The contribution of women entrepreneurs to the local economy in small islands: seaplant-based micro-enterprise in Fiji and Vanuatu.
Just as small islands must be examined on their own terms, not simply using indicators of success applicable to mainland jurisdictions, so too do micro-enterprises require a unique investigative lens. We trace the development of two female-owned micro-enterprises on small Pacific islands. Each makes and sells products made from seaplants, which occupy ecological and cultural niches that make them available, marketable and suited for women's enterprise. The women demonstrate resourcefulness and resilience in overcoming obstacles and taking advantage of opportunities commonly encountered on small islands. Should these micro-businesses be pushed to "develop" into small and medium enterprises using the traditional "take-make-waste" model? An alternative form of development assistance values women's roles as care-givers and supports the stewardship of cultural and ecological resources. Success is measured not only by profitability but also in terms of sustainability and appropriate scale, particularly important elements for small island enterprises.

Tout comme les petites iles doivent etre examinees a leur propre niveau, sans avoir recours aux indicateurs de succes du continent, il faut examiner les micro-entreprises avec une loupe speciale. Nous tracons ici le developpement de deux micro-entreprises appartenant a des femmes, sur des petites iles du Pacifique. Chacune fabrique et vend des produits a base de plantes marines occupant des niches ecologiques et culturelles qui les rendent disponibles, negociables et appropriees a une entreprise feminine. Ces femmes montrent de la souplesse et de l'ingeniosite dans la facon dont elles surmontent les obstacles et profitent des occasions que l'on rencontre souvent sur les petites iles. Ces micro-entreprises devraient-elles etre forcees a devenir des petites et moyennes entreprises se servant du modele traditionnel d'<< agrippe-fabrique-gaspille >> ? Une autre forme d'assistance au developpement apprecie le role maternel des femmes, et soutient la gerance des ressources culturelles et ecologiques. La reussite est mesuree en termes non seulement de rentabilite, mais aussi de durabilite et d'echelle appropriee--elements particulierement importants pour les petites entreprises insulaires.

Working women
Sustainable development
Small and medium sized companies
Novaczek, Irene
Stuart, E. Kathy
Pub Date:
Name: Journal of Small Business and Entrepreneurship Publisher: Canadian Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Business, general Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Canadian Council for Small Business and Entrepreneurship ISSN: 0827-6331
Date: Fall, 2006 Source Volume: 19 Source Issue: 4
Accession Number:
Full Text:

"In a way, ownership frees you from the yoke of work ... work is not just work. Entrepreneurial freedom creates a totally different terrain for work"

Finnish owner-manager, cited in Wahlgren and Stewart (2003)

Much attention has been focused upon small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs--with 10 to 50 workers) which are acknowledged to contribute vigorously to economic growth (Baldacchino, 2005). In developing economies, the impact of entrepreneurship and micro-enterprise can be enormous in aggregate. Detailed surveys in five developing countries in Africa using panel, tracer, and baseline methods showed that micro and small enterprises (MSEs--with 10 or fewer workers) involved 17-27% of the total population aged 15 to 65; the majority of all MSEs were found to be one-person enterprises; the majority of the MSEs in the countries studied were owned and operated by women, often home-based; and the great majority of workers were female. The surveys also found that small manufacturing activities were a significant component of the MSE sector, particularly in rural areas. Yet, using criteria of success derived from larger firms, MSEs at the smallest end of the economic scale have been characterized in negative terms as "insufficiently evolved" because they seldom graduate into larger-scale operations (Sleuwaegen and Goedhuys, 2002). It seems that, by this criterion, the complex contributions of micro-enterprises to net employment growth are undervalued. On the other side of the argument, Mead and Liedholm (1998) suggest that the strong forces that impel small enterprises to expand rapidly may be cancelled out by the equally strong forces that cause many to close. It can be argued that on a small island, with limited resources, small markets and a limited capacity to absorb wastes, there are even more reasons to resist one-sided economic development models promoting rapid growth without regard for context or consequences.

