Entrepreneur ExpertSpeak: Mauritian women must go beyond micro-enterprises
Mala Chetty, an active woman entrepreneur who performed the duties of President at the National Women Entrepreneur Council (NWEC), rued that most women entrepreneurs either remain small, or close their business within the first five years. (Image: Company)
Mala Chetty, an active woman entrepreneur who performed the duties of President at the National Women Entrepreneur Council (NWEC), spoke to AfricaMoney on the main barriers to the growth of female entrepreneurship in Mauritius. Our economic expert rued that most women entrepreneurs either remain small, or close their business within the first five years. She observed that, of the 3500 women entrepreneurs in the island economy, only 10% are in the small and medium enterprise space while as many as 90% are still at the micro-enterprise stage.
Edited excerpts from an exclusive interview:
According to you, what is the main barrier to the growth of female entrepreneurship in Mauritius?
First and foremost, there appears to be a cultural barrier preventing women from making it big in the entrepreneurship space. There is a constant refrain today that in the sphere of education, women succeed better than men do. It is important to ask ourselves what happens after education. Why do women fail in business? Why do they not have the courage to step forward to grow their small enterprises into big companies? It is not a bad idea to start with a small enterprise and to be careful with the finances because this ensures that they do not borrow a big sum of money and compromise their financial status. However, it has been observed that women-owned enterprises remains small or fold up within five years. These five years are a difficult phase in the life of a start-up and the reason women close their business within five years is that they come across difficulties. Personally, I feel that there is a problem in the growth of the company because women do not manage to sustain their business as they do not take the necessary risks at first and make do with micro-enterprise. It is important to note that of the around 3,500 women entrepreneurs on the island, 90% are in the micro-enterprise space and 10% are small and medium enterprises. And, what is even more important is to note that these 3500 women entrepreneurs do not even represent 5% of all the entrepreneurs on the island. There is room for entrepreneurship and through entrepreneurship, women can be rescued from poverty and unemployment.
What, according to you, are the main reasons for female unemployment in Mauritius?
Women should stop hiding behind closed doors after attaining success in education. It is said that a woman has the responsibility, arising from centuries of tradition and culture, to first and foremost, look after her family. Additionally, there are some lines of work which a husband may object to, for example, he may ask his wife not to work in the night shift in a call-center. When I was working at Gender Links, we did a television programme around women who are facing a tough time at home, but these women refused to be seen on television. Even though coming forward with their problem could help resolve it, they refused to do so because it is taboo. I can tell you that there are communities that agree to come forward and discuss their situation, but unfortunately, there are too many problems arising from blind adherence to tradition and culture which remain unsaid.
Could you please provide your views on what can be done in order to tackle the issue of female unemployment?
Firstly, we should introduce proximity solutions, which means that we should be ready to go to these people in their homes and should not wait for them to come to Port-Louis or even to the Ministry for assistance. We should also relocate support and promotion centers, so they are nearer to the poverty belts and thus, are easily accessible by needy people.
Furthermore, we should be ready to introduce flexi time hours at the workplace, with the knowledge that woman want to educate their children and be able to work at the same time. Also, there are many emerging sectors which would suit women well by allowing them to have a career without disrupting their family life. And, with technological advancements, women can easily work from home in several sectors and simply email their work across.
In addition, we must be ready to provide women with the necessary skills so as that they become entrepreneurs. If we do not encourage people to join the workforce and provide them with financial crutches in the form of pensions, it can pose a real problem for our country. We must be able to create an environment of dynamism so that people are encouraged to work to improve their livelihood.
Do you think that women entrepreneurs in Mauritius are well equipped to face the challenges of globalization?
As long as they remain micro-entrepreneurs, they face competition as they are not innovation-focused or export-oriented, and this makes it difficult to face the challenges arising from globalization. Globalization means having the ability to export as well as import, or in other words, free trade between countries. In spite of all the facilities provided by the government, such as participating in fairs in Mauritius and overseas, globalization is not a boost for small women entrepreneurs because they confront problems which are not faced by big SMEs, and they do not have the means or resources to export even within the region, leave alone farther overseas. Today there are many items being produced by women entrepreneurs that do not even make it to neighboring regions like Reunion Island, South Africa, Comoros and Mayotte.
