The signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between South Pacific Business Development (SPBD), the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council (WEBC) and the Financial Management Counsellors Alliance (FMCAF) is a meeting of the minds, which will improve the lives of all Fijians.
That was the message from SPBD Director, Lorraine Seeto at the MOU signing on September 21.
The FMCAF will be the program facilitator under the agreement, working closely with WEBC.
Both organisations have readily-available trainers and coaches, and other resources which will help SPBD enhance its Bloom program, which helps women entrepreneurs migrate from the informal sector to the formal sector.
This program is designed to give women the opportunity to bloom to their full potential. Its elements include business formalisation, business development services and the accelerator program to advance women in business. Seeto says she saw first-hand the benefit of the program as a judge during the pilot phase in 2019.
“The participants were more aware of standards for hygiene, presentation of their products and in themselves! After a few lessons in Toastmasters and PowerPoint, including deportment, our members were an inspiration to those who were joining the SPBD Family and you can see their confidence in themselves and their products and services.”
WEBC Chair, Eseta Nadakuitavuki said the power of SPBD is its reach and diverse membership throughout Viti Levu, Vanua Levu and the maritime islands.
Meanwhile, FMCAF counselor, Lagi Fisher said the partnership represented a milestone for the organisations, as it would elevate the women entrepreneurs to a level where they can thrive.
“It is such collaboration that makes us stronger,” said Seeto. “We worked together a few years ago, and it is time to join hands again to enable the achievement of our collective vision.”
At least 40 women entrepreneurs will be undergoing the six-month business acceleration program starting this year.
Sera Bernadette Nicholls: A sounding board, a friend
SPBD’s Fiji Bloom program has the benefit of some of Fiji’s most inspiring businesswomen as mentors. They include Sera Bernadette Nicholls, who shares her experiences as a businesswoman in a traditionally male field. Our interview with Nicholls is edited for clarity and length.
Bula Ms. Nicholls. Please tell us about your business, Plumbing and Property Services Limited. What services do you offer?
I started the business in 2008 after I retired. I bought an existing plumbing company because I didn’t want to start from scratch. When I bought this existing company, I took over the staff, the clients, and the business. We do plumbing, painting, maintenance, tiling, water blasting, and any work around the property that the customers want.
What was your professional background before buying the business?
I’m not from a trade background. I have always been involved in the corporate field and I’m a trained accountant, but I have never really practised for very long. I have been fortunate to do all kinds of things, from marketing, promotions, general admin, change management, risk management, and operational management, in a variety of different types of businesses. My last job was in the banking environment, and so when I finished there, I looked around to see what else I could do, and decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I wanted to do something very different apart from sitting at a desk all day, operating at a very high level, and I wanted to find out what it was like to operate in a trade section with tradespeople.
I was interested in getting involved with water because water is essential for us all, and particularly for us women. When there’s no water in the home, women run around in search of it, to ensure that the welfare of our family is met and they are taken care of. That’s the reason I chose plumbing.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learnt in business?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learnt is that you must manage your clients to the extent that they pay their dues to you within a reasonable time, because with small businesses, nearly everything you do is with cash. Small businesses find it very difficult to get credit. So, everything you do, everything you buy, and all your expenses are on a cash basis. In other words, you need to manage your cash very well, because otherwise, you could get into serious trouble.
Secondly, operating in this sector where you are dealing with plumbers, carpenters, joiners, electricians, I find that the people’s perception of the people who are working in this industry is not very high and they expect that you should be paid very, very minimal wages and that you don’t have any expenses, unlike people who work in the office, which is not true. So there is a need to educate the community that there are expenses in this business that need to be attended to by everybody within the business.
How affected was your business during COVID, considering the restrictions and the type of work involved?
We had permission to operate during the pandemic because we were considered essential services. But then as well, everybody was locked down; people had limited, shall we say, financial resources. So they only call us if and when it is absolutely necessary. If nobody else could fix it for them, if they couldn’t fix it themselves, or if the neighbour couldn’t fix it, then they called us. And so, like everyone else, everything
just kind of went there. During the lockdown, apart from a few corporate customers, there was not very much to do.
As a trainer/mentor for the Fiji Bloom program, what kinds of skills do you teach the participants who joined the program?
I really taught them how to organise their business a little bit more [so] they could monitor their own performance and own productivity, and also how to keep basic records. So if and when they needed to refer back to it, or if and when they needed to try and access loans from official lenders, (banks, credit unions, or someone else), they had some basic information that they could offer.
We also taught them how to access the Registrar of Companies and how to register a trading name. One of the things that I suggested to them was that if they can’t open an official trading account, then open an account that is in their name, and use it primarily for business transactions. In other words, they were trying to formalise the way they ran their business, helping them to find ways in which they could separate their personal expenses from their business expenses.
Furthermore, helping them to find other information that they would need to run their business, how to store their food and, for those who are involved in the food business, the handling of food so that it reduces or eliminates contamination or cross contamination. Generally, whatever it is that they wanted to talk about, we were there to offer the information to them. And, you know, hold hands if you like. Sometimes, that’s all they need. They just need someone as a sounding board.