From a small islander's perspective, household economic activity blends seamlessly with local society and culture. Enterprises that emerge, often despite considerable risks and hurdles, reflect the local culture in which they are embedded. On many Pacific islands, ownership of traditional knowledge and expressions of culture are based on collective rather than individual rights (Fairbairn-Dunlop, 2000). Cultural expression is fundamental for the creation and maintenance of the identity, self-confidence and pride that are important for social as well as economic success, and culture therefore helps to shape commercial enterprise. In addition, families commonly pursue a suite of options in order to cobble together a livelihood. This is typically a mix of fishing, farming, handcrafts, boat- and house-building and market sales (e.g. Novaczek et al., 2005). The small island people of the South Pacific are, of necessity, multi-skilled and adept at multi-tasking. In this context, as the following cases illustrate, the smallest firm can find its niche and flourish for many reasons besides that of filling a market need.

To better understand the full range of entrepreneurial activity in small island economies, it is instructive to seek out and examine micro-enterprises on their own terms. What conditions on small islands help or hinder the development and survival of MSEs? In this paper we examine micro-enterprises established and operated by women in small-scale island societies. To what degree does the gender of the entrepreneur matter?

Women entrepreneurs commonly toil under adverse circumstances related to gender expectations and discrimination, but traditional gender roles may also contain keys to success. The two cases reported below feature women living in Melanesian Fiji and Vanuatu. Although culturally and linguistically diverse, Melanesian societies are generally organized around kinship, led by powerful "big men," and politically integrated at the village level (Eriksen, 2001:166). These societies are marked by a rich religious life, male cults and extreme forms of gender stratification (Lockwood, 2004: 11). Various kinds of ceremonial exchange and resource redistribution are used by competing men to achieve social prestige and political influence.

As we consider female entrepreneurship in this context, we ask: Should micro-businesses on these small islands be encouraged to "progress," that is, to become larger enterprises using the traditional economic "take-make-waste" model (McDonough and Braungart, 2002)? Or, should attention be focused on alleviating the societal gender and class barriers, assisting these entrepreneurs in following a more carefully controlled rate of business development that is sustainable and suited to the cultural context? Significantly different criteria of success may be required that recognize the value of women's roles in traditional society and the need for enlightened stewardship of unique cultural and biological systems on islands.

Methods and Objectives

Drawing first on published literature, the paper describes how marine plants occupy a unique cultural and ecological niche on small islands. This gives them a certain cachet, augments their economic value in the production of health and beauty products, and makes them particularly attractive as raw materials for women's entrepreneurship.

In the second section, we present two case studies of micro-enterprises established by female entrepreneurs in small-scale island societies. Observations for the cases were made at first hand by the first author during the course of research on edible and medicinal marine plants at the University of the South Pacific and in collaboration with local community development organizations between 1998 and 2004. Current information was obtained through correspondence with the entrepreneurs in 2006. Discussion of these cases and their context in the third section illustrates the types of obstacles and opportunities encountered. Information was viewed through a gender lens to see whether advantages and challenges were gender-specific, and through an island lens to see whether factors were particular to small islands.

In the concluding section, we consider whether or not these micro-businesses are imminent precursors of larger SMEs or whether they might follow a distinct course of development that is reflective of women's cultural roles and appropriate to the limits of small island ecology and society.

Seaplants as Resources for Small Island Enterprise

As natural products of coastal areas and islands around the world, freely available seaplants have traditionally satisfied complex human needs for healing, aphrodisiacs, spirituality and nutrition. Macroscopic marine plants, often called macroalgae or, more commonly, seaweeds or seaplants, have a long history of use as food and medicine in many cultures.

Although published information is sparse, there is some knowledge of the use of seaplants on tropical small islands. For example, in the Caribbean, extracts from red seaplants are used to boost male virility, while potions and baths containing seaplants have various medicinal uses (Batista and Connor, 1986). Traditional knowledge and use of marine medicinal plants is well developed in China, Japan and the Philippines. Among the Central and South Pacific Islands, perhaps Hawai'i has the best documented ethno-botanical lore. Abbott and Williamson (1974) and Fortner (1978) documented edibility of seaplants as well as noting ceremonial and medicinal uses. Sargassum, for example, provided a poultice for open coral cuts, a peace offering to families seeking forgiveness from neighbours, and a symbol of purification. Over 70 varieties of Hawaiian seaplants have been eaten or used medicinally to treat conditions such as blotchy skin, miscarriage, mouth sores, asthma, sprains and indigestion. Recent science confirms seaweed extracts as medicinally effective. The online medical database PubMed, for example, includes more than 900 scientific articles on the medicinal value of seaplants and their extracts.

