COVID Response Innovators
This article was first published by Scaling Frontier Innovation here. Talanoa Consulting worked to support the management of resilience grants provided to social enterprises in Fiji, Samoa, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
We’ve all had to do things differently this year. As a business owner, whether you’ve called it pivoting, testing, adapting or just surviving, this year was likely not in the business plan. But entrepreneurs started their enterprises for a reason. At some point, they’ve asked why a certain problem is not being solved by anyone else – and they’ve poured their energy into finding solutions. This has always meant hard work, long hours and the ability to cope with setbacks on the way. Entrepreneurs were already a pretty resilient bunch – and 2020 has taken the meaning of that word to a different level.
When borders closed in March 2020, small businesses across Fiji that are reliant on the tourism sector had to adapt quickly.
The Fusion Hub’s existing business clients could no longer commit to purchasing upcycled interior wares and so founder, Sagufta, went back to her social enterprise’s purpose of reducing waste to look for other potential markets. She surveyed previous customers to understand whether a business to consumer model that promotes zero-waste shopping by collating packaging and plastic-free products in a mobile retail outlet would be viable.
Mama’s Mushrooms was battered twice – first by the lockdowns in Lautoka and then by Tropical Cyclone Harold which destroyed their greenhouse. Thankfully a business continuity plan that they had put together the previous year helped founder, Fanny Fiteli, act quickly. ‘We’d already planned for what we would do in the event of a cyclone – so we moved everything inside the house and operated from there for a few weeks. We’ve now set up a more permanent space using part of the garage and installing air conditioning in there which actually is a better way to grow as we can control the temperature much more precisely.’ Fanny is a regular at many of the monthly and pop-up markets that have become so important in helping home-based businesses reach consumers. She’s added mushroom pickles and tempura mushrooms to her products and is now delivering regularly to Suva, where disposable incomes are higher.
Jonina and her husband Chris, run Kahuto Pacific, a drone services company specialising in mapping and transforming geographical data. Their services have always been in relatively high demand from surveyors, construction companies, utilities and the road contractors – but with all of the financial uncertainties earlier in the year, many new construction projects were put on hold as part of cost-cutting measures. This meant going back to focussing on the marketing side of the business and examining new potential opportunities. ‘Communicating the way in which our services can help save money and time is something we’ve had to get better at this year. Using a drone to survey land or as part of an asset inspection can save our clients significant time and effort – and that is critical at the moment. We’ve also started to examine new potential opportunities with real estate agents and tourism operators for virtual property and experience tours.’
Tasty Island Treats founder, Nakita Irvin, has found some silver linings. For years, she’s been working towards a dream of establishing a co-working professional space that would allow food entrepreneurs to work together and share the costs of managing a professionally equipped kitchen.
As the women chatted about the various changes they’ve had to manage this year, a common theme that emerged is that they’ve had to do all of this, and shoulder the responsibility of managing the home and their families.
‘My husband will often get home from work and ask me what’s for dinner, without seeming to recognise that just because I’ve been at home, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been working. Because my business is home based it seems to be expected that anything that involves the home – getting the kids lunches ready, cooking dinner – falls on my plate. I regularly go to bed at 2am and am expected to be up early again.’ shared one of the entrepreneurs.
Resilience is often thrown around as a word to aspire to.
But resilience is exhausting and we all have our mental and physical limits. In early October, Fanny was hospitalised for two weeks. ‘It was only being in hospital that forced my husband and I to discuss the strain I was under and how we could re-calibrate things.
He’s a driver, and out a lot, and he didn’t necessarily see all of the work that was going into keeping the business going. We looked at our finances and realised that he could join me in the business and manage the deliveries and some of the logistics – and he’s surprised me that he’s actually a really good record keeper! Coming to the markets with me was initially a bit out of his comfort zone – but he’s now enjoying them a bit more now!’
Small businesses often start at home, but when your business is also your home there is no separation of work and life. There is no work life balance. Small businesses are manic because in the first few years you have to do everything yourself, and it sometimes takes years to be able to afford the support you need to help with administration, bookkeeping or sales. Women-led businesses face the additional challenge that gendered-roles often mean that in this set-up phase when women are trying to launch or expand their businesses, they are still also juggling the management of the household and family.
In 2011, women in paid employment in Fiji worked, on average, an additional 28.5 hours a week of unpaid housework, compared to 10.8 hours of unpaid housework for men in paid employment. This gender gap in unpaid work results in significant barriers for women entrepreneurs. Starting and growing a business requires time and energy. How many good ideas never get off the ground because women don’t have the time to translate their ideas into reality? Solving other people’s problems by providing a service or a product that’s not already available is hard if you’re also trying to solve your own problems. Supporting women-led enterprises to be more resilient cannot be done without also tackling the imbalance in the burden of unpaid work at home.