Collaborating to Enhance Women’s Business Skills

By Sevi Simavi, CEO, Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, and Rachel Barton, Managing Director for Accenture Strategy

Collaborating to Enhance Women’s Business Skills
Cherie Blair, Sevi Simavi and team with Yvonne at her cyber cafe. Credit: William Hirtle/Cherie Blair Foundation for Women.

After surviving the Rwandan genocide 21 years ago, Yvonne worked hard to rebuild her life. She now runs a busy cyber café on a bustling street in Kigali. She set up this business in 2011 and, in 2014, became one of the women to participate in ‘Skilling for Change’, an ambitious two-year project funded by Accenture and run in partnership between the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women and CARE International.

‘Skilling for Change’ aims to promote the long-term financial independence of over 15,000 Rwandan women, by providing a combination of mentoring, training and access to capital. Yvonne is one of the women who has been matched with a mentor – Barbara, the head of business operations at a global broadcasting company in London. Together, they have worked on strengthening Yvonne’s business strategy and generating new business. Over the course of a year, Yvonne’s confidence has grown and her turnover has increased by 17%. She is a vivacious entrepreneur, full of energy and optimism, with ambitious plans to take her business to even greater heights.

Rwanda has undergone extraordinary transformation over the last two decades, particularly in relation to the position of women in society. The Rwandan parliament is the first in the world where women hold a majority – an impressive 64% of seats. In recent years, new laws have increased women’s rights to inherit land and own matrimonial property and take decisions in matters of family property. Girls now make up 52% of students in secondary education. Economic growth has also been strong: between 2001 and 2014, real GDP growth averaged at about 9% per annum.

But challenges remain, particularly in the struggle to ensure that women are able to benefit from this growth. There are still many barriers which prevent women from accessing financial services, not only in Rwanda, but also globally. Of the unbanked worldwide, 55%, or 1.1 billion, are women. Targeting this gender gap and increasing financial inclusion holds transformative potential for Sustainable Development Goals five and eight, which relate specifically to achieving gender equality and sustainable economic growth.

Our ‘Skilling for Change’ project is taking concrete steps to increase financial inclusion in Rwanda in order to make these goals a reality. In the first year of the project we have provided training to over 9,000 women to help enhance their business skills, investment readiness and financial literacy. The training will give women the confidence and capability they need to access and use formal banking services. Strengthening women’s financial literacy skills will also encourage banks to view these women as an attractive market. A smaller cohort of 159 high performing women also completed an intensive training course, focused on key themes such as Rwanda’s regulatory environment, strategic planning and financial management.

We have also been working closely with Kenya Commercial Bank to develop a product which offers women access to savings and credit at an interest rate which is substantially lower than what is currently available to them through other financial institutions, such as Savings and Credit Cooperatives (SACOs) or Micro Finance Institutions (MFIs). Women can access this ‘mobile savings and loan solution’ using their mobile phones or through nearby agents, spending a fraction of the cost that they would have incurred in travelling to a bank branch.

Our ‘Skilling for Change’ project also includes a mentoring element, which supports women both within and beyond Rwanda. Over the last year we have supported over 470 women mentees from 33 countries, including 19 women from Rwanda, and we have developed a series of twelve ‘Business bootcamp’ webinars which are accessible to all mentees and mentors on our online mentoring platform.

Financial inclusion has become firmly installed on the global development agenda as a priority issue; it is also garnering the attention of governments and policy-makers. In Rwanda, for example, the government has set a target to have at least 80% of the Rwandan population be within five kilometres of a financial institution by 2017. It aims to reach 90% financial inclusion by 2020.

This is a laudable ambition. But it is vital that women are kept at the forefront of any policy attempts to tackle financial inclusion, not only because they are the most excluded demographic, but also because the repercussions of financially empowering women are enormous. After all, research shows that women plough the vast majority of their income back into their families and communities. Women entrepreneurs are the engines that will drive sustainable development.

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