There are perhaps a hundred seaplant species in the South Pacific that may be used either as food or for medicine (Novaczek, 2002). Yet in many Pacific Island countries, with the exception of Fiji (South, 1993), people have scant knowledge of marine plants as food or medicine (Novaczek and Chamberlain, 2000). It seems there are many unrecognized opportunities to develop cottage industries. The more common and larger seaplant species are particularly suitable for commercial development, being readily available, fast-growing and accessible from shallow water habitats. Many useful nutritional and medicinal seaplant extracts are water soluble and can be obtained using simple technology: a cooking pot and a fire. Seaplants are particularly attractive raw materials for women whose traditional roles include feeding families and caring for the sick. The World Health Organization estimates that 75-90% of people in developing countries use traditional medicine to meet their primary health care needs (UNESCO, 2005). Furthermore, the shallow waters in which the seaplants grow are typically used by women and children as fishing grounds. Because of communal ownership and access arrangements prevalent in the Pacific Islands, women in coastal communities have preferential access to seaplant resources within the marine territories attached to their village land base (Vunisea, 2005).

Women Entrepreneurs on Small Islands: Two Cases

The businesses described below were created by women entrepreneurs who combined their traditional knowledge of medicinal herbs with modern information on seaplant properties to develop unique health and beauty products for local markets in Fiji and Vanuatu.

Case 1: Cosmetics and Health Tonics in Fiji

The first case describes Liviana, a sole proprietor in Fiji, who established SLITECH in 2003 for the production and marketing of health tonics and hand-made cosmetics. She employs her daughter as a full-time production and sales assistant, and provides work for coastal village women who harvest her raw materials.

Business start-up. Liviana had run a small catering business from her home for some years, delivering lunches to office workers. A healer and a knowledgeable herbalist like many women in the Pacific, Liviana served her family and community without any hope of payment beyond the occasional good will offering. Liviana's contacts with the Women's Association for Natural Medicinal Therapy (WAINIMATE) and a local community development organization led to her being offered a place in a training workshop for female entrepreneurs interested in developing health products from seaplants. The intensive two-week course, which involved traditional-medicine practitioners and small-business women from a half dozen Pacific Island countries, was held at the University of the South Pacific in 2002. The participants were trained in basic small business management, seaplant identification, sustainable harvesting methods, raw material management, product development and sanitary practices. Liviana decided to switch her business from catering to the cottage-scale production and sale of health and beauty products that featured both seaplants and traditional Fijian medicinal plants.

Production strategy and associated challenges. Liviana's product line includes slimming tonic, cleansing tonic, seaweed-coconut oil soap, massage oil, beauty cream, medicinal steam mixture, hair conditioner and foot bath mix. Liviana continued to work out of her home as before, and her initial market was the office workers for whom she had previously prepared lunches. Her home kitchen facilities and equipment were sufficient for initial production. With help from her family, Liviana constructed seaweed drying racks and a roofed structure in her garden where customers could sit on mats in the shade and wait to be served, exchange information on the efficacy of various products, or receive treatments.

Lacking a computer of her own, Liviana depended on a community development organization to help her design and print out labels for her products, brochures and business cards.

As demand grew and she developed a wider range of products, Liviana was faced with a lack of adequate space in her kitchen for efficient production. She needed a loan so that she could either rent a production and sales space or renovate her home. However, as a woman of limited means, even though she had the support of her husband, she could not secure a bank loan or government grant. Seeking an external business partner who might take control of her business was not seen by Liviana to be a reasonable option.

Even though Liviana lives in Suva, the capital of Fiji, it is difficult and expensive to source packaging and labeling supplies and imported raw materials such as preservatives and fragrant essential oils. Liviana also faces challenges in dealing with the women who provide her with seaplants. Quality and reliability of supply continue to be problematic.

