Social finance boosting women’s entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka /Le financement social stimule l’entrepreneuriat des femmes au Sri Lanka
Women entrepreneurs and participants in LIIN’s programs, Sri Lanka (Photo Credit: Nina LaFlamme)

Social finance boosting women’s entrepreneurship in Sri Lanka

By Nadeesha Jayasinghe, Uniterra Volunteer, Lanka Impact Investing Network, Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, Micro-Small-Medium Enterprises contribute to 45% of GDP. Yet, only 25% of entrepreneurs are women. Low confidence, limited access to credit, and lack of financial literacy are some of the barriers which contribute to low representation of women’s entrepreneurship.

Here is the story of Nadeesh Jayasinghe’s experience with social finance boosting women’s entrepreneurship, during his mandate in Sri Lanka.

I have been on a volunteer mandate under the Uniterra program with Lanka Impact Investing Network (LIIN), in Colombo, Sri Lanka, since September 2019, as a Marketing and Strategic Advisor. LIIN is one of Sri Lanka’s first impact investing organizations, channelling capital and support to Micro-Small-Medium Enterprises, that find solutions for pressing social and environmental issues. LIIN hopes to lower barriers to impact investing and boost social entrepreneurs, particularly women entrepreneurs, and ultimately, foster inclusive economic growth in Sri Lanka. 

Social finance gave me reassurance about the financial and investment sector in fostering change

I’ll be honest, before this assignment, I had very little experience in the finance and investment sectors. In fact, I saw the world of finance as the root of many social issues, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Furthermore, having worked in the community development sector for many years, I’d witnessed the inefficiencies in the aid and development sectors, particularly characterized by heavy dependency on developed countries and financial institutions, leading to perpetual debt. As a result, I was also skeptical about development work and its sustainability.

My perspective changed however, once I joined LIIN in Sri Lanka. I began to see the potential of social finance in fostering sustainable change. I am learning so much about social finance  and I feel fortunate to be involved in the strategic planning for LIIN through my mandate. During my time with LIIN so far, I have supported the creation and groundwork of an international impact investing conference called Converge South Asia, which will be held in September 2020. The first of its kind in South Asia, this conference will bring together impact investing leaders to grow and nurture the region’s social entrepreneurship ecosystem. I also provide support in proposal writing, research activities, and the development and planning of various initiatives such as the LIINked Way incubation program and the creation of a National Advisory Board for Impact Investing, both of which are spearheaded by LIIN. 

The “Elephant Wall” and economic social inclusion

I find LIIN’s approach to economic inclusion unique and interesting. Instead of just giving out loans, it adopts a “hand-holding” approach and grooms social entrepreneurs throughout their entrepreneurial life-cycles, until they attain maturity and are able to make profits and scale their businesses. This approach yields confident and resilient entrepreneurs. LIIN also ensures that its programs offer trainees opportunities to utilize skills learned, in contrast to traditional approaches where trainees often lack opportunities to put into practice, what they learn. 

An example of LIIN’s hand-holding approach is visible in the TV Reality show, Ath Pavura, which is co-founded by LIIN and Social Enterprise Lanka. First of its kind in Sri Lanka, Ath Pavura is an initiative that facilitates investing in aspiring and existing social entrepreneurs to kick-start their businesses and secure investments, while giving them an opportunity to broaden their network.

Similar in concept to the Dragon’s Den and Shark Tank TV shows, Ath Pavura diverges from the former two, in its more nurturing and mentoring approach. While the former two shows personify the investors as predators, the investors on the latter, are protectors. 

Ath Pavura literally means, Elephant Wall. The metaphor signifies a wall formed by older elephants standing next to each other, forming a barrier to protect their young ones in the wilderness. The impact investors on the show are known as the “tuskers” and the social entrepreneurs, as the young elephants. The idea is that together, the young elephants and tuskers will help shape a social entrepreneurial landscape that will foster inclusive economic growth in Sri Lanka. 

LIIN’s approach to boosting women social entrepreneurs

LIIN  plays a key role in facilitating inclusive entrepreneurship, where emphasis is given to women in social entrepreneurship in order to support them in overcoming barriers as entrepreneurs, and in turn, boost women’s entrepreneurship. 

According to WUSC’s report, Mapping Gender Lens Investing in the Global South, some of the challenges seen in implementing gender-lens investing in Sri Lanka, include:

  • Lack of awareness and knowledge of gender, gender equality, and gender-lens investing in the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem.
  • Lack of organizations adopting gender-lens investing.
  • Low number of  female investors and women in decision-making spaces in Sri Lanka. This underrepresentation of women also leads to the lack of gender perspectives in investment mechanisms; and
  • Lack of recognition of women-led businesses. These businesses often put forward a male partner as the face of the business, resulting in investors not recognizing women’s contributions to social entrepreneurship.

LIIN has taken leadership to address these challenges on various fronts. First, having a gender advisor on the team has created a gender-sensitive work environment while enabling the organization to apply a gender lens in all of its programming. This has set a precedent in the investing ecosystem, and hopefully, more organisations in the network will also prioritize the need to develop capacity and sensitivity in order to promote gender and social inclusion and equity.

Second, acknowledging the fact that there is very limited women’s leadership and participation in social enterprise development and impact investing in Sri Lanka, LIIN developed the Emerging Women program to create an accessible environment which nurtures women’s participation in entrepreneurship. 

Some of the activities of the program are as follows:

Emerging Women’s Summit (EWS)

LIIN organized the first EWS in April 2019, in Colombo. The event provided a new space for women entrepreneurs and investors who have a passion for social and environmental transformation to meet, collaborate and mentor one another. It also increased the visibility and participation of women and women leaders in the impact investing and social enterprise landscape in Sri Lanka. There were more than 100 stakeholders and social entrepreneurs in attendance. Since then, the EWS was hosted in Jaffna and Kandy. In 2020, LIIN plans to conduct the EWS all over the island.

Women’s Mentorship Circle

The Mentorship Circle is designed to empower, encourage, and guide women through their entrepreneurial journeys by linking them with established professionals. This mentorship circle will also be a platform for developing a network of women entrepreneurs.

Gender Policy

At the moment, there is no universal definition of a social enterprise and the term is not regulated. Through the social entrepreneurship ecosystem in Sri Lanka and beyond, LIIN hopes to create a policy map which can help inform criteria for a social enterprise. A clear map can be a stepping stone to regularize the social enterprise framework. In this regard, it is also essential to create a gender policy for LIIN to establish a clear framework of gender

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About the Uniterra program:

Uniterra is a Canadian volunteer cooperation and international development program that is jointly operated by WUSC and CECI (Centre for International Studies and Cooperation). The program supports inclusive economic development to benefit women and youth in 14 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Uniterra works with key private, public, and civil society partners to facilitate growth and change in markets that have the greatest impact on marginalized people.

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