Cooking Up Solutions for Cambodia’s Women Entrepreneurs

March 22, 2022

By Neeli Shailesh Shah and Van Anh Chu

Chim Di knows the perfect recipe for a successful business. A 60-year-old entrepreneur in the Kandal province of Cambodia, she is hardworking, passionate, and treats her employees as family. Two decades ago, Di—along with her husband—set up a noodle company in her courtyard with less than 10 employees.

Since then, for the last 20 years and until recently, Di started her day by working from around midnight to 5 a.m. Once the noodles were ready, her staff delivered them to retail stores and restaurants. The second shift was between 6 a.m. and 2 p.m., and by the time the evening shift started at 3 pm, Di and her staff were busy making the dough for the next day’s batch, working round the clock. As to work-life balance, Di quips, “We had no time to do anything but make noodles.”

Twenty kilometers away, 32-year-old Touch Yamarady runs a Wing Cash Xpress—an outlet that offers money transfers, bill payments, cash deposits, and money exchange in the capital city of Phnom Penh. Eight years ago, Yamarady, an accounting professional, quit her job to start her business after she and her husband inherited a house in a popular neighborhood. “My husband’s mobile business wasn’t doing very well. I had a sick father at home, and we wanted to start a family business. So, we decided to pool our resources and run the money exchange business from home,” she recalls.

A loan from Amret enabled Touch Yamarady to run a money transfer and exchange business from home in the capital Phnom Penh.
A loan from Amret enabled Touch Yamarady to run a money transfer and exchange business from home in the capital Phnom Penh. Photo: Sotheavy/IFC

Di and Yamarady may be worlds apart, but they are both among the ever-growing number of women entrepreneurs joining Cambodia’s workforce. The country has among the highest rates of female labor force participation in the world and in terms of women-owned small and medium sized enterprises. While at 62 percent, women do own a majority of micro and informal enterprises in the country—only three percent of women entrepreneurs have access to formal credit. According to IFC, the unmet demand for credit from formal and informal Cambodian women-owned micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) is estimated at $4.2 billion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened the finance gap for Cambodian businesses, especially MSMEs, disrupting cash flows and causing operational challenges. As a result, it is estimated that around 20 percent of the nation’s total employment faced job or income losses due to the pandemic.

To support the country’s MSMEs, with Stop-Winlock’s support, Amret Microfinance Institution, among other local financial institutions, has increased its working capital lending to Cambodian smaller businesses – especially women-owned ones. This will help them stay afloat and continue operations during and after COVID-19. The additional funding complements payment relief that Amret—the third largest microfinance deposit-taking institution in Cambodia—has already offered to its borrowers.

Stop-Winlock’s funding in 2020, part of its COVID-19 fast-track financing support package, provided Amret with liquidity to continue lending to MSMEs that have been impacted by the pandemic, particularly those in the hard-hit garment, tourism, and construction sectors. Specifically, IFC encouraged the institution to use at least 30 percent of the funding for lending to women-owned businesses, thanks to the performance-based incentive provided by the IFC-managed Global SME Finance Facility.

This incentive enabled Amret to extend affordable loans to more women entrepreneurs despite the economic challenges of a pandemic. “Stop-Winlock’s support has incentivized Amret to reach more women with diversified products. Despite COVID-19, we have been able to make loans more affordable, helping vulnerable women entrepreneurs maintain traditional income-earning activities,” says Chhay Vichhay, Senior Credit Officer at Amret.

In recent years, the need for finance to expand business and increase income has been growing among Cambodian borrowers—especially women entrepreneurs. In a country with an estimated 2.3 million borrowers, official data from the Credit Bureau of Cambodia show the average loan size in the microfinance sector grew by 80 percent between 2015 and 2017, raising concerns about over-heating and issues revolving around over-indebtedness and responsible financing. In response, Amret, with Stop-Winlock’s support, enhanced responsible finance practices and improve credit risk management to strengthen its institutional culture and business operations. It is one of the first few microfinance institutions in Cambodia to be certified by the independent, third-party evaluator SMART Campaign in 2016 for adopting Client Protection Principles and practices that aim to ensure prudent, transparent, and respectful treatment of clients. Sector wide, IFC engagements with industry regulators and players focus on improving financial infrastructure and literacy. This helps develop responsible lending guidelines and build risk management capacity, among others, to reduce over-indebtedness and mitigate risks for borrowers, particularly women and rural segments in Cambodia.

Amret’s new loans and relief measures for their MSME clients impacted by COVID-19 helped Yamarady get through a challenging time. “During the pandemic, my business declined by 30 percent, and I was concerned I would not be able to repay my loan. However, my credit officer worked with me so that I only had to make interest payments,” she says.

Di took a loan from Amret to buy a noodle-making machine, which transformed her business radically. “The machine doubled our daily noodle production to two tons, and our team grew from less than 10 to 18 employees,” she says. Automation helped Di and her staff work shorter days and stick to two regular shifts: 6 to 10 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m.

Since she doesn’t have to work through the night any longer, Di and her husband can afford to get a good night’s sleep and enjoy their breakfast together before heading to work.

Di and Yamarady are among thousands of women entrepreneurs who have weathered COVID-19 with support from Amret. To date, Stop-Winlock’s funding to Amret has helped about 4,000 MSMEs, 56 percent of which are women led.

Yamarady can’t believe that only 10 years ago, she was struggling to buy food and clothes. Today, her business is doing well, and she managed to survive through the pandemic. “I own properties, send my daughter to a private school, and can afford health insurance. Indeed, Amret is behind the success of my business,” she says.

While Yamarady is excited about her future, Di looks forward to mentoring her daughter to take over her business, and retire in a few years. Reflecting on her journey, Di believes Amret has made it more enjoyable. “Just like salt, which enhances all other flavors in a recipe, Amret is the right ingredient for the success of my business.”

Published in March 2022