The 14th Give a Day event spotlighted the shifting dynamics of Cambodia’s women entrepreneurial ecosystem and the critical need to amplify the support for women entrepreneurs as well as the concept of Gender Lens Investing. The event, which took place at the Khmer Enterprise HQ on June 8, 2023, featured keynote speaker Sabine Joukes, Chief of Party, Country Director – Pact Cambodia WE Act.
Sabine outlined how the WE Act project, backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Pact, has been working diligently since 2018 to equip young women entrepreneurs with the skills, business linkages, and the platform to voice their needs in the ecosystem. The initiative aims to bolster urban-based micro, small, and medium businesses owned by young women in cities like Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville.
The Entrepreneurial Ecosystem’s Six Pillars
Speaking about the entrepreneurial ecosystem’s six pillars—access to finance, markets, human capital, policy and leadership, support structures, and entrepreneurial culture— Sabine revealed both advancements and persistent challenges.
“We have seen tremendous growth in networks and services in the last five years,” Sabine stated, acknowledging the strides made. “Yet, there are still fundamental challenges, particularly with the overlap of Entrepreneurial Support Organizations. We are discussing with Khmer Enterprise the need for a uniform vision going forward.”
Sabine also underscored the struggles faced by the ecosystem beyond Phnom Penh, exacerbated by COVID-induced travel restrictions. On human capital, she emphasized the abundance of training opportunities, particularly in digital and e-training skills. However, the need for more advanced training and a mindset shift among women entrepreneurs trying to shoulder all business aspects remain issues to address.
“Support structures have seen an upswing, thanks to Khmer Enterprise and other ecosystem players. But, the lack of mentorship and role models for young women entrepreneurs remains an unaddressed issue over the years,” Sabine noted.
Discussing finance, she detailed how WE Act, partnering with Wing Bank and Boost Capital, created a financial product that women entrepreneurs without a registered business or collateral could access at fair market rates. This product has shown promising results, with non-performing loan rates on par with general market loans.
Turning to entrepreneurial culture, Sabine reflected on the slow but essential cultural changes that are encouraging women to venture into businesses. However, she called for more changes, especially in rural areas where traditional expectations of women remain entrenched.
On market access, Sabine recognized the e-commerce boom as a significant game-changer. Yet, concerns about unfair competition, especially when local products compete with those from Vietnam and Thailand, need to be addressed from both a policy and marketing perspective.
Touching upon policy, Sabine highlighted the Cambodian government’s commitment to encourage startups. But she pointed out the persisting confusions around the various ministries’ roles and the complications of managing a registered business, including taxation burdens.
Improving Robust Network Support Structures
In her keynote, Sabine also highlighted the need for an all-encompassing ecosystem that can uplift women entrepreneurs, particularly those beyond urban centers. “The key to successful business growth lies in robust network support structures,” Sabine began, emphasizing the necessity of creating these frameworks in areas where they may not currently exist.
“Mentorship programs hold substantial significance in this context. They can impart crucial knowledge and connections that new entrepreneurs require to navigate the complex business landscape,” she added. Sabine further recommended these initiatives to be spearheaded by professionals from the same or nearby regions to ensure the relevance of cultural and contextual nuances.
One of the notable challenges that entrepreneurs encounter, particularly in rural areas, is understanding the roles and responsibilities of various government departments. On this, Sabine advised, “It is of paramount importance to clarify the duties of different line ministries, including licensing and permits. Governments can simplify these processes by providing clear, accessible information, and direct assistance to businesses.”
Sabine went on to advocate the leverage of e-commerce platforms, explaining how they can extend the reach of businesses beyond geographical boundaries. “Entrepreneurs in rural areas need support to effectively utilize these platforms to grow their customer base and enhance their competitiveness, while also being realistic that e-commerce is not an effective sales-platform for everyone,” she suggested.
Governments To Engage More With Local Businesses
She also urged local governments to engage more with local businesses to better understand their needs and challenges. “Through active engagement, governments can identify opportunities that boost competitiveness and formulate policies that encourage the growth and development of local businesses.”
