By Sharon Atieno

Despite the large amount of government spending on procurement each year, up to 60% of national budgets in some countries, women and women-led businesses (WLBs) in Eastern Africa are not accessing these opportunities.

This is according to a report carried out by the Africa Freedom for Information Centre (AFIC) supported by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) carried out in five countries across the region namely Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

The report titled Barriers and solutions to include women-led businesses in public procurement synthesized research conducted in the five countries focusing on WLBs and their ability to compete, win and manage public procurement bids, as well as the challenges they face in doing so.

According to the report, WLBs, most of which are small with low access to capital and primarily engaged in wholesale and retail trade, consumer and food service as well as small-scale agriculture, are facing several challenges with hinder them from accessing public procurement opportunities.

“The challenges were mainly classified into three categories: legal barriers, socio-cultural factors and operational-capacity barriers,” said Gilbert Sendugwa, AFIC’s Executive Director.

Legal Barriers

The report found that only Kenya and Tanzania have a legal framework that promotes women’s access to public procurement opportunities.

In Kenya, the law under the Public Procurement and Disposal Act provides that public entities allocate at least 30% of procurement opportunities to women, youth and persons with disabilities (PWDs) under the Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (AGPO) initiative.

Tanzania has a similar 30% quota, but there is a Guideline which breaks down the allocation of procurement opportunities with 10% for youths, 10% for PWDs, 5% for women and 5% for the elderly.

Though Uganda’s public procurement framework mentions women as a special interest group to be considered in procurement, the report finds that the law is not explicit on how their participation will be tracked. Further, the regulations on the Procurement law are yet to be concluded and thus the provisions cannot be implemented.

Both Ethiopia and Rwanda have not established laws promoting WLBs access to public procurement contracts.

However, in Ethiopia, there is a non-discrimination framework based on several criteria including gender enshrined in the Public Procurement Proclamation. Additionally, the country is working with United Nations Women to revise the public procurement proclamation to develop a procurement law that supports women’s engagement in procurement opportunities.

Rwanda also has an SME Business Guide that provides information on financial products catered to women entrepreneurs though there is no acknowledgement of gender in the country’s legal framework.

Cultural and Structural Barriers

The report found that gender norms and expectations, such as caring for the family and household chores, limit the time women can devote to their businesses. This in turn limits the growth capabilities of these businesses and affects the possibility for them to participate in public procurement bids.

In Rwanda for instance, women who took part in the research noted that gender norms and gendered roles such as childcare, domestic work, and care for the sick and the elderly among others, have a significant impact on women’s participation in entrepreneurship and public procurement.

Additionally, in Uganda, the women observed that cultural and structural barriers associated with bid preparation and submission compliance were a big challenge.

Submission of bids which is usually in the morning and in person is also challenging as women are expected to be fulfilling other care responsibilities during such time.

In Tanzania particularly, the Household Budget Survey shows that women between ages 25 to 34 years old spend most of their time (5.4 hours per day) on unpaid care activities such as household duties, while men in the same age group spend most of their time (5.2 hours per day) on employment-related activities.

“This disparity in the expectations of men and women and the time that they can dedicate to working outside of the home means businesses that are women-led are fundamentally disadvantaged in terms of their potential to develop and successfully deliver public procurement contracts,” the report reads.

Corruption and the processes through which bids are allocated pose a barrier to women’s access to procurement opportunities.

In Kenya, the report found that about 89% of women interviewed acknowledged the payment of bribes to win contracts while in Ethiopia seven out ten of those interviewed and had managed to participate in at least one public procurement bid were dissatisfied with their experience with majority basing the reason for dissatisfaction on corruption.

The narrative is similar in Tanzania, where 13 out of the 23 respondents interviewed who had won a government contract admitted that they had to give a certain percentage of the awarded contract in order to win the tenders.

Additionally, the report found that women are also vulnerable to sexual extortion in the procurement system which discourages them from participating in the process.

In Kenya, four in ten of WLBs surveyed indicate being coerced or pressured to provide sexual or other favours to win contracts. It was found that while younger women were asked for sexual favours, older women were asked for bribes.

Nearly 12% of the general survey participants in Ethiopia have an acquaintance who had been coerced or pressured to provide sexual favours and close to 6% of participants claim to have experienced pressures to perform sexual acts themselves.

In the other countries, the rate of coercion of participants was found to be at 10%, 11.1% and 18% in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda respectively.

Operational Capacity Barriers

The report found that access to finance was a major operational barrier for WLBs seeking to participate in public procurement especially micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) which make up the majority of WLBs.

It notes that due to their small size, they are often denied credit facilities leaving them to rely on informal sources such as loan sharks, who charge exorbitant interest rates and can harass business owners in case of delays in repayment.

“This lack of access to financial credit hinders the growth of WLBs and makes it difficult for them to take part in profitable procurement contracts, leaving them vulnerable to dangerous borrowing practices,” the report reads.

Additionally, delays in payment is another problem facing public procurement across the focus countries.

In Tanzania for instance, the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority (PPRA) found that the actual time taken to process tenders was longer than the time stipulated or expected for processing. The delays were up to twice the stipulated time, which means that the processing time was between 5% to 50% longer than what was expected.

In Kenya, Sendugwa noted that the study found that some of the women have not been paid seven years after supplying the government, especially at the county level.

“This is significantly affecting the women to grow their businesses. In fact, some of the businesses have collapsed because of delayed payments,”he said.

The report also found that WLBs particularly small-scale enterprises face various challenges when it comes to formalisation, including tax burdens, complicated bureaucratic processes, lack of awareness and capital. Being that the formalisation process comes with a cost, it may be prohibitive for these enterprises.

Besides, with most WLBs operating informally, it limits women’s access to financial services and other business development opportunities.

The complexity of the bidding process was also found to be a hindrance to women’s access to public procurement opportunities.  The procedures are often burdensome, time-consuming and costly , thus discouraging new businesses, including WLBs , from participating.

In Kenya, the technical requirements of bidding for contracts, such as the annual renewal of the National Construction Authority and the need to file Value Added Taxes, were found to be cumbersome and costly for MSMEs.

In Ethiopia, seven out of ten of WLBS surveyed expressed challenges in meeting the necessary tender requirements.

Additionally, the report notes that WLBS are excluded from the bidding process due to perceived nepotism and cronyism, where well-connected and networked entrepreneurs are often pre-assigned tenders.

This was the case in Uganda, where the research found that procurement officers or political leaders have direct or indirect relationships with beneficiaries who awarded contracts.

Also in Rwanda, WLB representatives expressed lack of transparency and fairness in the tender allocation process, which discourages them from participating.

Further, the report found that may of the WLBs lack the technical capacity and internet access to navigate the e-procurement systems which are being put in place, thus, locking them out of the procurement process.

The lack of a supportive ecosystem- network of organizations, policies and services that provide support to businesses including access to finance, training, mentoring, networks and infrastructure-is a significant operational barrier to WLBs participating in public procurement.

Limited access to finance, networks, infrastructure and access to procurement information, lack of mentoring and training, and gender bias are some of the ways lack of an enabling environment is hindering women’s access to opportunities.

In some cases, this has perpetuated gender inequalities and reinforced discriminatory norms and practices, including the belief that women lack the necessary skills or experience to participate in public procurement, the report reads.

“Without addressing these gaps, addressing equality is going to be a problem,” Sendugwa said.