Women in Malawi brew success from men's midday bar habits

Over 90% of the beneficiaries in Alquity’s Transforming Lives partnerships in Africa are women. In celebration of International Women’s Day – March 8th – Kat Miller, Alquity’s CSR Programme Manager, explores the opportunities to support gender equality using microfinance, starting with a visit in Africa and a noisy intervention from a local bar.

On a recent visit to our charity partner Microloan, in Malawi, I was observing a business training session for a women’s cooperative when the session was disrupted by raised voices and laughing. The noise was coming from the men in a nearby bar. 

When asked if they were disappointed that the men were not at work in the middle of the day, the women’s answer was not, perhaps, what one would expect. They smiled – and explained that they actually ran the bar and brewing business. It was the source of a steady stream of income and these men were their target market. The men’s midday tipple was the women’s chance to cash in. 

However, despite their undoubted entrepreneurial flair, the women might well never have been able to take advantage of this market opportunity were it not for the support structures provided by their co-operative and, alongside it, the ability to access some microfinance through the Microloan Foundation.

Microfinance has long been seen as one solution to traditional approaches to aid. Through the provision of small loans, entrepreneurs can expand their businesses, offering a route for people to work their way out of poverty – a classic “hand up, not a hand out”.

Our Transforming Lives Programme supports microfinance initiatives throughout Africa through our charity partners AfriKids, Concern Universal and Microloan Foundation, of which 91% of the beneficiaries are women. 

Gender inequality inhibits economic development – and gender biases seen throughout the world have resulted in the ‘Feminisation of Poverty’, especially in developing countries. Microfinance initiatives are now making a conscious effort to target female borrowers as, in a world of largely patriarchal societies, women make up a large proportion of those living in extreme poverty.

Studies have commonly found enhanced loan repayment rates and lower default figures in female-only microfinance cooperatives. Women in microfinance tend to have smaller businesses, take out smaller loans and have a smaller market reach than their male counterparts – but that also means that they are safer bets and offer lower risk. 

Statistics have also shown that when a business succeeds, a higher proportion of the profit returned is likely to filter back into the household through women. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Trust Fund in Zanzibar found that half of the women’s increased income was spent on the household – 18% of this on school fees and provisions, and 15% on clothing.

In Ghana, 77% of the women enrolled in the AfriKids family livelihoods programme there said the main motivation for building their business was to get their children into school. In contrast to women, men are raised to be confident to make decisions for themselves – but this does not always mean that their first instinct will be to invest their profit back into their household. 

Microfinance is an important tool to change perceptions and attitudes towards women, but different microfinance approaches can offer empowerment in varying ways.

For example, an individual with a successful business will achieve a level of recognition in their family and surrounding community, but on an individual basis this will not affect the general attitudes towards women as a whole. Group lending initiatives encourage supportive relationships built on trust. This alone sets the group apart from individual borrowers, but where the cooperatives use their capital or influence to promote change in their local community then the group gain profile and respect.

Concern Universal’s Community Savings and Loans Groups use the interest paid on each loan to create a fund for public amenities within that community, such as public toilets or community halls. 

While unlikely that microfinance can address all issues of gender inequality in the developing world, it will have irrevocably changed the opportunities open to those few entrepreneurs for whom it has given a voice, self esteem and respect. 



This article was originally published by Alquity here. Header photo credit: Alquity

Alquity’s Transforming Lives Programme channels donations into credible organisations delivering sustainable and transformational projects which lift those living in extreme or relative poverty off the bottom rungs of the ladder and stimulate economic growth from the grass-roots up. 

Sources: Opportunity International, UNIFEM, Upsala University, IFAD, The Women’s Entrepreneurship Development Trust Fund, World Bank