At the time of this publication the world would have celebrated International Women’s Day. The theme of this year’s celebration is #ChooseToChallenge. The idea is that from challenge comes change, so the theme urges the calling out of gender bias and inequality with the goal of making a major change to make things more inclusive. March 8 is a day to embrace and support women-owned businesses, celebrate inclusivity and push for gender parity – critical subjects made even more crucial during these tough, pandemic times.
As a matter of full disclosure, for the last three years I have supported my wife as she started her own female artisan business called Simply Escape. Her focus has been to bring a new look and feel to the traditional way of looking at crocheting via swimsuits, jewellery, handbags etc all handmade from yarn via the use of crochet. To promote and sell her products she regularly participates in local artisan markets such as UpMarket, Planting Seeds, South Market, Crafters Collective and Hyatt’s Annual Carnival Market.
During this time, I came to the startling realisation that the large percentage of vendors at these markets were women. According to one promoter of an artisan market, on average there are approximately 30 businesses who register and attend their market, (pre-covid19 the average would have been approximately 50 businesses). Of those businesses, they estimate that on average 87 per cent are female owned/managed.
From my own basic observation, the demographic make-up of these female entrepreneurs also varied. Their ages vary from early 20s to 60s or 70s, some are married while others live on their own. Some have a full-time job and use their business to make supplemental income. However, for the vast majority that I interact with personally, their business is their only source of income, either started out of desire or need, due to a loss of their steady nine to five job. It may even surprise you to know that many have university degrees, however because they were unable to find suitable employment in their field of study, turned to artisanal entrepreneurship as a means of supporting themselves.
In doing this column I sought not to rely solely on anecdotal material, but to seek the views and opinions from some of these female artisans so they can share some of the challenges they face.
On the question of what they faced in setting up their business, some of the responses were, “Setting up a business bank account took longer than what was in demand of my business”; while another noted that, “Sourcing materials was definitely a challenge. As a small business, buying in bulk is sometimes not an option due to unavailability of funds and foreign exchange to do so."
When asked the challenges they face in the administrative side of their business, one respondent noted that, “As a solopreneur it is difficult to handle the admin, creative and marketing sides effectively while having to manage home and family matters which now includes home Zoom schooling for children of different age groups and requirements.” Another noted, “It's a cirque solè (Cirque du Soleil) act. Which means less sleep and things getting done later or not at all.”
As it related to the pandemic which meant that during most of 2020 pop-up shops and outdoor markets were cancelled, many of those I spoke to highlighted that there was a significant drop in sales and orders, and they took a big financial hit. However, on the positive side, many also used the opportunity to pivot their products and services digitally either through the creation of their own website or through other e-commerce websites such as Planting Seeds, Shop Caribe and others.
Finally, on the question of what support systems can be provided to support them, most agreed that government can assist through the provision of tax credits, easy access to credit facilities, facilitating export to external markets and dedicated spaces for artisan to sell their products.
Many also noted that there is a great under-appreciation by Trinis of the work done by local artisans and the cost involved in the sourcing, producing and marketing of their product. I have witnessed on many occasions the shopping public noting that while the product was nice, the price was extremely high. Yet what I believe many don’t see is that a handmade product is more expensive because you're buying a unique item, made by hand by an expert in their field of the best materials. Included in the making of the product is time, energy, hours of work, and – most importantly, heart.
As a country I think we can take a pride in saying that female entrepreneurs are key stakeholders in engendering economic development and will continue to play a key role in our nation building.
Rishi Maharaj is the executive director of the Equigov Institute, which provides consultancy, training and research in data privacy/protection, governance, information access, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation.