In the Caribbean, female farmers, agro-processors and crafters all face the same problem: accessing finance to start businesses and to purchase land or business premises. Since 2017, I have been the president of the Saint Lucia Network of Rural Women Producers, which is comprised of four clusters that manufacture a range of products, including gluten-free flour, breadfruit, dried fruits, chocolates, juices, jams, jellies, chutney and relishes. All of the clusters are in need of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)-certified processing facilities, but these come at a significant cost.
While one of the four clusters is about to move to an HACCP-certified processing facility, as a result of an EU-funded government project, most producers have to try to raise their own financing to grow their businesses. This is a challenge because most of the women run their businesses from home and do not keep the kinds of detailed records that financial institutions expect when they are approached for a loan. Financial institutions’ requirement for collateral in the form of land ownership is also a problem, as most women either use family-owned land or squatted land. Women therefore need more support to access finance, as well as larger and more financially profitable markets.
Gaining financing for my own fudge-making business, Fudgies, has been a challenge. Fudgies started in 2014 when I was asked by a shop owner to supply them with fudge. I did not have the money to purchase the ingredients, so the owner invested EC$500 (€163) and I was able to deliver 50 boxes to her by the end of the week. While the initial loan helped to start the business, I needed a greater sum of money to make the business more profitable and sustainable.
I approached five different financial agencies, which each said that they did not provide loans to start-ups. I then contacted a local financial institution, called Belfund, which supports local entrepreneurs and provides loans. As well as giving me a loan of EC$12,000 (€3,800), Belfund visited me once a month to ensure that the financial side of my business was running well. They checked my record-keeping, and made sure that my accounts were balancing and that I was making a profit. The loan enabled me to refurbish my processing space, purchase equipment and open my first shop in Grand Riviere. I now produce about 250 boxes of fudge per month.
I still face production challenges and have to manufacture my fudge by hand. Instead of seeking another loan I am looking for grants to purchase processing equipment. More programmes like Belfund are needed to help women business leaders to access loans and train them to keep the necessary financial records so that it is easier for them to acquire support from mainstream financial institutions. With more inclusive financing opportunities, more women like me will be able to scale up their production and reach higher value markets.