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Learning from female entrepreneurship in Cambodia, Indonesia and Lao PDR

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The purpose of this working paper is to document learning about female entrepreneurship in other sectors beyond water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in order to better understand recent efforts to increase women’s involvement in WASH-related enterprises.
Previous research conducted by ISF-UTS found that little had been documented about the ways in which women were involved in WASH enterprises, or about the potential for women entrepreneurs to lead successful WASH businesses. Within the WASH sector more broadly, recognition of the value of women’s involvement, and of promoting gender equality in all aspects of WASH programming, including enterprises, has led to a desire to better understand women’s roles, opportunities and challenges in the private sector provision of WASH products and services.

Female entrepreneurs across many sectors contribute significantly to their communities and economies, despite the fact that in order to do so, they have to overcome barriers to finance, societal expectations around their roles in the home, and often have lower education levels in comparison to men. Levels of female entrepreneurship are also affected by the competing demands on women’s time beyond formal work, their ability to travel, their limited access to technology, and unequal rights within legal frameworks. There are large numbers of formal female-owned small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in emerging markets. However, the average growth rates of women’s enterprises are significantly lower than the growth rates of those run by men. Both female and male entrepreneurs are influenced by the business environments in which they operate, but these influencing factors are different for men and women due to the religious, cultural and economic norms of the societies in which they operate, as well as the competing demands that women experience beyond formal work.

The WASH sector in South-East Asia and elsewhere is increasingly looking to local enterprises to provide WASH products and services to boost levels of access. Private sector participation is encouraged in some contexts in order to fill gaps where government is not able or willing to provide services. For example, Vietnam has pro-private sector policies in place to attract Vietnamese and international businesses to the WASH sector, especially in regard small-scale piped water systems. Enterprises are also playing roles in rural sanitation in a number of countries, and their roles include masons and mason hands, small piped water system owners and operators, water filter salespersons, sanitation marketing representatives, soap and hygiene product salespeople, and water kiosk operators.

Despite high levels of entrepreneurial activity by women generally in South- East Asia, our research to date has found that women were not well represented amongst WASH entrepreneurs in this region, and at times they were completely absent. Research undertaken within the ‘Enterprise in WASH’ initiative also uncovered many barriers and enablers that impact on WASH entrepreneurs’ ability to run successful and sustainable businesses (Willetts et al., 2016). What is not known, however, is the extent to which these barriers and enablers are gendered – that is, if and how they are impacted by gender norms in particular contexts.

This working paper is based on the premise that when considering how it may be possible to support women’s involvement in WASH enterprises, it is important to understand female entrepreneurship overall within a country context. It is necessary to understand what challenges, opportunities, programs and strategies are already documented in relation to women establishing and working within micro-enterprises and SMEs. This working paper is the first step in a broader inquiry into women in WASH enterprises, and is based on desktop review of documented material in English.

Date: 3 January 2018