According to you, what strategies can be put forward so that women entrepreneurs can get more visibility not only on the local market but also on overseas markets?
There are many strategies to be set up and others already in place. One of the strategies to boost female entrepreneurship is to help women participate in international fairs. As the president of NWEC, I organized a B2B between local women entrepreneurs and the non-governmental organization Femmes Chefs d’Entreprise Mondiale (FCEM), which has a vast presence across the globe. The initiative aimed to help micro-enterprises join hands with big firms for partnering them in production. In this context, a good model for women entrepreneurs lies in the space of leather shoe manufacture whereby Mauritian women can prepare the leather and the cutting can be done here, then sent to Italy for the finishing. Also, I work within the FCEM network and the JIZ network, which propose exchanges between the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) in terms of knowledge transfer. For several years, I worked with these networks and personally believe that partnership programs must be set up between women of the SAARC region – comprising India and Pakistan, among others – and SADC countries to help set up a production chain.
Moreover, what I would recommend to the government it is to create an observation center for entrepreneurship. It would be a major asset for the country and would enable Mauritius to lead the way by not only being the first country in the Indian Ocean but also in Africa to create an observation center for entrepreneurs.
This observation center will enable us to study entrepreneurship from different perspectives and identify viable projects for these women entrepreneurs, so that they can tackle competition head on. Incidentally, India is doing the same by creating projects for women and providing them with a remunerative package to undertake them.
SMEs are continually complaining of increase in unfair competition on the market from plush malls and international fairs. According to you, how is this impacting entrepreneurs and what could be the best way out?
Recently, at the Mauritius-Africa Partnership conference I asked the same question of Larry Farrell, founder of the California-based residential contractor firm Farrell Company, and he retorted saying, “trust is the door to success.” According to me, even though these women are manufacturing quality products and even though their SMEs are doing a great job, sometimes, the doors of the market simply stay closed to them.
I can tell you that I have intervened several times with the directors of supermarkets so that products by women entrepreneurs can be put on sale, but such discussions haven’t always been a success. Unfortunately, the same can be said of hotels – they are closed to Mauritian products, particularly those manufactured by local women entrepreneurs.
Research conducted by the Mauritius Research Council stated that “the main beneficiaries of the globalization process would be larger enterprises, at the expense of SMEs”. How far do you agree with that statement?
This statement is unfortunate but true. In every sector of the economy, larger enterprises will invade the market and will take over SMEs and it will be increasingly difficult for small enterprises to position themselves in any sector whatsoever. However, one must take into consideration that it is SMEs that employ the maximum number of people. By providing SMEs with facilities and by opening the market to them, there is no doubt that we will be able to tackle the problem of unemployment. Actually, this is precisely what many developed countries are doing, encouraging entrepreneurship and at the same time, doing their best to employ more people in start-ups so that unemployment can be tackled.
In addition, we must ensure that these projects are market-driven because in Mauritius, there is a mismatch between production and demand. When you go to Vietnam, Malaysia or Hong Kong, you get the impression that manufacturers are following the general consumption trend, but in Mauritius this is not the case, and production is not demand driven. We absolutely must create this connection between demand and supply to correct this mismatch.
Here, the work of the observation center mentioned earlier could help in tackling this mismatch. Furthermore, in creating this observation center we could be helped by tertiary institutes, such that they would help us identify new projects based on studies previously conducted. As you know, conducting research and bringing forwards facts is good practice but doing so and not looking for the right solutions to solve the problem at hand, is useless.
Finally, in your view, with the rapid changes on the market, what is the future of SMEs in Mauritius?
According to me, there is massive scope for development. We have the potential to expand 10 times more than what we have actually achieved. There are still many sectors that remain unexploited. There are many products that we are importing from India and that we can definitely produce locally. Moreover, we should not say that the market is overcrowded – I think there is enough space for development but what we need now is new incentives for entrepreneurs.