Marketing strategy and associated challenges. Liviana's promotional activity includes taking a basket of samples into downtown offices to demonstrate products to office workers, then taking orders. She and her daughter conduct sales from home and deliver telephone orders to homes and offices using the bus system. She has no car or driver's licence. Ads are placed in local newspapers, and on occasion they have a booth at a local market or special event. Liviana has consciously marketed products in high level government offices, especially those dealing with business development, in the hope of attracting influential clients. SLITECH products are also promoted through the women's herbal practitioner network and a local community development organization.

Much of her advertising is by word of mouth. People who find her products beneficial are very willing to spread the news to friends and extended family. After some months in operation, word had spread to the other side of the island and Liviana then began to make marketing trips to distant towns while her daughter tended the home sales. Liviana has also developed an export strategy using her family links to the Fijian community in San Francisco, California. She sends her products to California for sale through informal networks and also fills orders from customers in other Pacific Islands and Australia.

As Liviana's products were unique, initially there were no direct competitors. However, in a small island community, nothing goes unremarked and people are often jealous of success, especially when a woman entrepreneur is involved. Women in Liviana's neighbourhood soon noted the commercial activity at her home and mimicked Liviana's products, luring her customers into their homes using signage that suggested they were affiliated with SLITECH. Liviana had to place newspaper ads warning people to avoid these copycat enterprises.

Business success. Liviana immediately found that her income increased once she started selling seaplant products. Culturally, indigenous Fijians have an affinity for anything that comes from the sea, and they have a tradition of using seaplants as food. They did not hesitate to try Liviana's inventions, which blended seaplant extracts with traditional medicinal and cosmetic herbs. SLITECH's current gross sales level is not known but it provides a modest income with sufficient profit to allow Liviana to make significant contributions to her church. One regular customer is a massage therapist who consistently uses Liviana's products for treatment of persons with injuries, with good results.

Despite her initial success, Liviana reports that her business growth has stalled owing to her continued lack of capital for improved production facilities.

Case 2: Charismatic Healing and Natural Health Clinics in Vanuatu

A second sole proprietor is Alice from Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. Alice's Port Vila Natural Health Clinic was launched in 2001 with, as she reports, start-up capital amounting to about US$5. She currently employs approximately 12 other persons on part-time or full-time bases, and operates two natural health clinics featuring seaplant remedies.

Business start-up. Alice is a talented and naturally entrepreneurial woman who graduated from high school, worked as a teacher, served in the New Zealand Peace Keeping force in Bougainville, then worked in Vanuatu as a community development worker. Alice was married for some time to a physically abusive man who left her supporting her two young children.

Having learned about medicinal herbs from childhood, Alice always served her community as a healer, operating out of her home. She used prayer as well as herbs in her healing practice. While temporarily employed with the Department of Fisheries in 2001, Alice was sent to the University of the South Pacific to take a course in coastal resources management. That was where she learned about medicinal marine plants. Recognizing an opportunity, she attached herself to a marine plant research project. Instead of returning home after her course, she remained for two months, working as a research assistant. Upon returning home, she immediately established a home-based natural health clinic featuring seaplant products.

Up to that point, Alice had offered herbal treatments and counseling to her family and community on a casual basis; but the prospect of retail sales of seaplant products prompted her to establish a formal enterprise and take on staff. Alice's subsequent success was the inspiration for a 2002 training workshop for other prospective entrepreneurs, in which Alice was a trainer and Liviana, a trainee.

Production strategies and challenges. Alice's products and services include seaplant medicinal tonic, seaplant-coconut massage oil, therapeutic massage, seawater therapy and life counseling. The products were at first made in her home kitchen with basic kitchen equipment. Once demand increased, she built an outdoor structure with a fire pit where large batches of seaplant extract could be prepared, and then used her kitchen for filtering, blending and bottling the final product.

When Alice effected a cure on a local chief who had been bedridden for several years, he granted her free access and seaweed harvesting rights along a stretch of coast close to Port Vila. This was a significant advantage for Alice who otherwise would have had to continually negotiate with coastal villages and pay for harvesting rights.

