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FEATURE: Climate change, gender and obstacles to small enterprises’ adaptation – the case of Senegal

Social, financial and technical constraints affect the adaptive capacity of women entrepreneurs in Senegal, says Mamadou Diop, Researcher, IED Afrique, Dakar. This is one of a series of blogs on ‘Accelerating adaptation action in Africa’ published by CDKN to frame the Africa anchoring event of the Climate Adaptation Summit, January 2021. Read this article in French (Français).

In Africa, where the effects of climate change are widely felt, women are one of the most vulnerable groups, as a result of their socially-determined roles and responsibilities. They are disadvantaged in tackling climate impacts and also in coming up with effective responses to climate change.

In Senegal, the principal development sectors are natural resource-based and are vulnerable to climate change. This affects, in turn, the people who depend on those sectors for their livelihoods. Women, who make up 52% of the population, are active in rural life and in these climate-vulnerable sectors. Their vulnerability is further increased by their responsibilities as mothers and family care-givers.

In spite of this heightened vulnerability – compared to men – Senegalese women are undertaking multiple initiatives to adapt, within their socioeconomic and environmental contexts, by diversifying their income generating activities. They are increasingly engaged in entrepreneurship through the creation of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Many are based on activities such as market gardening, processing of crop and livestock products, etc.

However, their enterprising spirit is handicapped by a socioeconomic and environmental context marked by climate change. In this context, without question, the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events in semi-arid regions is taking a toll on these less-than-resilient SMEs.

Enterprising women but vulnerable SMEs, in the face of climate shocks

In the semi-arid regions of Senegal, female-owned SMEs are in the less-productive, natural resources-based sectors. This being the case, SMEs are characterised by their precarious existence – and their increased vulnerability to climate change.

Our study revealed that 90.03% of female small business-owners report being affected by an extreme weather- or climate-related event within the past few years.  The most-cited events are : lack of rainfall (40.48%), exceptionally heavy rainfall (30.95%), extreme heat (16,67%) and flooding (7.14%).

According to these women, the different knock-on effects created by these weather- and climate-related events include: employee absence (19.57%), absence of regular customers or clients (26.57%), lack of raw materials or supply chain disruption (56.52%), lower quality of raw materials than usual (52.17%) and lower customer demand for products (34.78%).

  • Numerous obstacles in spite of willingness to adapt

Often lacking in the same capacity for climate change adaptation as male entrepreneurs, women SME owners are confronted with several obstacles. These are tied in part to socio-cultural mores, access to finance, and to the political, economic and institutional environment in which they operate.

  • Beliefs and social constructions underpinning entrepreneurial status

In Senegal, socially-constructed gender relations are unfavourable to women, in many regards. They support the idea that women should be wives and mothers, and should stay within the family sphere, rather than striking out as entrepreneurs.

Several women in the study found their SMEs become threatened as a result of cultural alienation or their husband’s exercise of power. Also, in several cases women were forced to uproot and move their SME in order to follow their husband, if he was deployed to another town for his work. In addition, women’s numerous familial and social obligations are a heavy burden when they are trying to make their SMEs succeed in the larger context of climate change.

We observed that women have a tendency to use their homes as a business base or to establish their businesses not far from their homes. This is a result of women’s dominant roles in family life and their desire to juggle their professional, social and familial obligations. In addition to these many burdens which occupy a large part of their time, women also use their income (sometimes all of it) for feeding, and supporting the health and education of their children. In other words, use of the SMEs’ revenues are prioritised for meeting the family’s basic needs, and not for investing in technological innovation or modernisation of the small business.

  • The difficulty of accessing micro-finance

In Senegal’s semi-arid zones, one of the principal constraints for women entrepreneurs remains access to finance to reduce climate-related risks and develop their businesses. Despite the fact that 19.57% of women surveyed said they intended to take a loan in response to climate change impacts, nonetheless, 69.57% of respondents considered (lack of ) financing to be an obstacle for the continuation of normal operations. The proportion of female-led enterprises that have taken out a formal loan contract remains low. Among the group surveyed, 42.31% of loans are taken from family members or friends. Only 26.92% are contracted formally via micro-credit institutions or commercial banks.

This meagre take-up from formal financial institutions is connected to social norms and rules which hamper women entrepreneurs from having access to credit, and above all, to consistent funding. First, women entrepreneurs have difficulty in providing the necessary loan guarantees that financial institutions require. Very often, due to cultural and legal barriers, the woman seeking credit is neither the formal legal owner of the land, the house, or other asset that could serve as a financial guarantee against a loan. Furthermore, the low number of loans on offer, the high rates of interest on the loans (7-13%) and high administrative costs all discourage women from accessing finance.

Essential services and resources for adaptation that are out of reach

For women entrepreneurs, adapting to climate change requires access to services and resources – to enable them to plan and develop effective adaptation measures. Notably, they need relevant knowledge, capacity and corresponding budget. However, they are faced with various, intersecting obstacles, which prevent them from taking appropriate measures to respond to present and future climate risks:

  1. Lack of knowledge concerning climate change and its impact on SMEs;
  2. Difficulty in devising appropriate response measures;
  3. Lack of climate information relevant to their business;
  4. Lack of inhouse capacity ;
  5. Limited budget.

Paltry support in the face of numerous climate risks

Despite the institutional support provided to them, almost 96% of women surveyed claim to have not received any financial, material or technical support on the part of the government, the regional administration or any partner organisation to tackle the impacts of climate change. According to these women, the majority of services offered by the state support structures are relatively inaccessible to SMEs in the semi-arid regions. In the rare cases when these support structures appear at local level, they are criticised as being either non-functioning, overly-politicised, or burdened by complex procedural requirements.

According to women entrepreneurs, even if they are not victims of prejudice or political blackmail, they are most often obliged to belong to a particular group in order to benefit from certain support measures.

Accelerating adaptation action for women entrepreneurs in a changing climate

Several incentive-based measures could create a favourable enabling environment : they would address structural deficits and obstacles that limit women entrepreneurs’ adaptive capacity.

These comprise:

  1. Creating a gender-sensitive business environment;
  2. Providing access to information on the threats and opportunities of global warming and on tools that enable businesspeople to manage these;
  3. Facilitating access to formal banking institutions ; and also, growing the capacity of SMEs to tap in to climate finance. This could accompany initiatives by women entrepreneurs to integrate climate measures into their business models.

In order to achieve this, the state’s various support structures, along with the subnational bodies and their various partners, must commit to advancing gender norms and redressing gender power imbalances  in Senegal’s private sector. Doing so will lift the social, financial and technical constraints which affect women entrepreneurs’ adaptive capacity, and will improve their resilience.

Image: northern Senegal, pastoralist mother and child, credit Falik

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