As an entrepreneur, “you have to be courageous.” Not an old line touted by a Rotman prof, that advice came from Dina Bina, African advocate of women’s economic empowerment. On the topic of Growing Economic Opportunities for Women in the Developing World she and Lalita Krishnaswami shared their stories last Thursday at the first Global Voices event co-hosted by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Munk Centre.

The event took place just after the Conference on Women’s Economic Empowerment, organized by the UN and CIDA, took place in Ottawa earlier in the week.

Dina Bina was one of two speakers at the event. An accountant by profession, the owner of Dina Flowers and President of the Tanzania Women Chambers of Commerce, she explained that her professional success was hard won. With borrowed money, she and her husband rented a room and purchased five bunches of flowers for re-sale. The first customer to approach saw the pails of water they were filling. He asked, “Are you selling water?” “Yes!” Bina replied - never one to pass up a business opportunity. That glass of water, sold for twenty cents, is Dina Flowers’ legendary first sale.

Lalita Krishnaswami’s early attempts at organizing women’s labour in India also showed what is possible despite humble beginnings. When she started the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) bank in 1974, the bank’s promoters couldn’t even sign their names. “We went to register the bank”, she recalled, “and they said, ‘you must be out of your mind!’”

Having founded SEWA’s trade union two years before, Krishnaswami was far from crazy. The bank was established to meet the needs of the poorest of the poor. Once off the ground, the bank overcame the problem of illiteracy by simply placing photographs on its identification cards.

Janice Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and moderator of the event reminded audience members that these are two examples of highly successful business women. Once both guests had taken their turns to speak, Stein posed questions about current themes of women and economic development. Bina’s responses were made in light of her experience as a family business owner and advocate of entrepreneurship. The daughter of a minister, Bina preaches to her own crowd of aspiring entrepreneurs on her weekly radio show, sharing women’s small business success stories. She also stressed the value of mobile phones in processing orders and verifying market prices in remote, rural environments.

Focusing on collective action, Krishnaswami highlighted gains made through her work building trade unions and co-operatives. By organizing female workers in a myriad of businesses – from agriculture to cleaning services to jewelry making – she provides them with access to capital and marketing resources. Beyond business opportunities, the 1.3 million women in SEWA’s trade unions gain security through insurance, health care and legal services.

“Events like this are important at U of T”, Jenna Hay, first year MA ERES student remarked happily while leaving the event. While she believes that academics’ perspectives are valuable in exploring development issues, Hay is glad the talk gave voice to real leaders in the field. “…in reality, they're the ones who have had to overcome the obstacles that we've identified and defy the odds we've studied endlessly.”

For CIDA, the Global Voices series is a new project that comes out of an established relationship with the Munk Centre. Last Thursday’s event fit under two of three CIDA pillars. The aid agenda includes increasing food security, securing the future of children and youth and stimulating sustainable economic growth.

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Additional Info

  • Subtitle: Women entrepreneurs discuss their roles in economic development
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