Inclusive Lending Products are Vital to Women-Owned SMEs

By Lauren Littles, Senior Specialist, Economic Opportunities

Juliana, left, participates in an INVEST workshop in St. Lucia. (Making Cents International)

In the vast global landscape of economic opportunities, women entrepreneurs often grapple with limited market visibility and access to quality resources and robust networks. Access to capital remains one of their strongest barriers to growth and sustainability. Thanks to USAID INVEST’s work with the private sector to mobilize private capital for development, a new pilot program in St. Lucia is co-creating solutions to drive inclusive growth in the Eastern and Southern Caribbean.  

St. Lucia has been on an economic rebound the last few years. The island’s tropical temperatures and pristine beaches are major drivers of the tourism that largely supports St. Lucia’s economy. Approximately half of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in St. Lucia are led by women, so successfully developing an inclusive lending product for this sizeable, underserved population can have a significant long-term impact on the local economy. The INVEST initiative brings together women-led enterprises seeking finance, financial institutions, and business support organizations (BSOs) to ensure that solutions to challenges faced by women entrepreneurs meet both the operational needs of the institutions as well as the investment features demanded by the entrepreneurs. In February, I had the chance to connect directly with women SME owners in St. Lucia to hear their reflections on participating in the INVEST program and how it enhanced their business investments.  

Making Cents International supported DAI in piloting a program that facilitates inclusive lending strategies tailored to women-owned SMEs. In May 2023, Making Cents supported four women SME owners, two financial institutions, and two BSOs in a co-creation workshop to co-design lending products and business support services for women. The entrepreneurs received personalized technical assistance throughout the pilot from July 2023 to December 2023. 

One of those women, Juliana Samuel, is a seasoned entrepreneur and accomplished Human Resources (HR) software provider. A 2016 MBA graduate of the University of Leicester, she brings a wealth of knowledge and 33 years of experience to her four-year-old firm, Samuel Consultancy. INVEST was a much-needed opportunity for her to scale the firm toward sustainability. Like many other underrepresented entrepreneurs, Juliana has limited access to credit. I learned that despite the potential of her business, two of her previous loan applications were rejected due to stringent requirements, including collateral and multiple guarantors, which impeded her business’ growth. INVEST’s new, more accessible lending product is a pivotal turning point for her firm thanks to the guarantee facility and an improved understanding by financial institutions of the needs of women SME owners. Juliana received her first business loan through the Bank of St. Lucia to purchase new equipment, participate in a Maxwell leadership development program, and upgrade her proprietary HR software.  

The lending product Bank of St. Lucia designed during the co-creation workshop benefits from an 85 percent guarantee from the Eastern Caribbean Partial Credit Guarantee Corporation provided under their product line to support women SME owners.   

“When I started looking for funding to start my business, it was hard. I had to provide cash security, which limits what you can do. So, this product was a very good initiative,” Juliana says. 

Working with a local supporting organization, SLUDTERA, also raised the visibility of her firm and created a potential pipeline for new clients. Collaboration amongst stakeholders and their willingness to transparently address challenges and setbacks underscores the importance of such partnerships and creates an environment conducive to reaching milestones like these.  

Based on the results and on our analysis of this pilot, USAID will determine whether to expand the project in St. Lucia and/or to other countries in the region. After meeting so many women like Juliana, and knowing of many more who are in similar situations across the region, I am hopeful that this pilot program can serve as a blueprint for future initiatives. 

In the tapestry of Juliana’s journey and the broader activity, we witness the power of inclusive, local lending and how a commitment to bridging the financial access gap for women can transform communities. On this International Women’s Day, let us commit to doing our part to strengthen the agency of women who are in pursuit of economic freedom.