Written by Lumula, Emelda, Insights & Knowledge Officer

In today’s ever-evolving business landscape, the potential of women-owned businesses is undeniable. Women-owned businesses continue to break barriers, driving innovation and reshaping industries worldwide. Yet, many hurdles still exist, including limited access to capital, resources, cultural issues, and support networks.

Recognizing the need to address these challenges and unlock the full potential of women entrepreneurs, AECF launched the Investing in Women in the Blue Economy in Kenya (IIW-BEK) programme with funding from Global Affairs Canada. This initiative aims to increase the performance sustainability of women and young women-owned micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs), improve the enabling environment, reduce systemic gender inequalities, discriminatory social norms, and barriers faced by women entrepreneurs, their smallholder producers and suppliers, including informal workers in the blue economy. The IIW-BEK programme targets commercial private sector enterprises by economically empowering women-owned enterprises with grants ranging from US$50,000-US$400,000 and US$15,000-US$50,000 for medium, small, and micro enterprises, respectively. 

This insight highlights how we have adapted our digital competition challenge-led approach to ensure the platform, criteria, term sheet, and fund promotion are curated to how women entrepreneurs relate to investments and pitching. Out of the 1,600 applications this massively over-subscribed competition attracted, three main items emerged; 

  • Women business owners are less able to market, pitch, and promote their business model in the context of a digital application form.  
  • Women and young women entrepreneurs consistently rate themselves poorly and hesitate to apply for funding opportunities, citing the stringent requirements as a deterrent. Many deem the application process too demanding, leading to a reluctance to engage. Additionally, many women and young women entrepreneurs operate informally and lack awareness of the benefits of formalization and compliance with levies and taxes. This informal status and the absence of business records pose challenges in accessing support and resources. 
  • Most applicants had never received an investment grant before and did not master the development finance lingo.   

Upon identification of these patterns, we redesigned our marketing and awareness-raising approach, integrating more in-person events,-including investment technical assistance as part of the competition process and mentoring the long list of candidates to improve their leadership and presentation skills.   

One of the top applicants in the SME window from Siaya County, involved in the production of fish feeds and fingerlings with a US$ 277k  turnover in 2022 and a projection of US$790k in 2025, presented a functioning and compelling business but was unable to articulate her business model, clearly demonstrate her pathway to growth and strong leadership skills. AECF’s pre-investment support mentored and coached her to refine her business model and enhance her presentation skills, strengthening her sense of ownership over her business and empowering her to show up as a leader. The case underscores the importance of targeted support and empowerment coaching pre-investment. Technical assistance strengthened the business’s presentation and facilitated the owner’s deeper involvement in her enterprise, ensuring that her business received the recognition it deserved. This highlights the transformative potential of tailored support programs in bridging the gap between women entrepreneurs and access to funding, ultimately fostering their success and contribution to economic growth. 

In Kwale, a leader of a women’s group comprising over 200 members staunchly opposed the notion of funding exclusively targeting women. Instead, she advocated for men to receive funding, arguing that they are better suited to provide for their families while women manage household responsibilities. This resistance underscores the deeply entrenched gender inequalities within communities, perpetuated by cultural norms and expectations. Such stereotypes are significant barriers to women’s economic empowerment and emphasize the imperative of addressing gender biases in entrepreneurship support initiatives. 

Although much still needs to be done to close the investment gap for women-led and owned SMEs in the blue economy, AECF is learning how to curate its digital challenge-led competition approach to the specificities of niche markets such as the blue economy. This learning includes dealing with the diverse realities of women operating at different levels in the value chains and how they perceive and approach entrepreneurship, access to investment, growth, and leadership.