As an independent woman, Alice faced resistance from her small-island, patriarchal culture. In the Melanesian context, women are expected to marry, bear and care for children and obey their husbands. Wanting a father for her children, and with an eye to consolidating her access to the coast, Alice accepted the advances of the son of the chief who had granted her seaplant harvesting rights. This man turned out to be violently abusive. He attempted to control the income from Alice's business and eventually was jailed for beating her so badly she needed to be hospitalized. Despite this setback, Alice, with help from loyal staff, kept her business going.

Although her staff are loyal, they are also a significant burden. In Melanesian culture, social status is gained not by accumulating goods but by giving goods and money away. Both her staff and her extended family members expect Alice to share her business income freely, making it difficult to save money for investment in equipment or infrastructure.

Alice sank what money she could into upgrading her production space, consultation room and bathroom. Like Liviana, she was unable to secure a bank loan because of institutional discrimination against single women. Unfortunately, she did not own the house; she rented it. She had an agreement with the owner to purchase the property but when he suddenly went bankrupt, he decided to keep her downpayments and sell the house to someone else who could pay the entire price in one lump. Alice fought this in court but ended up being evicted in 2005 before the case could be resolved. This meant she lost all the investments she had made in renovations and had to start from scratch in another location.

Marketing strategies and challenges. In Port Vila, sales were made from a clinic established in a room of Alice's rented house; during marketing expeditions to surrounding communities; and occasionally from a booth at Port Vila's traditional market. Most sales were to local islanders.

Being fearless and extroverted, Alice managed to get regular coverage in newspapers and on local TV, was invited to national and international health conferences and made a point of attracting leading politicians and other public figures as customers. She also solicited endorsements from her regular clients, particularly where her treatments appeared to succeed in curing serious conditions. Alice also attracted tourists as clients for massage therapy and this has led to her getting orders for products from overseas. She has always wanted to develop a website and do international sales by internet. However, this has not yet been financially possible owing to the high price of computer infrastructure and internet services.

As her reputation grew, Alice began to get referrals from the hospital nearby. In particular, a Filipino doctor familiar with the traditional use of seaplants as medicine sent her his terminal cancer patients because her treatments could improve their quality of life.

It is important to note that marine plants have great cultural significance in Vanuatu where the "evil eye"--believed to cause disease--can be countered by the "good magic" inherent in objects from the sea. In Port Vila, it was observed that because of this cultural belief, prospective consumers were very receptive to using innovative seaplant products. In this context, simple seaplant extracts combined with prayer and the energy of a charismatic healer became apparently miraculous curative agents.

There are no known local competitors for Alice's clinics to date.

Business success. Because of Alice's charismatic personality, energy and talent, her unique business took off quickly, affording her a comfortable income and allowing her to hire staff. Her first helper was an ailing widow who came to her for treatment and was allowed to remain in the house while she regained her strength. She then stayed on to help with child care and housekeeping, and graduated to production assistant and then to production manager before leaving to establish a second clinic on her home island of Santo.

By late 2002, gross sales had reached 100,000 vatu (US $913) per week, affording Alice a good income by local standards. She not only provided wages to her staff; several of them lived in her house and all were fed their meals at the clinic.

By 2004, Alice's Port Vila clinic employed two part-time seaplant harvesters, four female production assistants, one male marketing manager/bookkeeper and one male general assistant. By that point she had also established a second clinic on Santo Island. Alice divided her time between Port Vila and Santo, often moving out into the countryside to demonstrate and sell products in rural villages. Although such trips are marginally profitable, Alice feels she has a mission to promote her health products as widely as possible, as she is convinced that they are beneficial for community health.


Local Market Opportunities

As previously noted, as many as a quarter of all people of working age in some developing countries are engaged in MSEs (Mead and Liedholm, 1998). Where rates of unemployment and underemployment are high, micro-enterprise may be the only option for earning a living. However, for women, profit is not the only motivation for micro-enterprise development. In the case studies, Liviana and Alice were impelled also by an urge for independence, a need to develop employment for dependent family members, the attraction of producing goods for sale that promised health benefits for the community, and increased ability to fulfil church and domestic obligations. Entrepreneurship can offer an important opportunity for women caught in shifting cultures, where traditional ways are buffeted by globalizing forces of change. As these case studies show, entrepreneurial women may already be employing their traditional knowledge and skills to provide community services, and a training opportunity may be enough to translate this into a microscale, income-generating enterprise.

