Support micro- and small scale women entrepreneurs to become successful business owners is much more than providing them with technical skills. Agency building is at least as important. But what is agency? How do you build, develop or strengthen it? Why is it so important?
Unequal relations and standards
Merriam-Webster defines agency as ‘a person who is able to act freely without being controlled by someone else.’ In a world where (white) male domination prevails, many women are not in such a position, especially when living in poverty. When it comes to energy access and use this is not any different. In many cases, at the household level, men have a stronger decision making role than women, even over energy products and services that are mostly used by women. In addition, women entrepreneurs have less access to finance and lack assets to present as collateral. Women are seen as less than men. These patterns and beliefs are deeply rooted in society and hard to change, while they highly influence women’s self-image negatively.
Agency is related to the psychological state of a person
For a woman who wants to run a successful business, mere technical skills are not enough. She has to overcome all above mentioned barriers. She needs to be self-confident, believe in herself and speak out. Agency trainings work on all of these aspects. “Agency is related to the psychological state of a person, his or her self-confidence, his or her decision power,” explains Lachana Shresthacharya from the Centre for Rural Technology – Nepal (CRT/N). Earlier this year, she and her colleague Gyanendra Sharma participated in a training where they learned to conduct agency building workshops. In August, Lachana and Gyanendra gave their first workshop to a group of twenty women; all improved cookstove (ICS) entrepreneurs. Both were amazed by the changes they saw in these women, some of them coming in quite shy and barely talking. “By the end of the five-day workshop they were loud and talking a lot about themselves,” affirms Lachana.
Imagine you’re a tree…
The one topic in these workshops is oneself. They focus on the value of each person. Many of the exercises are individual and reflective. Lachana explains: “It is about personal behaviour. About what limiting beliefs you have and how you want to change that. One such exercise is The Tree of Life. You close your eyes and think of yourself as a big, tall tree. The roots in the earth relate to your past. The trunk is the strongest part. It relates to the present. The branches are your future plans and the fruits represent everything that you have achieved up till now. You have to reflect on each part of the tree. Be proud of what you have achieved and don’t be afraid to dream about your future and go after those dreams.” After a short pause she continues; her tone is softer now. “It is also about letting go. You have to stand in two lines, facing each other, holding hands. Then you have to think about the people who have hurt you in the past and try to forgive them. The trainer leads you through this. It can be very emotional. But these negative things hold you back. You have to let go before you can move on.”
From farmer to ICS trainer
One of the women in the group was Parbati Shresta, a 32 year old single mother. Parbati and her daughter live with her parents in the Udayapur district, Southeast Nepal. Before joining CRT/N’s Improved Cookstove (ICS) project in May 2015, she helped her parents on their farm. A year and a half into the programme, she not only knows how to make, install and maintain ICS, but has also trained a group of 25 women and men on technical aspects of the stoves. When Gyanendra met Parbati she said proudly, “After the agency building training, I learned Rs. 6,000 (approx. USD60) as resource person for a seven day ICS training at Okhale VDC of Udayapur. I was confident to be a trainer!”
Change negative to positive
But not only have the lives of these women entrepreneurs changed. Lachana and Gyanendra had to go through the workshop themselves, before working with the women. “I am more confident on delivering training sessions like this one on agency, leadership and empowerment,” affirms Gyanendra. Lachana adds: “I try to analyze my behavior whenever I get angry and try to change negative to positive.”