Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the young women entrepreneurs who Pact supports in Cambodia struggled to keep their businesses afloat.
Sabine Joukes leads Pact’s Women’s Entrepreneurs Act project, or WE Act, which is funded by USAID. When she thinks about the many business owners who inspire her – women who run restaurants, shops, wholesale operations and more – she thinks about the many challenges they must overcome just for their enterprises to exist.
“Women entrepreneurs face a unique set of challenges in Cambodia,” Joukes says. “Their educational opportunities are far fewer than those afforded to men. There is also a strong traditional cultural expectation that women stay at home to look after family and household chores.”
These are the kinds of social, systemic barriers that WE Act is trying to change. Working in the urban areas of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, the five-year project is helping young women entrepreneurs gain the knowledge and resources they need to be business and civic leaders. In addition to entrepreneurs themselves, WE Act partners with civil society organizations, the private sector, business associations and government institutions.
As soon as Covid-19 began spreading, Joukes and the rest of the WE Act team – now all working from their homes – knew the economic impacts for Cambodia would be significant.
“The tuk tuks are gone from the streets. The restaurants and street vendors have disappeared,” she says. “This is not a country with great resources to draw on. There are not many people who can afford to sit at home while their business is closed. We knew this was a time when we had to do whatever possible to continue supporting the women entrepreneurs we serve.”
Quickly, WE Act’s 16 local partners began working to move their activities online. Business trainings are now being offered digitally, with material adapted for the pandemic, such as added lessons on risk and cashflow management during downturns. Partners are also adding online support resources for dealing with stress and connecting with business-owner peers. Others are offering online coaching and mentoring.
In Siem Reap, a project partner that offers youth leadership and business skills courses for students had no idea how it would continue; before the pandemic, it operated from a center where students gathered in large groups. WE Act helped them shift to an online platform similar to Zoom so students can still interact as they learn, and the project is providing airtime credit for those who need it to participate.
Just before Covid-19, WE Act was set to launch trainings on online selling through a partnership with Facebook. “Of course now this is a skill that entrepreneurs need even more,” Joukes says, “so we were devastated when our master trainer from Facebook could no longer travel from the Philippines to train our local trainers.”
It took some creativity, but WE Act has figured out a way to gather trainers in a large space where they will remain a safe distance apart from one another while they learn and practice with the master trainer via video the skills they’ll need to train entrepreneurs.
WE Act has also launched an online survey for young women entrepreneurs to understand how Covid-19 is affecting them, in their businesses and beyond. Findings will be used to generate recommendations that will be passed to Cambodia’s government and that will inform WE Act’s future activities. A project partner that works with street vendors and market stall holders will be reaching out to them by phone to understand specifically how the situation is affecting informal workers to ensure their voices are heard.
The project is also exploring options with the private sector to develop a new flexible loan mechanism for informal business owners, as 98 percent of Cambodia’s young women entrepreneurs are unregistered with the government and therefore ineligible for government credit packages.
“We recognize that if a business was struggling before, then it certainly is now,” Joukes says.
WE Act and its partners have learned a lot over the past several weeks – about how different online learning can be compared to in person, about just how critical connectivity is in times such as this, and more.
“We’re lucky that our project targets urban centers, where a large portion of people can get online,” Joukes says, “but there have still been many challenges in this regard.”
Joukes expects many more shifts ahead.
“Before Covid-19, Cambodia’s economy was steadily growing, and that was the environment we were operating in. We anticipate that could be a significant change.”
Still, she is optimistic.
“Cambodia’s women entrepreneurs have shown us again and again their ability to overcome adversity. They will adapt, and we will, too, to continue serving them to the very best of our ability.”