Female entrepreneurs are a formidable force in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. Despite the fact that most are only seen as subsistence farmers, women are the main traders of fresh fruits and vegetables. They are strategic players in the movement of food from the field to the nearby urban areas. Yet they face challenges on a daily basis, including inhibitive market rules and regulations, and gender insensitive institutional structures.
Research in the Goromonzi District in 2012-13 has shown some of the constraints that they face – adding to the many issues that both men and women deal with when marketing their products. Female traders are required to work and sleep in open market spaces where there is no shelter to accommodate them, a lack of toilet facilities and the presence of bullying middlemen. The obsolete market infrastructure and general mayhem in the market spaces provides challenges for women in particular. Yet, aside of production and marketing constraints, the formal finance institutions have historically entrenched stringent criteria for granting loans and credit to small enterprises. In the absence of joint titling, married women are rendered ineligible for consideration. Options for accessing micro-finance institutions and loaning agents, are limited due to the demand for collateral and even higher interest rates.
Despite these challenges, women play a very important role in all rural areas, and many venture further to access distant markets in the capital – which again comes with its own set of risks. In an attempt to overcome the cumbersome, frustrating and unappealing process of securing loans, women in Goromonzi, as in other parts of the country, have established social finance schemes, as small money savings groups where members pool together their resources.
These attempts need to be accompanied by adequate public policies and private support. Zimbabwe needs the formulation of by-laws in a participatory manner, involving those currently linking producers and consumers. And these by-laws then need to be enforced in a manner that doesn’t disenfranchise women entrepreneurs. At the same time, finance institutions and banks need to revisit the criteria and conditions for women to access credit facilities, particularly those aspects related to collateral and titles to assets. Such anomalies should be addressed openly. Finance institutions can also build on the existing informal social networks for the provision of finance, working with those groups of women that have demonstrated the ability to self-organise and be accountable for revolving funds. These changes will help women entrepreneurs continue supporting their families, while simultaneously contributing to economic recovery and growth.