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Women's enterprises in remote Pacific communities

Women's entrepreneurship in the Pacific has been steadily rising (© MORDI)
Women's entrepreneurship in the Pacific has been steadily rising

Women's entrepreneurship in the Pacific has been steadily rising. Big names such as Women in Business from Samoa and Hot Bread Kitchen in Fiji are firmly established successful enterprises driven by educated and confident urban dwelling women who have mastered the art of entrepreneurship. The story is different, however, in the remote rural areas of the Pacific where semi-literate shy women are far less experienced in the challenges of entrepreneurship. Their lack of information and basic training in running businesses, as well as lack of startup capital, are some of the barriers these women face in setting up commercial ventures.

Nestled between mangrove and pine forest, Waisa, a remote village on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu, has been struggling to develop a sustainable enterprise for some time. Located 25 kilometres from the nearest permanent road and 125 kilometres from the nearest town, Waisa is a small community of only 68 people. The worst affected are the women who lack gainful employment and a source of income: they make up half the population and all belong to the Waisa Women's Group.

The struggle begins

"The Waisa Women's Group has always dreamt of a group enterprise but we lacked the knowledge and skills," says Kesaia Rainima, the group's treasurer. To support the group and develop entrepreneurship ideas and skills, The Mainstreaming of Rural Development Innovations Program (MORDI*), which works to assist vulnerable communities in the Pacific Islands, helped the group develop development plans and income generation ideas through various participatory processes. Practical skills in running village-based businesses, proposal writing skills, and leadership skills were also provided in partnership with various NGOs, government departments and rural development education institutes.

Waisa Women's Group identified starting a village shop as a viable enterprise (© MORDI)
Waisa Women's Group identified starting a village shop as a viable enterprise

As the group gained confidence in their new skills, they identified starting a village shop as a viable enterprise. However, the group needed the capital for startup costs. "We applied for funding from the MORDI Program, which was approved on the condition that some group members attend a comprehensive business training course and then form the core operating committee of the shop," said Rainima.

On completion of their training, the shop opened for business amidst celebration of the women's achievement, and it made rapid progress. "We made good money because there are no other shops in the area," recalled Rainima. With this quick success, however, came a problem that almost crippled the enterprise: some women, who had not attended the training and were not directly involved, accused the committee of profiting personally. This caused disturbance in the previously peaceful community. "Women of the two parties stopped talking to each other. The village was divided and the atmosphere very disturbing," lamented Rainima. In a bid to resolve the conflict, the operation of the shop was handed to the accusers. This temporarily resolved the conflict, but the business started to suffer losses as the new operators had neither the knowledge nor skills for running a business. Soon, the shop was near bankrupt and close to collapse.

Rising to success the second time

"This issue was highlighted to us during a monitoring visit and an emergency meeting was convened," recalls Iliapi Tuwai, the MORDI Fiji coordinator. "The outcome of the meeting proposed a way forward and helped solve the misunderstandings. As a result, the originally trained women were reinstated. We started having monthly meetings, which provided a space for members to clarify issues, and this improved relationships promoting better ownership and unity," explained Rainima. A link was also arranged with another successful village shop in the district, an arrangement that helped the group to get backstopping support and mentoring. Exchange visits were also organised so that Waisa ladies could benefit from the best practices and experiences of the other project.

MORDI has conducted workshops to help the women develop their business skills (© MORDI)
MORDI has conducted workshops to help the women develop their business skills

The lessons from this experience have helped strengthen MORDI's monitoring and evaluation system so that future issues can be identified early and acted on as soon as possible. MORDI has also conducted workshops to help the women write up their shop operations and management procedures; transparent profit sharing, record keeping and business development procedures were also formulated with full participation and consent of all members. Owing to their good relationship with their suppliers, the group was also able to negotiate credit terms to re-stock their shop, and after much hard work the shop was brought back to life.

The MORDI Program continues to support the Waisa and other groups to become sustainable. Lessons learnt have been documented for sharing with other village-based projects across the Pacific. Meanwhile Waisa Women's group continues to grow their business, diversifying into other businesses, such as honey and virgin coconut oil production, to spread their risks and increase profits. "We are well aware of the future challenges but are confident that with a sound plan in place, good relationships with suppliers, support from village leaders, a mentoring network, and a stronger group of women who are passionate to take our enterprise to another level, we will do it," says Rainima. "The group hopes one day to be as well known as the big names like Women in Business and Hot Bread Kitchen."

* MORDI is aimed at supporting innovative, sustainable livelihood opportunities for the poor, vulnerable and isolated rural communities in Fiji, Tonga, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. MORDI also supports initiatives to give voice to rural populations so they are heard by policymakers and other public service providers.

Written by: Vikash Kumar

Date published: May 2011


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