Women's businesses, particularly women's agricultural businesses, are often seen as too risky for investment. This is compounded by the fact that many women lack collateral such as land ownership, which prevents them from accessing finance. Defying these obstacles, 45-year-old Ponny Lim runs a successful fish-feeding enterprise in Kampong Cham province in Cambodia. With support to access finance and training, Ponny has grown her business and become a role model for aspiring women entrepreneurs in her community.
Ponny’s drive to share her expertise with women in her community was shaped by the gender bias she experienced along her road to success in a male-dominated industry. The now-successful entrepreneur had to overcome a number of obstacles to get to where she is today. When she was young, her parents were taken advantage of financially and they almost lost everything. As a child, Ponny aspired to become a lawyer and protect others from fraudsters. However, her parents could not afford to support her studies and her school was far from her home. As a result, Ponny was only able to study until grade five.
Ponny went on to work at the Rural Development Department and then in a factory in Phnom Penh. When she married and had children, she struggled to maintain a low-paid job and juggle her family responsibilities. Eventually, Ponny and her family moved to Kampong Cham province and started their own fish-feeding business. They began by selling fresh fish at the market and Ponny noticed that tourists travelled a long way to get there. Recognizing this as an opportunity, Ponny and her husband decided to sell dried fish so people could transport it and keep it longer.
To support her business, Ponny received assistance from lending organisation Chamroeun Microfinance. Chamroeun also provides training and coaching for its clients like Ponny through aquaculture initiatives such as C.A.S.T. (Commercialization of Aquaculture for Sustainable Trade). As of 2021, 80 per cent of Chamroeun's borrowers are female.
The loan was facilitated by Good Return, a non-profit organisation that provides loan guarantees to financial institutions such as Chamroeun, enabling lending to social entrepreneurs who otherwise may not receive investment. Good Return’s Impact Investing programme secures responsible financing for small to medium sized agriculture enterprises across the region which contribute to job creation and income generation for impoverished communities, with a focus on enterprises led by or providing support to women.
In May 2020, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship (CWE) programme partnered with Good Return to establish a partnership to create a multi-country credit guarantee fund to provide finance to “missing middle” women entrepreneurs such as Ponny, who are beyond microfinance, but not yet ready for corporate finance.
The fund has enabled 35 entrepreneurs in Cambodia to access US$ 1,308,439 in loans to date through Chamroeun, including US$ 409,800 for ten women-owned businesses. In conjunction with the guarantee, Chamroeun conducted a gender self-assessment and consequently mainstreamed gender equality and inclusiveness in their operations. Through the CWE Programme to date, ESCAP has empowered 176,000 women entrepreneurs like Ponny through access to finance and enhanced skills to grow their businesses, with an aim to bridge the gender financing gap in the region and foster inclusive entrepreneurship.
For Lim, this support will enable her to expand her market and secure more capital to take her fish products to supermarkets and other markets in Phnom Penh. In addition to building her own fish-feeding enterprise, Lim can now support and encourage other women in her community to tackle gender bias and run their own businesses, building a community of young women to share business knowledge and reduce reliance on their husbands. Sending a message that women can run their own businesses, Lim is providing practical tuition and has become a role model to the young women in her community.