With dedicated Enterprise Development Funds specific to women and youth stipulated in Chapter 4 of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the importance of inclusive enterprise development to peace implementation is clear. Photo: UNDP

Written by Jacqueline Aringu, Head of Experimentation, UNDP South Sudan Accelerator Lab

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are a critical life blood for building healthy economies. The World Trade Organization reports SMEs represent more than 90 percent of businesses in sub-Saharan Africa and employ about 60 percent of workers on the continent.

In South Sudan, unemployment and underemployment are high across all demographics. Entrepreneurship has made its way into mainstream development policy as a matter of necessity for the country to move beyond conflict, build resiliency to shocks, and inch towards recovery.

But starting a business is no simple feat and sustaining one can be even harder. Numerous studies show more than half of all small businesses fail in the first five years. Aspiring entrepreneurs in South Sudan face compounding challenges due to lack of access to capital, unstable market conditions, and social inequalities.

For example, the South Sudanese pound (SSP) lost more than 60 percent of its value since June 2020, due in large to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on global crude oil prices. In the past year, market and price fluctuations have varied widely week-to-week, and even day-by-day. Keeping track of these changes to ensure adequate profit margins is complicated even on the smallest of scales.

Add to this, less than 30 percent of women in South Sudan over the age of 15 are literate, according to UNESCO. Social norms and conditions preventing women and girls from accessing and completing formal education affects their ability to engage in business. Graduating to domestic entrepreneurship helps those in rural areas to substitute subsistence farming with earned income which in turn is used to help meet some of their families’ basic needs.

“Sometimes, I take my extra farm produce to the local market for sale so that I can get money to buy salt and soap…but because I am not able to count, customers cheat me, especially when I have to give them balance. I sometimes end up giving my customers more,” shared Janet, a struggling small-scale businesswoman in Nimule, a bustling town along the South Sudan-Uganda border.

“It is also difficult for me to determine the prices for my goods, especially with the problem of [South Sudanese pound fluctuation against the U.S. dollar]. Instead, I depend on the prices set by the established businessmen in Nimule,” she added.

Participants of the Nimule group working with UNDP, UKRI/ARDI and Peacelink Foundation to study the impact of a combination of financial literacy skills to boost fledgling entrepreneurs’ ability to weather financial shocks. Photo: UNDP

To this end, the South Sudan Accelerator Lab has set out to better understand the impact of business skills training, specifically financial literacy and mobile banking, on entrepreneurial success. We are working together with two key partners.

First is UKRI, a UK Government non-departmental public body which brings together nine research councils, and is sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. UKRI’s Accelerate Hub is led on the ground in South Sudan by the Agency for Research and Development Initiative (ARDI), funded through the Global Challenges Fund and working towards accelerating achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals for Africa’s adolescents. UNDP and UKRI forged a global partnership in 2020 to use research to create faster breakthroughs for international development. 

"Joining forces with UNDP provides an exciting opportunity to ensure policy makers and researchers with intricate on-the-ground knowledge of local challenges work together to find and implement sustainable, lasting solutions, which are owned and embraced by local communities across the world," said Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI’s International Champion and Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, during the signing of the agreement with UNDP's Administrator Achim Steiner. 

The second partner is Peacelink Foundation, who works closely with our Peace and Community Cohesion project. Peacelink Foundation works in Eastern Equatoria State delivering transformational trainings on peacebuilding, development, and for this initiative, financial literacy.

UNDP, UKRI/ARDI and Peacelink Foundation are testing if the combination of financial literacy skills will help to boost fledgling entrepreneurs’ ability to weather financial shocks, as well as increase their ability to hold higher levels of savings through improved money management skills.

To begin this learning cycle, 400 women and adolescents, most of which are from vulnerable groups and/or caregivers, took part in the Nimule training. Upon completion, the participants will receive a seed capital micro-grant and form Savings and Internal Lending Communities (SILC) groups. The training focused on developing confidence and empowering the participants to start businesses.

“We need money, yes, but I feel that we also need training on how to manage and run a business because sometimes we get money to go to the market, but we only stay in the market for a few months before our capital is lost. Knowledge is power and because of this training, I feel that my fears about the market have been taken away,” says Mary, one of the participants in the group.

A visualization of the Accelerator Lab learning cycle on display during an event in Juba, South Sudan. Photo: UNDP

The training content and delivery was localized to benefit the cohort. UNDP South Sudan’s finance team initiated a training-of-trainers session between Peacelink Foundation and EcoBank prior to taking the training to Nimule. We had learned through past business-to-business engagements that a top complaint of aspiring entrepreneurs was lack of knowledge on how to access finance and systems of managing their earnings.

Therefore, Peacelink Foundation focused on tailoring their instruction with EcoBank’s input to enable the majority-illiterate businesspeople to understand formal financial systems better. They walked through how to join and tools available to expand their businesses down the line. The instruction focused on how to effectively manage income (such as record and bookkeeping), how to create and maintain savings, and how mobile money can help safeguard their transactions. The end goal is put the women and youth on track towards eventually converting informal businesses to potentially credit-worthy businesses, if they wish. 

With dedicated Enterprise Development Funds specific to women and youth stipulated in Chapter 4 of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), the importance of inclusive enterprise development to peace implementation is clear. In parallel, there are numerous programmes across South Sudan deploying direct financial support and grants to catalyse the proliferation of women and youth-led informal and formal micro- and small businesses.

A large focus of UNDP South Sudan’s Accelerator Lab is on finding and sharing actionable insights amongst partners for the benefit of alleviating poverty through employment and empowerment, private sector and value chain development by achieving greater impact and scale.  

Already, we have gauged interest from public and private sector actors in the space who are keen to learn from the Nimule group.

If households in the study are economically strengthened and gain a better understanding of financial management principles, this may boost their ability to weather financial shocks as well as accumulate savings. We hope that by analyzing the data we can chart the impact of financial literacy and develop a model that can be used to gauge informal and nascent credit worthiness for dispersal of micro loan programmes. In the future, these findings will inform enterprise support interventions and provide a launchpad for applying best practices on a wider scale.

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The South Sudan Accelerator Lab is a co-venture with the Qatar Fund for Development, the Government of Germany and the Government of Italy. Learn more about the Accelerator Lab in South Sudan, and UNDP's global Accelerator Lab network

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