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Strengthen women’s participation in manufacturing for economic resilience

Growing up, the unspoken norm in my immediate community was that the women were always the organizers and mobilizers of everything. Should there be a cause for celebration, there was a ready group of women that would band together in minutes, contribute and mobilize 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 towards organizing, comforting and supporting.

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 prioritize 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 localized 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 effect steady and immediate recalibrations as those mentioned above. 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 these 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% of women-owned businesses are in the informal sector and there are 61 thousand women employed in the informal economy. Additionally, manufacturing firms in the informal economy account for 23% 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 in this study, 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 by each one of them. Her sentiments were that “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% of SMEs in Kenya are owned by women, it is high time that we look at leveraging them for our short-term economic rebound measures and even more importantly, medium and long-term sustainability. This is especially critical at a time that 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 repurposing their operations and began to make PPEs. The very first locally made and assembled ICU ventilator was just certified by government just a week ago. Imagine how many job opportunities we would create if we nurture these nascent innovations towards export. Imagine 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 organize, mobilize and strategize, imagine how much this would boost them and their communities out of poverty.

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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 Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the UN Global Compact Network Representative for Kenya. She can be reached at [email protected]

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