Building support networks

Small and medium sized businesses provide the majority of all employment opportunities worldwide. In many sub-saharan African countries this figure rises as high as 80%.

These businesses therefore play a vital role in providing income for communities, and are a hugely important engine for economic growth and development.

Rainbow Mat

Our aim is to provide support which creates resilient businesses in countries with a high level of poverty. To date, this has been primarily focused in Africa where we have provided training in 14 different countries. We work with businesses that are aiming to have both a financial and a social impact on their community. We have therefore been key supporters of the fair trade movement, working closely with Fairtrade Africa and WFTO Africa.

Whilst individual training or mentoring can be an important stepping stone for business growth, we are keen to ensure that our work delivers sustainable change. That is the reason why two of our biggest projects to date, in Rwanda and Swaziland, have involved establishing local business support networks and helping them to become self-sufficient. This work in Swaziland has been recognised in the Charity Awards 2014, in which we are one of three charities shortlisted in the International Development category. This project not only supports over 5,000 producers in fair trade handcraft producing businesses through accessing new markets and businesses development, but has also trained 100 individual artisans and as a result, registered 22 new businesses which are starting to employ others.

Developing sustainable local business support mechanisms for fair trade producers in Africa isn't an easy task - and because we don't pretend to have all the answers, we have developed a Best Practice project which joins together our partner organisations in Swaziland, Rwanda and Malawi in order to provide real practical learning from those who are putting this in to practice.

We also recognise that business support takes place in a complex environment of government policies, trade agreements, climate change and health issues amongst other challenges. Some of our projects have tackled these areas directly, such as helping businesses in Swaziland to deal with the challenge of employing staff with HIV/Aids, or training coffee producers in Ethiopia on climate change adaptation. Most of the time however, we will work with partners who can provide specific expertise or advice on the specific issues in the local context.

The work of building resilient businesses requires attention being paid to the complexities of marketing, finance, governance, staffing and operational aspects. In these respects our work covers a broad spectrum, from the needs of a cocoa farming co-operative in Ghana to those of an individual basket weaver in Kenya. Whilst our work will always be tailored to the need of the local context, we recognise that our 10 year history and link to Fairtrade lender, Shared Interest Society, make us ideally placed to focus much of our business support work on the critical issue of access to finance.