Expert comment: Strengthen women’s role in manufacturing

93% of women-owned businesses are in the informal sector.

In Summary

• Women are the mesh that binds together the society and have been doing so throughout history.

• 48 per cent of SMEs in Kenya are owned by women.

Kenya Association of Manufacturers CEO Phyllis Wakiaga.
EMPOWER THE MOBILISERS: Kenya Association of Manufacturers CEO Phyllis Wakiaga.
Image: FILE

Growing up, the unspoken norm in my immediate community was that women were always the organisers and mobilisers of everything.

Should there be a cause for celebration, there was a ready group of women that would band together in minutes, contribute and mobilise funds, fuss over celebration logistics and make things happen.

This would be replicated in many scenarios. In case of a disaster, for example, these same women – having assessed their strengths and ‘networks’ – will have ready duties assigned to each of them. 

This is not an experience unique to me. In a Dalberg article on ‘Applying A Gender Lens to post-COVID economic recoveries', stunning examples are given of women who, having faced hardships due to disrupted supply chains and Covid-19 regulations, quickly recalibrated their plans and have come together to start chicken rearing and vegetable farming ventures.

Women are the mesh that binds together the society and have been doing so throughout history.

Given all the evidence to support this, as a nation on its knees due to the pandemic, we should prioritise giving maximum support to these businesses because of their multiplier effect to society.

The manufacturing sector in Kenya is the largest revenue contributor to the country and the largest provider of productive jobs directly and indirectly through its impact to other sectors.

Due to its ties to the global market, the sector was severely affected especially at the onset of the pandemic’s entry into our borders.

And though it is still reeling from these effects, manufacturers have also found opportunities for localised solutions in critical aspects, for instance, component manufacturing and development of agro-industry value chains.

These identified opportunities should mean more space and latitude given to small and medium businesses to enable them to effect steady and immediate recalibrations.

Recently, the government made noteworthy steps to make this happen by rolling out the Credit Guarantee Scheme for SMEs.

Funding is a key aspect in enabling small businesses and is even more effective when coupled with a nurturing regulatory and policy framework to give them the space to do business.

In the first-ever Women In Manufacturing study (in the country) by Kenya Association of Manufacturers and ICRW titled ‘Women In Manufacturing: Mainstreaming Gender and Inclusion’, 93 per cent of women-owned businesses are in the informal sector. It also shows there are 61,000 women employed in the informal economy.

Additionally, manufacturing firms in the informal economy account for 23 per cent of its total.

Prior to the pandemic, there was the persistent reciprocal action between an increasing informal economy due to high and rigid taxation, multiple levies and fees; and the over-taxation of a narrowing-base of formal businesses.

This situation has most definitely been augmented by the shocks of the pandemic.

One of the women interviewed cited the duplication and overlap of government agencies’ roles and mandates as a huge deterrent to business growth due to the resulting unpredictability of policies and excessive levies and fees demanded. 

She said, “These overlapping agencies create more costs because people look at cost in terms of money and time spent moving between all of them.”

Because 48 per cent of SMEs in Kenya are owned by women, it is high time we look at leveraging them for our short-term economic rebound measures and sustainability.

This is especially critical at a time when the manufacturing sector has identified significant potential in the health, packaging and agro-processing value and supply chains.

Kenyan manufacturers quickly responded to the pandemic by re-purposing their operations and making PPEs.

The very first locally made and assembled ICU ventilator was just certified by the government a week ago. Imagine how many job opportunities we would create if we nurture these nascent innovations towards export; how many small and medium businesses would be incorporated into value chains, and how many would be subcontracted.

And seeing as how women have a tenacity to quickly organise, mobilise and strategise, imagine how much this would boost them and their communities out of poverty.

This is a precarious time in our history, but we are also at the cusp of creating new ways of thinking and new approaches to economic prosperity.

Let us do it right this time and let us enable the contribution and participation of women.

The writer is the CEO of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the UN Global Compact Network Representative for Kenya.