From entrepreneurship to education: how empowering women can help their children learn

Women’s entrepreneurship helps reduce poverty, promote gender equality and empower women. But it has another impact – providing women with the means to improve the health of their families and finance the education of their children. Two ILO projects in Africa funded by Irish AID are showing how learning business knowledge and skills not only creates jobs, but also extends empowerment to the future, promotes decent work and the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. ILO Online reports.

Article | 16 June 2008

Geneva (ILO Online) – If education is the right path to a better future, is the empowerment of women and entrepreneurship a direct path to education?

So it would seem on the basis of a series of interviews conducted over the past year with women in a number of African countries who received training via the Women’s Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality (WEDGE) and Developing Entrepreneurship among Women with Disabilities (DEWD) Projects and published in a new report entitled “Voices of Women Entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia”.

In nearly every case where the women learned business knowledge and skills, about access to new markets and financing, support services and how to join networks and groups, they consistently channelled their new-found empowerment and income into making sure their families had the resources to send their children to school instead of out to work.

Take the case of Almaz. The disabled veteran of Tigray had never attended school herself, only receiving some training while serving. After demobilization due to an injury, she enrolled in ILO-supported training in Basic Business Skills for women entrepreneurs to learn about market research, profitability, product and location.

The business training made her realize that the market for her existing skills in food retailing was saturated. A few weeks later, with a move to a new home in Mekele town and the business information still fresh in her head, she seized a new opportunity as a butcher. Now she generates monthly revenues averaging Ethiopian Birr 15,000 (approximately US$ 640) and uses the profits to send all three of her children to school. She is also a major contributor to livelihood of her family.

In Uganda, Benedicta and her group, the Kinawataka Women’s Development Initiatives, tell a similar story about the benefits of learning for adults, and how this translates into education for children, with a slight twist – many of her peers have a disability. Their work involves taking straws and other products that would normally be cast away and turning them into saleable products.

“We are a group of women of various categories–HIV positive, single mothers, widows, orphans and women with disabilities”, she says. “We started little by little in 1998, but the project of using straws started in 2006.

Benedicta teaches other women her craft, inspiring them to create business opportunities for themselves. This includes training in how to display products, advertise and prepare for exhibitions and trade fairs provided by the ILO’s implementing partner, the Ugandan Women Entrepreneurs Association. The products produced a record sale of Ugandan Shillings 277,400 for last November, or approximately US$ 167 – more than three times her lowest monthly sales before training – and global recognition of the hand-woven products, made from recycled plastic straws, and other non-biodegradable waste items.

Like Almaz, Benedicta spends most of her income providing for her family and eight orphans whose parents have died due to war, HIV/AIDS or poverty.

“I can feed them unlike before”, she says. “My children, who were not in school, are now in school. So, this project really helped me a lot. I have really benefited.”

Both Almaz’s and Benedicta’s experiences mirror those of hundreds of other women entrepreneurs who now own and operate their own businesses in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. All have benefited from ILO-supported training that formed part of the ILO-Irish Aid Partnership Programme on “Promoting Women’s Entrepreneurship Development and Gender Equality (WEDGE) and Developing Entrepreneurship among Women with Disabilities (DEWD).

The programme enhances the economic opportunities for women entrepreneurs, including women with disabilities and those living with HIV/AIDS, by building the capacity of governments, communities and organizations representing workers and employers to support all stages of their economic development.

This involves use of a broad range tools and resources created by the ILO to assist business development service providers and new or existing entrepreneurs in developing effective and practical techniques for managing their businesses. The ILO programme called “Improve Your Exhibiting Skills” (IYES) is among the innovative training tools expressly developed to improve market access for women entrepreneurs through the organizing of trade fairs and exhibitions.

These women-owned businesses range from construction to food processing, education to handicrafts. One of the predominant themes emerging from the personal stories recently collected from the partnership programme in the booklet “Voices of Women Entrepreneurs in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia” just published by the ILO is that women with economic power and direct control over their income or other key economic resources such as animals or land, are likely to contribute to their children’s education and health and, indirectly, their countries’ income growth. What is more, their personal experiences reveal that as entrepreneurs they have greater personal and financial autonomy, an increased role in household decisions, more influence as community leaders and can serve as role models for other aspiring women entrepreneurs – despite barriers to starting and growing businesses due to gender, disability and HIV/AIDS status.

“The personal stories collected not only underscore the increasingly vital and effective role that African women play in the micro and small business sectors, but also how they use the income generated from their businesses to contribute to the economic well-being of their families directly and indirectly to their country’s economy”, says Joni Simpson, Specialist and Coordinator for Women’s and Youth Entrepreneurship at the ILO. “Equally important, their stories show that the ILO-IRISH AID Partnership Programme is a good model for reducing the vulnerability of women’s enterprises because of its focus on promoting equal opportunities for training and development, membership in associations and groups that advocate on behalf of women entrepreneurs, and increased access to financial services and new markets.”

For Mwantatu, a woman in Zanzibar who has grown a business from an informal, part-time activity carried out in her home to a real business providing services such as decorating the hands and feet of women with henna, the value of training and economic empowerment is very clear.

“I am very proud of my achievements in building up the business. I have been able to improve my family situation by constructing a house and sending my five children to good schools”, she says.