The importance of local governments harnessing support networks, like associations, in engaging with businesses was also stressed. “These networks, collating member concerns, can help facilitate crucial dialogues with government and shape policies for better competitiveness and growth.”
Sabine further underscored the need for entrepreneurs to acquire both hard and soft skills. “Marketing skills are integral to understanding customer needs and promoting products, while soft skills like leadership, communication, and problem-solving are critical for long-term business success,” she stated.
Sabine called for inclusivity in ecosystem building, stressing the importance of creating spaces for marginalized groups, including women. “Joint visions and tangible outcomes should be pursued, addressing systemic barriers and promoting diverse, positive role models,” she suggested.
Discussing the impact of digital revolution on businesses, Sabine pointed out the necessity of digital readiness. “We should provide support to help rural entrepreneurs elevate their digital readiness. This encompasses promoting digital literacy, providing affordable internet access, and facilitating the use of digital tools and platforms.”
In concluding her speech, Sabine highlighted the importance of evolving financial services. “Financial services and products should be designed in a way that bridges the gap between finance suppliers and consumers, particularly focusing on the unique contexts and challenges of rural and urban areas,” she concluded.
Increasing Awareness About Gender Lens Investing
During the group breakout sessions, four groups discussed the subject of gender lens investing within the startup ecosystem. The discussion emphasized that gender lens investing extends beyond merely investing in women-owned startups. Instead, it encompasses the entire value chain, providing support to women within a wider ecosystem.
“Gender lens investing involves considering the needs and challenges of women at every stage of the process,” one participant explained. “For instance, when we notice that the products offered by financial services exclude women, we work with these institutions to address the issue. This would fall under gender lens investing.”
The breakout sessions also summarized the potential ways the ecosystem could support women entrepreneurs and the relevant stakeholders. They underscored the need for increasing awareness about women entrepreneurship in rural areas and beyond Phnom Penh through strategic marketing initiatives.
“One pivotal aspect is to create awareness among men about the role they can play in supporting women’s startup ambitions,” a participant highlighted. The group also underscored the significance of role models in showcasing to women that their goals are indeed achievable.
The participants divided the concept into three parts: individual, community, and social responsibility. “Women should have ample opportunities for skills development in literacy, soft skills, digital proficiency, and more,” one participant commented.
“At the community level, it’s important that families and communities understand the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs. They need time to focus on their businesses and expansion.” On the social responsibility front, the government, associations, and ESOs need to comprehend how their policies impact women entrepreneurs and implement accessible and flexible programs.
Responding to the second question about barriers to gender lens investing, the groups highlighted the need for clear guidelines from the government. “Many investors and businesses are not aware of the specific guidelines necessary to fully integrate policy into their operations,” a participant noted. Another group pointed out the importance of promoting the business case to investors to showcase the value each business adds.
“The gender lens is a more holistic way to look at investment,” another participant pointed out. “It examines the entire supply chain and customer base in assisting women.”
Give A Day: Under The 3Ei Initiative
The event was the first held since the re-launch of Give a Day by Khmer Enterprise and Swisscontact, under the pioneering Enhancing Entrepreneurial Ecosystem and Investments (3Ei) initiative. “The 3Ei initiative is designed to boost collaboration within the entrepreneurial ecosystem and stimulate impact investing in Cambodia,” a representative from Khmer Enterprise shared.
The project aligns with the Royal Government of Cambodia’s Digital Economy and Society Framework for the 4th Industrial Revolution, recognizing the potential of digital transformation.
“Believing startups to be key drivers of the nation’s economy, the government aims to strengthen entrepreneurship, especially among Small and Growing Businesses (SGBs). These SGBs contribute a staggering 58% to the GDP and generate 70% of employment,” the representative added.
With the insights shared during the 14th Give a Day event, a path to harnessing gender lens investing and promoting women entrepreneurship seems clearer, providing a promising outlook for Cambodia’s startup ecosystem.