Did you get a chance to visit the mentees at their business places?
Yes, that was one of the requirements for us mentoring them, that we actually go and visit them where they were doing their business, because then you could better understand the kind of environment that they were operating in and the challenges that they had to deal with. I mean, some of them were operating from roadsides, where they had little stalls. Some only bought and sold; some
acted as middlemen; and some actually created things themselves that they then sold themselves in either markets or, you know, in bazaars, like flea markets. So there was a real cross section, and some actually created everything that they sold.
How important is this training for the women?
Some women were more aware than others of some of the different things [involved in financial literacy]. I suppose you could say we presented it to them in a more structured manner. We actually, in some cases, go with them to get their business names registered, help them to fill out forms, you know, the practical help, as well as offer moral support, but just helping each other, it’s like, a friend that you trust,
In addition to this, 9 times out of 10, these women feel isolated, or they can’t talk to anyone about the challenges of doing business, have someone as a sounding board, and that’s where we come in. We guide them through the maze of doing business; we share our experiences; we assist them; we may help them recognise the challenges that lie ahead of them; and we assist them in navigating all of the business regulations. So, they knew that we were not competitors; they knew we were not there to do them any harm; we would not be able to try and compete with them; we were just there to help them.
I feel like women’s business initiatives and business efforts are not taken seriously; people just think it’s a hobby. But in fact, most of the time, they are the main earners in their family. It’s just the perception that these are women making money, but it’s to support a husband or somebody else who is earning within the house. This is the secondary income. But that’s not true. In a lot of cases, this was the main source
of income for the family. And it was the husband who was supportive but kept very much in the background. And still, the community perception is that these ladies are just passing time.
“9 times out of 10, these women feel isolated, or they can’t talk to
anyone about the challenges of doing business, have someone as a
sounding board, and that’s where we come in. We guide them through
the maze of doing business; we share our experiences; we assist them;
we may help them recognise the challenges that lie ahead of them;
and we assist them in navigating all of the business regulations.”
What are some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for women in business in Fiji?
The biggest challenge is being taken seriously as an entrepreneur, but there are more women in business now, so their challenges are similar to any other budding entrepreneur.
Opportunities are many and support for women in business has never been more plentiful and more visible and transparent than now. It seems there are many potential helpers and assistance available for women now.
What inspires you the most when working with your mentees in the program?
Their ambition to survive, and to succeed, and also to provide for their family—you know, in everything they did, the family was very often the main motivation. And I have to say that the feedback I get in most cases is that the family was supportive of the woman’s efforts.
What are some key messages you reiterate to your mentees and to any woman aspiring to start a business?
I would say just go for it. But also, if you can, get yourself a mentor or find somebody you trust that you can share your challenges or successes with, just somebody you can talk to about your business as it continues to grow or if it starts to go down the drain.
The most important thing of all is to look after your cash because cash is the king, or the queen I should say, of any business. Without cash, you’re dead. You’ve got to make sure you look after the cash.
MEET THE MEMBERS
64-year-old Pasemaca Temo is SPBD’s Centre Chief at Nabukebuke, Levuka Branch.
Temo has been with the organisation since 2019, and runs a catering business where she mostly sells homemade puddings.
Her purini business can earn up to FJ$60 a day. “My customers order from me and I deliver it to them. Some days, I make 20 to 25 puddings and sell them at FJ$2 a piece.”
Temo says her business has “been going well”, thanks to the help of her son. He was unemployed due to COVID. Now, he serves as her baking assistant.
Temo said receiving financial support as an SPBD member has helped her improve her business and living standards.
“I also help my family, like my daughter who is building a new house,” she said.
With SPBD’s help, centre members are able to upgrade their business skills, she says, “knowing how to run a business and how to budget the money earned.”
Temo highlighted: “When I sell food, I make sure to save at least FJ$10 from Monday to Friday and bank it at the end of the working week.”
Budgeting her earnings has been a “very interesting” experience for her. “As the years go past, I start to know how to divide the money, it’s very, very interesting to me,” she says.
In turn, SPBD has empowered Temo to be her own boss. “I resigned from being a manager at New Mavida Lodge in March. Every year with SPBD, I find encouragement to know that I can do my business. I’m my own boss. Being with SPBD is more relaxing. The more you own the business, the more money you get and try to save,” Temo emphasised.
Since 2010, 31-year-old Vilisi Vanavelo has been an SPBD member at Naiviteitei, Levuka Branch.
Vanavelo operates a growing small business, selling frozen goods and tobacco.
She says SPBD has supported her by providing for her family and with home renovations.
Vanavelo says most of her earnings are kept as savings, and she hopes to open a store in the near future.
Vanavelo believes SPBD’s recent partnership with Gulabdas & Sons on Ovalau has made it “more convenient” for centre members in Levuka and Moturiki.
South Pacific Business Development recently joined hands with iconic Levuka business, Gulabdas & Sons, as a distribution channel to assist SPBD centre members in Ovalau, buy high quality, affordable appliances to upgrade their businesses and homes.
“It [the partnership] makes it easy for us to purchase what we need for our businesses. Before, it was hard because we had to go to Suva. It’s more convenient now,” she said.