On islands and in coastal communities, where medicinal seaplants are available as potentially sustainable raw materials, health and beauty product businesses can be developed. Such businesses are particularly well-suited for women, building upon their traditional roles as caregivers and herbalists. With encouragement and support, skilled, individualistic women such as Liviana and Alice can find the creative energy to follow an unconventional path that resists cultural pressures to engage in strictly family-oriented activities. Knowledge of traditional ways, a pervasive spirituality, commitment to community well-being and awareness of the natural environment can be harnessed as resources in the creation of an independent livelihood that also provides a community service.

The entrepreneurs in this study have captured local markets by understanding cultural patterns and adapting marketing strategies to the habits and preferences of customers. They exhibit what Kiggundu (2002) terms "entrepreneurial competency": the total sum of attitudes, values, beliefs, knowledge, skills, abilities, personality, wisdom, expertise (social, technical, managerial), mindset and behavioral tendencies needed--and have excelled in the art of the possible. They target influential customers in their small island societies and make their products accessible through both innovative and traditional delivery methods. They demonstrate remarkable resilience, proving that small-scale manufacturing businesses created by women can persist and be lucrative, despite overwhelming odds.

Opportunities Abroad

These entrepreneurs have also engaged in export to a limited extent, aided by contact with tourists and the presence of a diaspora abroad. Further expansion of a customer base in the metropole is likely to require significant investment, sophisticated strategy and technological savvy. In metropolitan mass markets, small-scale seaplant products may be unfamiliar to customers and easily lost in competition with multitudes of better-known (although not necessarily superior) synthetic cosmetics and medicines that are produced and distributed globally by multinational corporations. Without some form of joint venture to assist with marketing, the metropolitan market is difficult to penetrate. For women in traditional small island societies, especially where they cherish their independence and are wary of engaging in partnerships outside of the family, this is a serious challenge.

On the plus side, small-island products may be successfully positioned as luxuries for their rarity, or use the cachet of island romance as a marketing angle. Seaplant products have an added advantage because, in specialty markets of North America, Europe and Japan, seaplants are increasingly recognized as healthful, natural, organic or wild foods. Also important is the growing consumer trend to seek out "functional foods"; that is, foods that provide particular medicinal or preventative health benefits. There are also western consumers attuned to "fair trade" who will pay a premium for products that claim to support marginalized Third World producers. These are all angles available to seaplant product entrepreneurs if they can get past the challenge of initial market penetration.

To tap into global marketing opportunities as well as those closer to home, micro-enterprises require effective and dynamic organizational arrangements including education and training opportunities, participation in networks, effective joint action and sharing of resources (Kiggundu, 2002). Moreover, access to technology, sophisticated packaging, and dependable supply of pure raw materials are critical. International and regional community development organizations as well as government agencies can be catalysts for women in developing their micro-enterprises. Although internet access may not be available or affordable individually, women entrepreneurs aware of its potential may gain access to it through these organizations.

Disincentives Related to Culture, Gender and Scale on Small Islands

Where women in small-scale, traditional societies who lack other means of support are driven by survival instincts and traditional values to provide for their families through micro-enterprise development, they often struggle to retain their independence. Traditional societies may expect them to return to dependence on a man at the first opportunity. They often face economic and social barriers--including exclusion from government support programs and bank loans--simply because they are women. On small islands, in addition to the usual gender stratification found in many cultures (Lockwood, 2004), women entrepreneurs must compete with men for resources that are naturally limited by the scale and scope of a small island economy. The competitors include fathers, brothers, husbands, community leaders--all men who are more privileged and powerful. These men, with their connections outside the home and with the formal economy, are more often, more easily and more willingly co-opted into the cultural and knowledge paradigm of the metropole.

