Mariama Camara: Dreaming Big
by Kyle Kendall
“You can dream as much as anybody.”
Mariama Camara used to worry people wouldn’t take her seriously.
“Imagine working in a non-profit where you’re at the UN or a charity gala where everybody’s pretty serious, in suits, and I come with my big hair and my flower and I’m trying to talk to people, like, “Hey, I can change the world. I can bring business to women.”
But, as it turns out, she can and does bring business to women: she’s had a hand in launching more than 300 Guinean women’s careers as small business owners. Now, people take her seriously.
Mariama co-founded There is No Limit Foundation with her sister Aissata in 2008, which, among other development initiatives, brings together an Association of Women Tie-Dyers in Guinea who produce fabrics for her fabric and print company, Mariama Fashion Production and, in turn, a long list of high-end designers including Tory Burch.
The foundation also provides women with interest-free loans and business training so that they can continue developing their businesses in the future.
Women in developing countries like Guinea are starting businesses at higher rates than in the West – globally, 30 per cent of women are self-employed, and in African countries, for instance, the rate is 63 per cent. The World Bank estimates that there are between 8 and 10 million women-owned small and medium enterprises in developing countries worldwide.
But these women-led startups often look quite different from those you might see in Silicon Valley. While there are, of course, many women-led tech startups in developing countries, many female entrepreneurs operate on a home-based microenterprise model – much like the artisans Mariama supports.
According to the World Bank: “Operating from the home allows women to satisfy competing demands for their time as they balance a disproportionate share of housework and childcare responsibilities.”
But there are challenges. For instance, the 2015 GEDI Female Entrepreneurship Index found that the main barrier in sub-Saharan Africa is a lack of access to bank accounts, and, in turn, the capital needed to start a business.
And while microfinance as a development model has been criticized, There is No Limit Foundation’s success rate speaks for itself: 300 women now support themselves — and, for many of them, their families — by participating in the Association of Women Tie-Dyers. And that’s not even to mention the loans to women entrepreneurs working in embroidery, crochet, soap making, and more. The loans may be small, but they’re enough to jumpstart a woman’s career where it may not have otherwise been possible. It’s how Mariama makes good on her insistence that everyone follows their dreams.
“I believe everyone should have access to credit,” says Natalia Rigoli, who researches women-owned micro-enterprises in urban India.
Natalia and her colleagues published a study in June 2014, where they surveyed women who saved or borrowed from India’s largest women’s bank – the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Bank. They wanted to determine what kinds of factors could lead to these women’s success in business.
What they found was that even when women have access to credit, there are other less tangible, cultural barriers to consider.
“Social constraints are a very important part of women’s lives,” Natalia says. “If you are a female who is trying to open a business or run a business, you’re really constricted to… where can you operate a business, who you can talk to, how often you can work, how far you can go to procure inputs for your business.”
Natalia says she and her colleagues wanted to see if there was a way to mediate this.
“We started thinking about the project in this way – what kinds of spaces are women allowed to inhabit which are less socially constricting? And those were spaces in which you had other women.”
They held a business workshop and invited 400 women – half were asked to bring a friend, and the other half to come alone. The results were that the women who came alone used their loans from the SEWA Bank for non-business-related expenses, while those who came with a supportive friend used their loans to develop their businesses.
Natalia’s work is reminiscent of what we know about women’s networks in the Global North – that when women are able to come together in support of one another, we’re more likely to succeed.
And whole economies benefit when women’s businesses succeed, too. Research shows that when women are economically empowered, a country’s economic development is accelerated.
Women’s economic empowerment cannot be an afterthought. But economic opportunity isn’t always evenly distributed, and the result is that women in developing countries with social and cultural constraints are often left behind.
Mariama isn’t about to accept that.
“I feel a lot of pressure, because I feel like as long as I’m doing good, the artisans I’m helping are doing good, and I feel like the more I’m speaking up and people are learning about my story they are learning about the story of many other people back home,” she says.
“I have this vision of helping so many more people… my goal is really to help more than a million people.”
What about you?
Was access to credit an important part of your journey? How did you first fund your business? Comment below or join the conversation in the official Dream, Girl facebook group.