The WEI editorial team had the pleasure of interviewing Nino Zambakhidze, Chairwoman of the Georgian Farmers’ Association & WEI Champion about her work to promote women’s entrepreneurship & economic empowerment in Georgia.
In your opinion, what are the most pressing challenges facing women entrepreneurs today?
My experience has shown me that the main obstacles to women’s economic empowerment are very limited access to financial resources and a lack of consistent national policy. This impression is backed up by recent research (2017) by the UNDP and the Swiss government about entrepreneurship in Georgia. Women entrepreneurs often end up with insecure, low-wage jobs, and only a small minority of them make it into senior positions. Women also have limited access to land and loans. We are a post-Soviet country with a male-dominated society. In a Georgian family, everything belongs to the man. All assets and education are granted to men. The attitude to girls and women is: “She’s going to get married.” Because of these problems, women can’t get access to financial resources or a proper education. The Soviet mentality is to crush women’s entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurship is reserved for men and women are to be left in the kitchen.
Why do you think women’s economic empowerment is imperative?
First, focusing on women’s economic empowerment sets us on a direct path towards gender equality. Second, poverty eradication means economic growth. Women make huge contributions to the economy, whether in businesses, on farms, or doing unpaid work at home. More than 40% of women in Georgia are excluded from the formal economy. Those who are employed receive on average 30% less pay than men doing comparable jobs. It’s clear that there’s vast unutilized human potential that could boost economic growth and trigger positive social change.
Can you tell us a little about your work?
I was an entrepreneur and when I decided to start a business in 2008, I went to the bank to take out a loan. Because I had no brothers, everything was mine: the apartment and land. So, I believed I was eligible to take out a loan. But my banker said, “Sorry, you need a man to be your guarantor.” I said, “Sorry, I’m divorced.” And he said, “Then you will not be able to get credit.” I thought to myself: I moved from the city to a village to start an enterprise, so if I’m facing these kinds of problems, then other women from rural villages are likely facing worse problems!
This inspired me to create the Georgian Farmers’ Association, which has four main components: (1) advocating for farmers’ rights; (2) establishing links between farmers and markets; (3) Innovation through mobile applications for farmers, Agronavti, providing information about agriculture; and (4) capacity-building and training, especially for women entrepreneurs in rural areas. We also support and help implement donor projects.
What changes would you like to see for women entrepreneurs?
In addition to improving and enforcing policies and laws to increase national support for women’s economic participation, more investments are needed to increase women’s access to education and especially to increase access to financing for women-led start-ups in rural areas. More work also needs to be done to break stereotypes, especially in rural areas, where the belief is that women have to work at home or that they can only manage beauty salons or small cafes. There should also be more support for women seeking higher incomes, better access to and control over resources, and greater security, including protection from violence.
What actions do you pledge to take to promote women’s economic empowerment?
I pledge to help spotlight role models and encourage more women in business. I would also like to help give women access to existing financing opportunities and to assist women entrepreneurs in the sale of their products. Moreover, any support we provide for women entrepreneurs can help increase their self-confidence. I also pledge to lobby for women’s rights on our respective boards and committees; for example, within the farmers’ parliaments created under the Georgian Farmers’ Association in 60 different municipalities. And I pledge to continue to provide training and capacity building for women entrepreneurs.
Can you share a story of a woman who deeply inspires you?
Again, I was born during the time of colonialism and it was a very male-dominated culture. I had almost no female role models in my childhood, but one was Margaret Thatcher. She had been called the Iron Lady and I asked my mom why. She said, “She’s a woman, she’s a leader, and you too can be a leader within your company or in your own business. She’s very strong. She expresses what she thinks and she destroys the stereotype only men can be leaders and shows that the world can also be led by women.” From that moment, I always dreamt of having an influential role, just as Margaret Thatcher had. And then, after the challenges I faced when trying to access a loan at the bank, I realized that I must become a role model. I have to show rural people that we women can do the same things that men do. So, I became the chairwoman of the Georgian Farmers’ Association.
To offer some context on the situation of women in Georgia: we have 9 regions and 9 governors, not one of whom is a woman. We have 60 Municipalities and people who manage these regions and of them, only one is a woman. We have 12 mayors and none are women. These facts also galvanized me. It’s not simply a question of politics. It indicates people’s attitudes and mentality, how they think about women. And it’s also not only about entrepreneurship. I think everything begins with role models and, for me, the first one was Margaret Thatcher. Later, I was also inspired by Shirley Steinberg and Hillary Clinton.