On Melanesian islands such as Fiji and Vanuatu, both women and men are under societal pressure to provide for their extended families, staff and local community and thus gain status. This sharing of wealth is a form of long-term insurance; in a time of need, the extended family, staff and community members will reciprocate and provide support. However, in the short term, the system dissipates capital that is essential for investment in the growth of a small business. Thus, despite entrepreneurial competence, women may be stymied by family and community expectations, limited training opportunities and lack of access to credit or transportation.

In the context of a male-dominated power structure, monetary success by a woman may increase her risk of violence at the hands of a male partner resentful of her new power, or greedy for her cash income. Islanders who live in the "dense psycho-social atmosphere in which small-scale, social interactions occur" (Baldacchino, 1997) are not immune to the "cone of silence" associated with domestic violence (McLachlin, 2002). Progressive family law legislation and supportive police may not exist. Social services for victims of violence may be limited or non-existent in any rural community, but on a small island the situation is typically worse. No matter where a woman runs, there is little hope of avoiding an abusive spouse or his extended family.

Growing Micro-Enterprises for Women in Small Island Communities

Female-owned micro and small enterprises are an important feature of many developing country economies. At some point, micro start-ups that develop viable products for paying customers will experience pressures of growth and the need for expanded production capacity and new markets. The transformation of an MSE to an SME, from an informal organization to a more formal one, celebrates the triumph of the business imperative where economics dominates social and cultural factors. This in effect moves what may be a manageable and appropriate family enterprise towards the Western industrial "take-make-waste" model of development. Yet small islands may lack conventional resource bases and mass markets, especially if they are remote from a mainland where additional raw materials and markets may be located. For them, the impulse to conform to the measure of success applied to larger businesses on mainlands may be fatal. Small island ecological systems are vulnerable in proportion to their smallness of size, being especially at risk from natural disasters as well as from ecological damage from human population pressure, pollution, unsustainable resource extraction and industrial development (Quammen, 1996). Small-island human cultures and economies are, to varying degrees, also vulnerable to disturbance and extinction from the relatively massive political and economic forces of colonialism and globalization. Some Pacific Island analysts have concluded that the globalized industrial development pursued by their governments has already done more harm than good, particularly for women who bear the burden of social and ecological costs but reap few of the financial benefits (Emberson-Bain, 1994). They point out that what is needed for sustainable economic development are differently scaled, ecologically and culturally appropriate business models. Local micro- and small enterprise development is one potential alternative.

The micro-businesses featured in this study not only provide livelihoods; they also perform valuable services in the community's social economy, providing affordable nutritional and health products rooted in local culture and traditional knowledge. Nevertheless, "success" of such an enterprise may equate to exhaustion for the entrepreneur who is reluctant to relinquish her hard-fought independence by taking on a business partner outside her immediate family. Faced with an opportunity to expand, she may be unwilling or unable to find a partner who will remain true to her cultural, social or environmental values. She may not want to lose control over inherited intellectual property, or lose some unique product quality that relies on a small-scale, hand-crafting approach. Or, she may not want to put more time into her business because fulfilling domestic obligations is simply more important than increasing her income.

If, on the other hand, the female entrepreneur has an ambition to expand the business, it should be recognized that success may attract unwanted attention in the form of gender-inspired violence. Also, in a small scale society where everyone tends to know everyone else's business, copy-cat operations may be launched by persons whose inferior products can threaten the reputation of the original enterprise.

Other barriers to women's entrepreneurship, well illustrated in the case studies, include the lack of access to credit and funds for the infrastructure and transportation needed to expand production and enter larger markets.

