues is around land ownership which is very informal, particularly with all the immigration. Land is often used as collateral against a loan but where ownership records do exist, they are usually in the man’s name.
One of our solutions to this problem is our flagship Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs). We introduced VSLAs as a way to bring financial services to rural areas and offer groups of people a safe way to save money and access small loans. They’ve been a huge success in Ivory Coat and we now have over 180,000 members in 7,000 groups, 80% of whom are women.
Through our Women in Enterprise project we are providing aspiring entrepreneurs with the skills they need in entrepreneurship, financial management, income and expenditure and handling profits so that they have a stronger understanding of what it means to take out loans. We need to set up these women to succeed and not fail. We need to be careful that we are supporting them so that they have the capacity to repay loans and that the loans are really helping them to grow their enterprises.
The VSLAs and our training programmes offer a great grounding in learning and developing financial skills. Where women need larger loans to grow their businesses we have established partnerships with two microfinance institutions (MFIs). MFIs enable women to open a formal bank account and earn some interest on their savings, as well as take out larger loans. In partnership with the MFIs we have provided financial training for hundreds of women, and we have also trained the MFI staff so they have a better understanding of working with rurally isolated and low-income women. Through these partnerships we have supported over 500 women to develop their business plans so that they can take out bigger loans and expand their businesses. It’s been a great success and we have seen a 100% repayment rate on loans.
Unfortunately the bigger commercial banks see women as ‘risky’ clients and they are hesitant to take them on as customers, particularly in rural areas. We are working hard to try and change that, but it’s a very long process.
As well as helping women entrepreneurs with financial skills we are also helping them to get a better understanding of the value chains they are working in, such as farming cassava, shea butter and peanuts. We are helping them to open up their markets beyond the village level so that they can see what is dynamic in their village, in their region and even in their country.
One of the ways that we inspire women entrepreneurs is through role models. We are working with five incredible women who come from every corner of the Ivory Coast. They are all running million dollar businesses but all started with no education and no capital. These women have amazing charisma and have already inspired thousands of other women.