From the Field: Women in Business

Q&A with TechnoServe's Esta Kamau on engaging women business leaders

This is our seventh and final post in our month-long #SheFightsPoverty campaign in honor of International Women’s Day 2016.

Esta Kamau

Esta Kamau is deputy chief of party for TechnoServe’s Solutions for African Food Enterprises (SAFE) program, which works in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia to support food processing businesses in the region. She joined TechnoServe in 2006 as a business advisor for the Young Women in Enterprise program and has worked on several TechnoServe programs in East Africa. She served in leadership positions on our Coffee Initiative and played a leading role in developing the youth entrepreneurship curriculum for the STRYDE program. Before joining TechnoServe, Esta studied international relations and worked in banking.

What are some of the challenges to women’s economic empowerment you’ve observed during your work at TechnoServe?

One of the big challenges which stands out, across the region and not just in Kenya, is education. Historically, there was a lot of emphasis put on educating more males than females. Because of that, even women who are educated, are challenged by finding their voice during their experiences in their businesses and workplaces. It seems that the major roles, the important roles are male dominated, so you find that the woman’s voice seems to be muted and they’re not as vocal. They could be educated, they could be very bright, but in many cases I don’t see women articulating or putting forth their agendas very clearly.

For example, the food processing industry tends to be women dominated when it comes to the employees because they want people who can do a lot of repetitive work and have an eye for detail. You find a lot of hard working and exceptional women who’ve been on the same roles for a long time, yet their male supervisors keep them on the same role and don’t encourage them or  give them the opportunity to grow and take on greater responsibility. However, in many women led/owned companies, we’ve seen more women  working in higher roles or having greater responsibility.

Another challenge is women’s responsibilities to their families as mothers, wives and sisters. In many cases women will pass up opportunities when work demands long hours or otherwise conflicts with work-life balance, because family comes first.

What are some of the constraints that keep women from starting and scaling their businesses, and how do you address them?

Many women start businesses, but don’t continue with the business or the business fails at some point – not because they didn’t have the vision or drive, but because of a lack of social support and limiting self beliefs. At some point it comes down to her business or her family, and that pressure – from husbands, from relatives, from neighbors – is real. This often explains why you have a lot of women involved in very small businesses – they don’t think they’ll be able to commit to a bigger business. They start off and do very well, but they just remain small because they have to work around their current social circumstances.

Women instinctively react very well when people have confidence in them … and really thrive when other people encourage them.

One of the things TechnoServe has done very well in various programs I was involved in, is to work very closely with female beneficiaries’ spouses, fathers or brothers to help them understand that if this woman is working in this business, whatever it is that she is getting out of the business is helping their household. Getting the buy-in of their respective spouses, brothers or fathers is critical so that the women have a strong support structure.

It is also important to show women entrepreneurs the value of bringing in others with subject matter expertise, so that when they start a business, they don’t have to be and do everything.

What do you see as TechnoServe’s approach to economic empowerment and how do you think it has changed over your time with the organization?

TechnoServe’s approach has been consistent: to build the capacity of the different constituents we work with, whether it’s farmer cooperatives, small businesses or big businesses, as in food processing. I think what has changed over the years is the conscious effort and focus on giving more support to women-led, women-owned businesses or entities. We’ve become more responsive in coming up with mitigation measures to help women entrepreneurs overcome challenges.

Firstly, there has been a push to go further to find and engage those women. When we start a program like SAFE or even STRYDE, a lot of the people who attend the briefing sessions or respond to a call for proposals will typically be male. TechnoServe has become more proactive; we look at how we can take advantage of the existing infrastructure to reach out to women.

Secondly, we have refined our approach to creating a more conducive environment for women. During STRYDE, for example, young mothers would come to training with their children, which can be distracting. So we came up with approaches to have a babysitter available in order to be be more inclusive.

Thirdly, we are improving the mentoring component. I’ve seen a more conscious effort around identifying people who can be mentors to other women, who can talk and encourage them to believe in themselves – both within the organization and in the field.

Internally, there has been a focus on developing a clear gender policy, in terms of making it more attractive for women to work at TechnoServe, and also making it more attractive for the companies we work with to engage and benefit women. TechnoServe has created the enabling environment for me to grow by leaps and bounds professionally. For example, it has been really accommodating in terms of work-life balance. I wouldn’t have been able to raise my son as a single mom without the supportive environment within the organization.

Esta and her son
Esta and her son Alvin “bolting” while on their travels together.

As a female business advisor working with both women and men, and now as deputy chief of party, how do you think your role contributes to empowering women?

I feel my growth within TechnoServe has served as an encouragement to many women in the organization and to beneficiaries. I would share my story with youth during STRYDE for example – how when I first started, I was driven, I was focused, I knew what I wanted, but I also understood that I needed to find people that could help me in areas where I was weak.  I have seen a number of people be changed by the testimony that you need to be looking around to see, “Oh this is somebody who can help me because they have something that I don’t have and I can learn from them” and then be brave enough to ask.

I think it has been encouraging to many of our beneficiaries to be able to see an African woman who has grown to a certain level. I find that they are very intrigued just to hear about my growth, that I started just being a business advisor working with clients, but I wanted more.

What do you think is left to do, and what role can the private sector play in empowering more women in business?

I think we really need to highlight some of the women who have been successful in the private sector or even in the NGO sector, who can then act as mentors or role models. Because there is nothing as stimulating as seeing someone else who has been successful – people relate to other people’s stories. And women instinctively react very well when people have confidence in them, for example encouraging them in a new job opportunity by saying “I think you have the skill set, I think you have the experience.” Men will jump into the unknown, their risk profile is very high, while women are more reserved and really thrive when other people encourage them. So I think we need to look into how to have more successful business women commit to helping by mentoring other women be successful.