Côte d’Ivoire has been an African success story for much of the last decade. The World Bank estimates that its GDP growth rate was on average 8.2% in the seven years between 2012 and 2019, one of the most dynamic in the world. Much of its growth comes from small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which account for approximately 40% of trade and number over 50,000 nationally.
However, the informal SME sector is much larger, with estimates suggesting that the figure in the country approaches 150,000. In fact, this sector accounts for as much as 89% of employment, according to the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa. As a result, these enterprises are one of the main drivers for industrialisation, employment and distribution of income. In other words, SMEs – whether formal or informal – are vital to the country and its economy.
Yet many SMEs have had their voices excluded from important arenas of debate, stalling economic growth and slowing progress.
Public-private dialogues (PPDs) – which take place between government and private businesses – are vehicles to improve the business climate and attract investment. The agenda in many countries, however, can be dictated by those with the loudest voices and deepest pockets. That’s the observation of Patricia Yao, president of Mouvement des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises (MPME), a federation of SMEs in Côte d’Ivoire with over 500 members. They have attended PPDs but were barely noticed. “The bigger companies [would go to these meetings] more prepared and had more influence on what was going on,” she says.
The first female president of MPME in its 45-year history, Yao has ambitious plans to grow the organisation and, as part of that, she wants the concerns of her members to be taken seriously. But when she took over in 2021, she noticed that the MPME team needed training to improve their advocacy skills. She approached the ICR Facility with the aim of getting technical assistance that would improve their visibility at public-private dialogues. She was also hopeful about seeing action taken on her members’ priorities.
The first part of the project with the ICR Facility focused on building a platform to collect data and reach members. MPME had grown without a proper database to collect information about who it represented and their biggest concerns. Without knowing the priorities of its members, it would be impossible to advocate for them in a public arena.
Building a database presented challenges, however, not least abiding by privacy laws, curating content, and implementing the technical requirements for a robust platform. It took many months, but the process proved to be useful because it clarified MPME members’ most pressing issues.
The next part of the technical assistance focused on being able to propose concrete ideas to the government that would be taken seriously. A study and focus group with MPME members helped to clarify the problems entrepreneurs encountered most often and to organise their thoughts. Eventually, five proposals emerged and these became the focal part of the advocacy training.
The training with consultants led to several recommendations put to the Ministry of Finance. One of them – about extending how long businesses can recover VAT from the time of invoicing – was taken up by the government and will be implemented by law. “Without the advocacy training we wouldn’t have had this achievement,” Yao says. What’s more, many of their recommendations are being accepted.
The new president of MPME is today more confident about the organisation’s future. Since taking over, Yao has expanded the representation of women in the organisation. At the time of her election, only 7% of its members were women running SMEs. That figure is now 40%. Wider membership has increased too; there were only 41 active members when Yao became president, but this is now more than 550. Her goal is to keep growing, especially by targeting young women with businesses based in the financial and urban centre of Abidjan.
Yao is an entrepreneur herself who used to produce fruit and vegetables for supermarkets. She wants to empower other women to follow in her footsteps. Estimates vary, but women make up a significant percentage of the agricultural sector. A majority of women, however, still live in poverty because they have limited access to markets, seeds, and finance. As a result, Yao has spent time training women in better farming practices and educating them in business, with the aim of tripling their revenue and yield.
Based on this past experience, MPME is starting a new programme for its members called Access to Markets. The ICR Facility training, Yao believes, has given the team the skills to launch it more successfully. It’s hoped that Access to Markets will improve the overall ecosystem and result in more successful entrepreneurs.
Yao’s challenge when she took leadership of the MPME was significant. This is partly the result of gender inequality that persists in the country – only 14% of women hold national parliament seats, for example. Added to that, many members had left the organisation previously. But with the project intervention, things are looking much more optimistic. “Our visibility has increased and in less than two years we have become the centre of the private sector in Côte d’Ivoire,” says Yao. “We are now involved in all situations and government discussions, and people appreciate our contribution.”
If there is one thing to be learned from the project in Côte d’Ivoire it’s that systematically collecting robust data and advocating for evidence-driven policies is a powerful combination.