Improving Economic Opportunity for Women Entrepreneurs: An AtmaConnect update

Here are updates by Raka Ibrahim from Atma Connect’s 24-month program to improve digital literacy and economic opportunity for women entrepreneurs in Indonesia.
The work is being done under a grant from the Internet Society Fundation and its Strengthening Communities / Improving Lives and Livelihoods (SCILLS) grant program. (See Atma’s press release.)


The Strengthening Communities / Improving Lives and Livelihood (SCILLS) program continues to gather steam. After reaching out to hundreds of women business owners in Serang, Banten and its surrounding areas in Indonesia outside Jakarta, we at Atma Connect began mapping the challenges they face in their journey to adapt to a digital marketplace. What we found affirmed the need to assist these brilliant entrepreneurs with tools to increase their digital and financial skills so they can build thriving businesses to support their families.

Our research and survey found that small and medium enterprises in Serang are still unsure about how to expand their presence online. Almost no one has used social media for promotion or tried out Indonesia’s numerous and extremely popular e-commerce platforms.

Additionally, almost all respondents state that they don’t keep track of their business’ finances – meaning these enterprises are literally living hand to mouth every day.

“Serang never had many financial opportunities in the past, until factories began opening up,” explained Bahrul Alam, Atma’s program coordinator in Serang. “After heavy industry came, many came to view factory work as “safe bets”, and only a few wanted to take the risk of starting their own businesses.”

“Small businesses are considered either retirement plans for older people, or stop-gap solutions until you get your next factory job,” Alam continued. “This means nobody has actually bothered to professionalize and build for the long-term.”

It was clear that despite the women’s enthusiasm for learning, change wasn’t going to come easily. Change needed to happen on a deeper, cultural level. But first, the women of SCILLS needed a safe space to exchange knowledge, connections, and pool their resources.

Getting started

As a first step, we gathered small and medium enterprise owners from 12 villages in Serang and formed 12 women business owner’s communities – one for each village. As the socio-cultural life in Banten is dominated by men and entrepreneurship remains mostly small in scale and slow to digitize, this platform’s presence is even more important, and its impact more pronounced.

After taking a break during the holiday season, we reconvened these communities in mid-January 2024 to kickstart their journey together. Each community would receive a two-day workshop on entrepreneurship, business planning, financial reporting, and digital marketing, creating a baseline of knowledge before the SCILLS program grows along with them for the next year.

The first round of workshops took place in six villages: Ciherang, Curug Sulanjana, Kragilan, Cigoong, Cisait, and Pabuaran. Each workshop was attended by 13-19 women small and medium enterprise owners, with varying levels of knowledge and digital proficiency. Their first steps at SCILLS have highlighted the challenges they will continue to face, yet it also offered unexpected opportunities for growth.

Tackling challenges

These are some of the challenges the participants face:

Multiple responsibilities and limited time: Almost all of these women small and medium enterprise owners aren’t tending to their business full-time. They are still juggling their business with their roles as homemakers and even a day job. In each village we visited during the January workshops, multiple participants brought their children to the workshop – as they simply had no one else to care for them. On many occasions, participants left the workshop mid-class to fulfill a customer’s order, then returned to class after half an hour or so.

This meant participants often struggled to focus on the class and immerse themselves in the tasks and materials provided by facilitators. Some also didn’t have time to prepare themselves properly for the workshop.

Inadequate tools: At the village of Ciherang, for example, multiple participants’ mobile phones had no memory space for new apps, which means they couldn’t install the social media and e-commerce platforms required for class. Facilitators found that time and again, they have had to lend their own phones to participants just so that participants can practice and familiarize themselves with certain apps.

Unused to speaking up: The women are also still coming into their newfound position as leaders and centerpieces of these programs centered on women. Having lived in a deeply patriarchal and conservative culture for so long, many were unused to speaking up and becoming leaders of their community. Many were initially shy to speak up and take center stage during presentations, and still needed extra time to articulate their thoughts and products.

Our workshop at the village of Cigoong was an extreme example of these issues. As most young people leave the village to work in Serang’s urban sprawl, older people are left behind to tend to small stalls and independent businesses and are less accustomed to new technology. Almost all of them struggled to understand the material, and some didn’t own their own mobile phones.

After struggling through the first day of workshops, which mostly covered entrepreneurship and financial planning, some women didn’t show up for the second day of the workshop. Instead they sent their younger staff members or older children. These participants were quicker to grasp the material and practice using digital apps and social media.

They have gradually become unexpected leaders and points of references for other participants, as the women of SCILLS slowly grew into their roles as leaders and entrepreneurs.

In the village of Kragilan, many participants have previous experience working in offices and large-scale businesses and were more familiar with the concepts we taught. While in Curug Sulanjana, a younger crowd quickly mastered apps such as Canva and familiarized themselves with social media. They were eager learners and provided feedback that the workshop should have lasted for a week or longer, as they wanted to learn more and immerse themselves in the workshop.

Each workshop aims to give the women an equal opportunity to learn and shine. For some, it was an invigorating and empowering experience. “I’m an introvert, and I never wanted to speak in public,” said Iram Ahmad, a snack seller from the village of Cisait. “But today I asked questions in the forum and presented our product idea in front of everyone else. I didn’t think I could do that, so I feel really good about myself now.”

“Editing videos and photos for your business seemed like something daunting, but after I learned more about it, it seems more plausible,” said ibu Roih, a participant from the village of Ciherang. “Now I feel like I can learn it slowly. And maybe one day, I’ll edit and upload promotional content every day!”

In addition to learning more about business, they were other unexpected results and benefits. During one workshop, a participant brought two children to class as she couldn’t find anyone else to take care of them. However, despite her best efforts, her children didn’t feel comfortable in class and started disrupting the workshop.

In a turn of events that drew admiration and glee from the room, the woman called her husband and requested that he take care of the children. After he did so, the participant breathed a sigh of relief and was able to focus her attention solely on the class.

It was a small, seemingly innocuous gesture. But in a conservative environment where women are expected to shoulder the burden of motherhood and economic empowerment, it was a reminder of the participant’s growing self-confidence and growing leadership position within her family. A timely reminder, then, of what’s at stake, and what’s truly possible.

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