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With a total area of 37.18 km2, the Municipality of Kamza is nestled into the capital Tirana. A medium-sized city with 125,632 inhabitants, Kamëz is 100 times more densely populated than the national average, with nearly 3,400 persons per square km. A rapid transition from a rural to urban community overloaded the existing infrastructure, and the growth in average family size outstripped the rate of economic development. This imbalance in expansion has led to an overall unemployment rate of 50% in Kamëz, with women (55%) and youth (63%) being most adversely affected. Even prior to the increased hardships under the current pandemic of the covid-19 virus, citizens of Kamëz suffered from social exclusion and a dearth of opportunities. Despite their drive, would-be entrepreneurs, especially women, could not sustain businesses because of skills or knowledge deficits, lack of equipment, and an absence of support for startups or business modernization.

To help women overcome these issues, USAID’s Planning and Local Governance Project (PGLP) conducted the Women’s Small Business Program (WSBP). Based on PLGP’s gender-sensitive value chain analysis, many value chains identified in Kamza had significant barriers for women’s employment. To provide a solid foundation and generate local ownership of this process, PLGP launched the WSBP activity in Kamza with the participation of women and representatives from the municipality, including the Mayor and other senior officials. Thirty participants were selected from a pool of women heads of household, currently unemployed, and survivors of domestic violence. Experts in participatory women’s economic empowerment guided participants through three phases: classroom training, individual/group coaching, and practical business planning. The women generated business ideas based on their professional knowledge, experience, and the observed needs of the community.

Unfortunately, in early 2020, Albania experienced its first case of confirmed covid-19, and the Government of Albania responded swiftly. Life changed drastically in Kamëz and all across Albania. Schools were closed, women and men could not go to work, many businesses were forced to close, and public events and gatherings were forbidden. These developments further intensified difficulties that women in Kamëz face. In addition to their traditional domestic roles, mothers now became teachers for their children. Additional economic stress and isolation raised the risk for domestic and intimate partner violence, statistically experienced by over half of Albanian women. With covid-19 shuttering businesses and further repressing the economy, how could those already struggling in Kamëz sustain their loved ones?

It was apparent that these growth activities were crucial, considering their potential impact for women in a post-pandemic economy. With this in mind, PLGP was compelled to creatively move forward with the WSBP and virtually complete the three phases. For some, this was their first online training. With a little technical assistance from their children, relatives, and friends, all of the women were able to download software and took their interactions online! On April 20th, the final classroom module addressing financial planning, cash flows, and other operational necessities was conducted via a group video conference, and coaching sessions were offered via phone and video calls as well. The final and most practical stage, creating their business plans, was now possible. As a result, 15 women were able to finalize successfully their business plans. Planned or launched businesses offer services in childcare (including sports and education) (5); traditional handicrafts and tailoring (4); catering (2); beauty salons (2); and the garment trade (1).

These new businesses have the potential both to support families with additional income and to strengthen the community as a whole, providing vital services to Kamza’s vulnerable people. Following the WSBP, the Municipality of Kamza collaborated with PLGP to give the women entrepreneurs a platform to pitch and launch their businesses. Fifteen women completed the entire six-month program from December 2019 – May 2020, and already seven will become first-time business owners.

The WSBP held a closing event that offered participants an opportunity to present their business ideas and detailed business plans in front of a jury composed of representatives from PLGP, the Municipality of Kamza, and a financial institution. Their presentations showcased business plans shaped by the training program. All presenters displayed increased business acumen acquired through the WSBP training and coaching process, and their efforts will be promoted as a model for women entrepreneurs in Kamza moving forward. In support of these newly established businesses, PLGP provided relevant commodities assistance to several of the women who made use of items such as sewing machines, office furniture and shelving, and hairdressing equipment. Coupling commodities with business skills reinforced the new businesses’ model for growth and has allowed many of the women to hire additional employees from within their communities, expanding the circle of impact. The Municipality has been an enthusiastic partner throughout these activities and will continue to be an ally for these small businesses through various tax incentives and other financial assistance measures. Lateral thinking during times of uncertainty enabled USAID not only to empower each of these women individually, but also to build a sense of community as they move forward together as positive agents of change within Kamëz.

“This was a unique experience for me. I am a divorced mother of two children. After the divorce I lost everything including my business and I had to restart all over from the ground up.Thanks to USAID and to the team of experts I regained the self-confidence to believe in my abilities. I can now expand my business services and hire one more employee.” -Greta, a young entrepreneur in Kamza.

“My only skill was the creation of beautiful handmade traditional costumes; however, I could not be in the market as I lacked the business knowledge and confidence to start a legal business. My entire life was taking care of my disabled husband and the education of my two children. When I heard about the program, I thought this may be good on paper, but that it could not help me. It all resulted so well! I learned a lot in the program;  It was very well explained and simple to understand. At the end of the program, I was even able to prepare a business plan and presented it to a jury. I was so excited when I was selected as one of the winners! USAID also helped me with new equipment, which allows me to take more orders and ensures a sustainable income for my family. I would encourage other women like me to have more trust, generate new business ideas, and believe in themselves.”                  -Trendafile, head of household in Kamza.

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