It’s 40 degrees Celsius and our skin is sticky. There is so much noise, people constantly moving, taxi drivers screaming directions, prices shouted, and sellers calling out to clients. The sun is rising, but inside the market it is completely dark. Pieces of cloth and large plastic bags protect the stalls, the food and the people from the rising heat of the day. The place looks like a beehive of activity.
We are in Fajardo, a retail market in Maputo, Mozambique, perfectly situated between the built-up city and one of its largest slums, Chamanculo. Inside a room, where the remaining paint is now a faded patchwork of beige, there are 40 women. Some are speaking in Changana, the local language. Others are reading the large pieces of papers stuck on the walls, deep in thought. They all sell produce, sitting on the floor around the market. Their products are the cheapest, often with the lowest profit margins.
It is time for another session of MUVA+, an intervention designed to enhance the life and business of the poorest female traders selling produce in urban markets. In a nine-week training followed by eight weeks of individualized mentoring, we combine business, management and self-efficacy skills training. The project is an initiative of MUVA, a program that designs, implements, tests and measures innovative approaches for women’s economic empowerment in urban areas.
Providing training for subsistence female entrepreneurs aiming to increase their revenue is nothing new, but MUVA does it a bit differently. We focus on fostering the individual aspiration by valorizing their experience and unleashing their potential, rather than focusing directly on their business and teaching the financial skills they don’t have. We also work on the social norms barriers that hinders dreams of personal achievement.
A crucial component of MUVA’s approach is to put the participants’ constraints at the centre of the process when developing solutions, while taking into account both the visible and invisible social norms and barriers they face. For us, gender is not only about working with women. To unlock barriers that diminish women’s potential to thrive economically, we combine the learning of hard skills—such as business skills and basic accounting—with access to opportunities such as opening a bank account or facilitating the access to alternative financial inclusion options and transferrable skills.
We build on the evidence from a randomized controlled trial study of a training aimed at enhancing the personal initiative of participants. The study, carried out by the World Bank’s Gender Innovation Lab (GIL) and Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation team challenged the “business as usual” approach by showing that enhancing personal initiative competencies in business, such as pro-activity and future-oriented mindset, increase profits more than acquiring classic business skills. For example, women who took part in the pilot personal initiative training in Togo saw their profits increase by 40%, while those who participated in the traditional business training did not see their profits increase on average.
The project combines this evidence with the commitment to put the participants experience at the heart of the learning process. We explicitly recognize that the ones who have “more skin in the game” are better able to define the problem they are facing and are also better suited to find solutions that are applicable to their situations. When we really “shut up and listen” we are impressed with the resilience and capacity of the women to overcome barriers. And we continue to listen. We listen every day.
One of the challenges that we face as implementers is the need to re-define our role as experts by letting go of the idea of the primacy of our business knowledge required a profound change in facilitation techniques and attitude. In MUVA+ we take seriously the premise that the experts in subsistence and informal entrepreneurship in urban markets are the women that have been managing their livelihoods for numerous years. How do we translate this in action? We support them to find their own solutions, providing tools that are used in design thinking and Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), a methodology that rests on the core principles of local solutions for local problems and trying, learning, iterating and adapting.
To deliver this, we don’t use teachers. We have facilitators that offer our participants a place where their entrepreneurship is recognized, valued and built on. Our responsibility is to use our expertise and social capital to guide the participants through their life plan, which includes growing their business and facilitating access through the doors that they could not open by themselves.
After a four-month training, one of our participants told us that she never thought of her as having a work that was worth something. Now she pays herself a monthly salary and calls herself an entrepreneur. When MUVA+ started, only 13% of participants confirmed that they did something in the previous three months to increase their sales. By the end of the project, that number had increased to 76%.
Two more cycles will be implemented this year, and more results in terms of change in profits and personnel empowerment of the participants will be coming soon. Stay tuned.
MUVA is DFID’s largest Female Economic Empowerment programme in Mozambique and has started to implement some of its successful approaches in other countries of Sub-Saharan Africa this year.