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Bernadette Patmou travels to her village to help women sell their traditional crafts, primarily woven bilum bags, bringing them back to the city to sell. “You have to take a plane. Then you get on a truck, and you have to travel for four hours,” she says. She picks up the crafts locally and sells them at markets in Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Port Moresby. It is not an easy journey, but she has seen an impact.

“The business has helped a lot, especially the people back in my village. They bring their products to me because it’s difficult to travel to town. When I travel to the village, I make it very easy for them. It has helped my community and my family.”

Weaving provides a steady wage for women. The weaving of bilum bags is a traditional craft handed down through generations of women in Papua New Guinea. Bernadette registered her wholesale business in January 2021 with the savings she had. She soon realized that in order to increase her stock and customers, she would need access to finance.

Women struggle for equal footing in Papua New Guinea; the country ranks 151st out of 166 countries on the Gender Inequality Index produced by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Women in Papua New Guinea face the highest financial inclusion gender gap in the South Pacific at 29%.

Bernadette and other women entrepreneurs were able to access financial training and a tailored loan program through the Women Advancing Vibrant Enterprises in Southeast Asia and the Pacific (WAVES) initiative, provided by the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Women’s Finance Exchange (gWFX) and supported by the Women Entrepreneurs’ Finance Initiative (We-Fi). The WAVES program has reached close to 250 women’s small businesses in the Pacific through digital literacy, business planning, debt management and e-commerce training. gWFX has also partnered with MiBank, a local bank in Papua New Guinea, to improve access to finance for women.

Digital Financial Empowerment for Women

Digital resources can help women business owners access opportunities, but they face barriers to digital access. The Pacific Island region has the world’s lowest mobile internet penetration rate at 18% according to the report Pacific Digital Gender Scorecards. By comparison, an average of 61% of women in lower- and middle-income countries now use mobile internet.  In Papua New Guinea, women are 23% less likely to use mobile internet and 10% less likely than men to own a mobile phone. 

Combining financial literacy with digital tools and training can level the playing field for women business owners. In 2021, the ADB launched a fintech innovation challenge to find a solution which would help financial institutions in the Pacific better evaluate women entrepreneur borrowers. The selected solution was Ledger Pal, a data collection application which can be used by the business owner to record daily transactions, expenses and other basic business data. In partnership with MiBank, Ledger Pal was piloted with over 50 women owned SMEs, 31 of which received loans.

“MiBank has a willingness to specifically target women business clients, and our partnership with LedgerPal and ADB provides us with the opportunity to scale our impact with women entrepreneurs,” said Tony Westaway, CEO of MiBank.

The Ledger Pal app helped women business owners access loans by providing them with a clear record of transactions and financial data to prove their creditworthiness.

“The training has helped my business keep proper records. Since my training I’ve kept a good record of my sales and cash flow and spending. Now when they ask me to provide a cash flow record it’s easy for me to pick it out from the records I have,” Bernadette said.

The pilot was deemed successful because it improved MiBank’s ability to evaluate women business borrowers, which resulted in a lower non-performing loan (NPL) ratio at the end of the pilot, compared to MiBank’s overall NPL ratio. Globally, women owned SMEs have consistently exhibited lower NPL rates compared to banks’ overall SME portfolios.

Loans Help Women Grow Their Businesses

After participating in the Ledger Pal pilot, Bernadette decided she wanted to increase her inventory, and this led her to apply for her first loan with MiBank in January 2023. She took out two loans, which enabled her to increase her stock and inventory. Bernadette hired an employee for her shop after she received the loan because of the increase in her product quantity and sales. She now benefits from a more constant income stream.

“My customer base has increased. I usually go out to monthly markets to do my sales with a team, but now I’m based in one location. I have a little shop where I showcase my products,” Bernadette revealed.

Josephine Koa, another entrepreneur selling her goods in Port Moresby, also participated in the pilot and benefited from three loans to grow her business. Josephine sells local arts and crafts such as baskets, necklaces and armbands, traditional costumes, and fresh flower arrangements in the local market and online through social media. She recorded her expenses and all of her income in the app and found it very helpful for obtaining her first loan. As a result, Josephine was able to hire five people and increase her customer base and income.

Training Provides Business Skills and a Network for Women

Josephine participated in training which not only helped her learn about digital marketing, but also helped her empower other women. She holds weekly meetings where she teaches other women skills and tells them about opportunities for training and upskilling.

“In my community, I have been encouraging other women to get out there and get an income for themselves,” she says. Although she was hesitant at first, she learned skills to take on a leadership role: “I now have the courage to be a leader.”

While the journey of owning a business in Papua New Guinea has substantial challenges for women, it also helps them carve out a path for self-sufficiency and independence. Access to finance to grow their businesses provides women entrepreneurs with a steady source of income and the ability to pull other women up alongside them, working to build a more equitable future.