Guest Articles

February 21

Liz Larson / Brit Heiring

Improving Financial Solutions for Women Micro-Entrepreneurs: A Report Highlights Key Focus Areas for Microfinance Providers

The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women is well-established. For women micro-entrepreneurs, these impacts are compounded even further by existing business and financial challenges, and competing priorities such as household responsibilities – some of which are driven by gender-related social norms. Microfinance institutions, investors, development partners and other financial institutions have a unique opportunity to implement research-based and customer-centered financial solutions to address the complex challenges faced by these entrepreneurs.

In partnership with the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) program, funded by the Government of Canada through Global Affairs Canada, Kiva has conducted research to better understand these entrepreneurs’ unique needs. The resulting report, Catalyzing Innovation for Women Entrepreneurs, is based on direct data from 328 women microfinance borrowers in Fiji, Samoa and Cambodia. It focuses on the new realities facing women micro-entrepreneurs, and offers timely solutions for financial service providers to most effectively support them. 

The study included three main research questions covering the challenges women business owners face, what financial service improvements would better fit their needs, and how they’ve been impacted by and adapted to the pandemic. By partnering with the local lending institutions South Pacific Business Development and Chamroeun Microfinance Plc., the study was able to focus on women entrepreneurs currently engaged in microfinance loans to generate applicable solutions for the industry.


Key Findings for Microfinance Institutions: Validation and Areas to Improve 

Initial findings from the report both validate microfinance institutions’ (MFIs’) current work and identify clear areas where providers could expand their efforts to better meet the needs of their women-identified client base. Among the more encouraging results, a majority of women micro-entrepreneurs reported that their confidence increased and their overall livelihoods improved as a result of their ability to obtain a microloan. Micro-entrepreneurs were also more likely to own additional businesses the longer they were a member with the microfinance institution. 

Areas for improvement include the finding that a vast majority of women micro-entrepreneurs were interested in attending a business training course, and named this service as an area where their microfinance institution could expand. This highlights a need to design business training to target not only knowledge gaps, but also sociocultural norms that limit the potential of women entrepreneurs. What’s more, there may be benefits in partnering with outside organizations to provide this training, as they may have deeper technical expertise in the subject matter, and greater experience with capacity-building approaches that address the gender dimensions of business challenges. The study also revealed several topics of interest for this training, including general business management, budgeting and cashflow skills, as well as business innovation. 

Beyond business training, study participants offered recommendations for MFIs around improving loan terms (such as lower interest rates and fees), offering more flexible repayment options to adapt to business profit flows, and increasing loan amounts, as each of these changes could work better for their women customers.

Additional core findings include:

  • Women micro-entrepreneurs have high levels of vulnerability to economic and environmental shocks, with the vast majority experiencing household and business shocks in the last 12 months, including a quarter of those in Fiji and Samoa seeing their businesses damaged or destroyed.
  • The majority of these women borrowers are managing businesses with similar activities, so diversifying those businesses may help borrowers to increase their incomes.
  • 80% of women micro-entrepreneurs operate their business from home.
  • When provided with financial access coupled with tailored coaching on soft skills such as goal setting, planning and other business management techniques, women micro-entrepreneurs have better business outcomes.
  • Customer-centered approaches to research and product design are essential for designing solutions that can be leveraged to strengthen the socioeconomic capital of women entrepreneurs and their communities.

While the research was conducted in three countries within ESCAP’s Asian-Pacific region, the results are consistent with what Kiva is seeing in its network across the world. This indicates the research findings are relevant to women micro-entrepreneurs and related microfinance institutions regardless of location.


Expanding ESCAP and Kiva’s Support of Women Entrepreneurs

ESCAP’s CWE research agenda is centered around exploring the nuanced challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in accessing and using financing at different stages of their enterprise journey. In 2020-21, the program conducted a research challenge and commissioned six research projects, including the partnership with Kiva, to inform needs-based product development and influence the design of financial and technology solutions tailored to the challenges facing women entrepreneurs. 

Together, ESCAP and Kiva are working to expand their research and create a pipeline for sharing relevant findings with microfinance institutions and partners, enabling them to adapt these learnings to their services and products in order to address the specific needs, risks and challenges facing women entrepreneurs. 

“This research-based approach will be critical for microfinance institutions looking to address barriers in entrepreneurship from a gender lens,” said Goldie Chow, former Senior Director of Impact at Kiva. “We offer up our research findings with the hope that they will empower MFIs with relevant information to directly address women micro-entrepreneurs’ needs as we all work together to recover from the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.”

ESCAP and Kiva are committed to addressing the gender inequities present across the global financial system. Engaging governments, additional microfinance institution partners and individual investors in these efforts will be critical to achieving the mission of supporting women micro-entrepreneurs in their endeavors – not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but around the world.

We invite you to read the full report and invest in women entrepreneurs through Kiva and ESCAP.


Brit Heiring serves as the Director of Communications at Kiva; Liz Larson leads UNESCAP’s work in innovative financing under the Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) programme.


Photo courtesy of United Nations/UN Women/Rashid Probal.




microfinance, women entrepreneurs