– What stands between Soi Cate Chelang and her dream of turning her small pallet-making business into a major enterprise is capital.
In Kenya, Chelang may well be a pioneer in making seats out of wooden pallets — the flat pieces of wood used to support goods or containers during shipping.
While she has no formal training in carpentry, Chelang tells IPS that she comes from a long line of carpenters, having trained under her grandfather and uncle. And what she doesn’t know, she learns from online lessons on carpentry.
She started the business more than a decade ago — before anyone else was doing it — and her products have been popular with consumers.
“My designs stand out because I combine many different elements. It is not just about turning wood into a seat. I use colourful fabrics and female clients enjoy fabrics that brighten their homes. I also make kids furniture from pallets and use fabric that have popular cartoons on them,” she expounds. Chelang sells her three-seater household pallet sofa for 100 to 300 dollars, depending on the design and material used.
Clients seek her services through her social media pages where she markets her products under the name Soi Pallet Designs.
But the 35-year-old is worried that the opportunity to cash in on her unique designs is passing her by.
“I do not have the money to set up a proper workshop and showroom. I cannot apply for contracts to make pallet seats for major entertainment clubs in the city because I do not have capital to finance such big orders,” she says, explaining that such clubs are interested in her designs.
“I managed to take one order of 5,000 dollars in 2018 because one of my mentors provided me with the capital to finance the order,” she says.
But that was a once-off. Because without collateral, she says, the banks will grant her a business loan. So for now she has to make seats to order. Even in this instance her clients must first pay 30 to 50 percent of the total cost to enable her to purchase materials and pay for some of her labour costs.
“I work with three carpenters who I pay on a daily basis. We only take one order at a time because I do not have a proper workshop and I cannot afford to hire more carpenters,” Chelang expounds.
The circumstances have served to confine her business to her home in Kisumu City some 350 kilometres away from Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
But Chelang’s inability to expand her business is not a new story. According to the MasterCard Index of Women Entrepreneurs 2017, a lack of capital is one of the major challenges facing women doing business in Africa today, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
This is despite data by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report of 2017-18 showing that sub-Saharan Africa has taken the lead as the only region where women form the majority of self-employed individuals.
Aware of the financial constraints facing women in business, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is making concerted efforts to address the widening financing gap between male and female entrepreneurs in Africa.
The pan-African bank has placed the financing gap between male and female entrepreneurs across Africa, at a whopping 42 billion dollars.
To address this gap, the African Heads of State launched the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) programme back in 2016.
By using a holistic approach, this affirmative action programme will address the major factors preventing women in Africa, including the access of financial products and services such as loans. Consequently these financial services will also be accessible and affordable as well.
AFAWA finance will unlock three billion dollars in credit for women in businesses and enterprises in Africa. Towards this goal, this programme will work with existing commercial banks and microfinance institutions to engineer lasting structural changes, to the benefit of women across the continent.
Further, there will be a rating system to evaluate financial institutions based on the extent to which they lend to women, and the consequent socio-economic impact. Top institutions will receive preferential terms from the pan-African bank.
Financial experts such as Irene Omari say the AFAWA is important for women’s financial inclusion. A banker and leading entrepreneur in the Lakeside City of Kisumu, Omari tells IPS that “banks do not take female entrepreneurs seriously. Banks are still a long way from embracing women doing business. We are still considered very high risk by financial institutions because we lack collateral”.
As the sole proprietor of Top Strategy Achievers Limited, a multi-million-shilling branding and printing company, she is all too familiar with the financial challenges facing women in business today.
“I started working at 23 years old in the hospitality industry. I would also act as a middle person between branding companies and clients. In Kisumu City this services were hard to find. I saved every coin that I made and used it as capital,” she says.
Omari registered her company in 2013. She began operations in the same year while still employed at a local bank. “My salary paid the two staff that I had in the beginning, office rent, and all other overheads until the company could stand on its feet,” she says.
She says that because women, like Chelang, are not considered bankable they are significantly constrained in setting up solid, physical infrastructures to drive the growth and sustainability of their businesses.
“This is the reason why women are in self-employment where they basically work for themselves and not in entrepreneurship where they bring as many employees on board as possible,” Omari expounds.
Francis Kibe Kiragu, a lecturer in gender and development studies at the University of Nairobi, tells IPS that while women have sufficiently demonstrated a desire to run their own enterprises, they suffer crippling financial exclusion.
“Women in self-employment or entrepreneurship are therefore driven by necessity and not innovation. They just want to meet their basic needs and as a result, they are perceived as contributing very little to the economy,” he observes.
Because of these challenges, he says that women are more likely than men to discontinue running a business. The GEM 2017 report confirms Kiragu’s assertions as it indicates that, while Africa may have the highest number of women running start-ups, the number of women running established businesses is lower.
In fact, in the sub-Saharan Africa region alone, there are two women starting a new business venture for every one woman running an established business, the report indicates.
“I started designing, making and marketing my pallet seats at 25 years old. Ten years later I am still facing the same financial challenges I faced when I started. Many times I have come close to abandoning this dream and finding employment,” says Chelang.
Through the AFAWA it is hoped that women like Chelang will soon be able to leverage financial instruments to their and their businesses’ benefit.