The Fijian entrepreneur, faced with systemic gender discrimination that makes it difficult to obtain financing, is stuck at a very limited production level. The Vanuatu entrepreneur, in spite of similar financial hurdles, created a larger micro-enterprise that was deeply embedded in local island culture. In both cases, the local culture was a source of strength and an inspiration for development of products and services. In marketing, both entrepreneurs were able to take advantage of being a "big fish in a small pond," a common condition in small island societies. However, in Vanuatu, an attempt by Alice to consolidate her position through a relationship that seemed to offer secure access to resources turned into a near fatal disaster. In brief, while these island women entrepreneurs have demonstrated considerable entrepreneurial competency and business acumen, the environment in which their micro-enterprises are situated can be toxic. Micro-enterprise startups on small islands can succeed despite significant hurdles, but resourcefulness, adaptability and resilience may not be sufficient to sustain these micro-enterprises. At this point, both would benefit from gender-neutral business development assistance. In the longer term, they will also need support in the form of seaplant resource management to ensure sustainable access to raw materials, a function usually provided by government.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Using a small-scale lens, it can be appreciated that MSEs on small islands are often infused with creativity, emerging from a rich context to satisfy specific local needs. Some factors underlying success, if not exclusive to small islands, are at least prominent in a small island context. These include appropriateness of scale, wide-ranging knowledge and skills of the entrepreneur, resonance with local culture, embeddedness in extended family networks, and easy access to politically powerful people. On the other hand, small scale entrepreneurs face significant hurdles on small Pacific Islands: the lack of congruence between traditional culture and Western capitalism; limited and ecologically sensitive natural resources; limited markets; expensive transportation and so on. These challenges are compounded by the impacts of gender discrimination when the entrepreneurs are female.

If favourable conditions such as reliable sponsors and appropriate supports can be found, micro-entrepreneurs on small islands may eventually be able to develop into classic, export-led SMEs. In light of the potential for significant contributions of MSEs and SMEs to employment and social welfare on small islands, entrepreneurs are encouraged to:

1) Use locally available natural resources for raw materials. Supply and transportation problems associated with small, isolated territories can be overcome by using locally available raw materials from land and sea, provided these are harvested in a sustainable manner and incorporated into high-value products and services.

2) Incorporate traditional knowledge into products and services. Traditional knowledge of indigenous culture adds significant value to prized natural resources, resulting in demand from the diaspora as well as from the local population. Conserving traditional products and processes can also enrich contemporary lifestyles. The development of unique products and services strengthens the "island" brand or local identity, transmitting a positive reputation that, over time, may extend far beyond the local economy.

3) Make use of networking. Local marketing on a small island is facilitated by the "demonstration effect": for instance, news of a successful treatment using seaplant products will flow rapidly by word-of-mouth in a small, networked society.

Because of the particular challenges associated with women's entrepreneurship on Pacific Islands, public policy-makers are encouraged to:

1) Support women entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurial competency of women should not be in doubt, but women with obligations of child and elder care need carefully-targeted support programs that place value on their social, care-giving roles. Assistance must be suitably scaled, flexible and accommodating to allow women to work from home if they need to. Being able to continue with care-giving roles that enhance their social status can protect women in many ways from gender-inspired violence, jealousies and discrimination. Support efforts should be particularly focused on the types of micro-enterprises that draw on the skills, traditional knowledge and available infrastructure of home-makers, and that appeal to the sensibilities of women who take pride in their traditional roles.

2) Provide appropriate business management training. Education in the areas of sanitation, packaging and marketing; assistance in developing sustainable harvesting and management systems for the natural resource base; and easily accessible micro-credit are the types of assistance most needed by entrepreneurs such as Liviana and Alice. One model for such a program is the Women in Business Development Inc. in Samoa (; see also Fairbairn, this volume).

3) Recognize low-growth or no-growth success. As micro-enterprises become established, it should be recognized that some will want help to reach goals of expansion and international marketing, while others should be allowed to remain at the micro level that best fits with the entrepreneur's family, cultural and ecological context. In the case of micro-enterprises in the social economy--that is, enterprises that provide community services to improve quality of life or health--economic drivers may be weaker for the entrepreneur than the socio-cultural drivers. Consequently, the entrepreneur may choose to have the business remain comfortably at a very small scale despite its potential for greater economic success. In the current global situation of increasing ecological degradation linked to industrial development, intentionally modest scales of enterprise should be welcomed and supported as viable alternatives to the "take-make-waste" paradigm, especially on small islands.


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Contact Information

For further information on this article, contact Irene Novaczek ( or Kathy Stuart (

Irene Novaczek, Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada

E. Kathy Stuart, Island Studies Programme, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada
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