By Neehal Khatri and Erica Lee
Harieta Kafoa tapped into an old family recipe to start a pumpkin pie business when she suddenly lost her job earlier this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
After spending 25 years as an airline cabin crew member, Harieta had to come up with an alternative source of livelihood when she lost her job. Like hundreds of her colleagues who had also lost their jobs, she was no longer receiving fortnightly paychecks and had lost access to benefits such as paid annual and sick leave, medical insurance, travel benefits and employer contributions to superannuation, among others.
In May this year, Harieta started baking and selling pumpkin pies using her aunt’s recipe. Initially, she sold the pies from a stall at the Navutu Flea Market in Lautoka. The market is an initiative by a local company, PAC Investments and Industrial Development Ltd, which provides rent-free stalls to assist people who have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Harieta also sold the pies at the Vuda Beach Market.
She received good feedback from customers and even managed to sell all her pies during her first day at the market. Eventually, through selling at the markets and word-of-mouth advertising, Harieta managed to build a customer base that allowed her to work from home by taking orders over the phone.
‘I’m enjoying it at the moment…I also make pies when there is a need for Chilli Tree Café in Lautoka and the feedback so far has been wonderful,’ Harieta shared.
According to Harieta, her pies are popular with customers because of the high quality and generous amounts of ingredients she uses in her recipe – condensed milk, butter, cinnamon sticks and eggs. Unfortunately, some of the ingredients are costly and she is exploring ways to buy these in bulk from the suppliers at a cheaper cost.
Grappling with financial challenges
Lack of access to capital and trying to manage a healthy cash flow are challenges Harieta is grappling with at the moment. This is a challenge shared by numerous Fijian women who have resorted to starting their own businesses after losing their jobs because of the COVID-19 crisis.
When she lost her job, Harieta used her payout of about $6,000 to clear her debts and she also withdrew the remaining accessible funds she had in her superannuation account. Although her husband is still working, the money situation at home is tight with only one breadwinner.
‘I’ve started using our life savings to help us keep afloat,’ Harieta shared, adding that she and her husband were exploring all available opportunities.
‘Every way we’re trying, there are a lot of options and we’re the doing the best that we can but when you don’t have the capital, it’s really difficult.’
Harieta and her husband planted watermelon in their farm in Ba to supplement their household income, but they were disheartened after the crops were stolen. While they still want to continue with their agriculture venture and are thinking of planting pumpkin as well, access to capital remains an issue they are still trying to figure out.
A COVID 19 Response Gender Working group formed by Fiji’s Ministry of Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation recently undertook a rapid gender analysis with multiple development stakeholders. The analysis; Gendered Impacts of COVID 19 on Women in Fiji reports that a large proportion of the population is concentrated in informal employment, comprising 48% of the population, with over two thirds of all informal workers coming from rural areas (67%). 19% of businesses are registered by women and most of which focuses on micro and small businesses.
Women in the informal sector often lack the collateral required by financial institutions to access finance. Though there has been increasing emphasis on improving women’s financial inclusion in Fiji, women still face barriers because of the documentation required by financial institutions to prove their identity and they also find it difficult to build a financial history to demonstrate their creditworthiness.. Many women will resort to using their lifesavings, borrowing from family members or friends and some may take out items on credit from shopkeepers. Some women also turn to predatory sources of finance such as moneylenders who charge high interest rates that can lead borrowers on a debt cycle – constantly borrowing to pay back their debt.
For women in the informal sector, the Gender Impacts of COVID19 on Women in Fiji report recommended a one-off unconditional cash transfer to support basic needs, income support for women for at least three months; pandemic (carers) leave of up to 21 days to care for their sick family members; a month’s supply of food and hygiene supplies or vouchers; access to finance via government-backed guarantees; and for those who may have loans from micro-finance institutions, a deferment of repayments by at least six months may be best.
Focusing on building the business
Although she would love to return to her former job as an airline cabin crew member, Harieta has embraced this new chapter in her life and she is now focusing on building her pumpkin pastry business.
With her business still at an early stage, Harieta is keen on learning as much as she can. She recently joined the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council (WEBC), which is helping bridge the gap between informal and formal sectors for women entrepreneurs. This initiative is supported by the Australian Government through the Fiji Women’s Fund.
“Joining WEBC has been really wonderful for me… it has opened doors for me with the information I gained and the women at WEBC, I must say, they are very helpful and I’m glad to be part of it,” she said.
Harieta is also part of the Academy of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) – a business training program conducted by facilitators from WEBC and the Makoi Women’s Vocational Centre, which is funded by the US Embassy.
She says the training program is helping her understand the financial aspect of her business, enabling her to work out her expenses and profit, and determine the right selling price for her pies. She is also working on building the branding and marketing side of her business.
Seeing the popularity of the pumpkin pies has inspired Harieta to expand her product range to include ‘pumpfins’ (pumpkin muffins). She is also thinking about tapping into the vegetarian market by baking eggless pumpkin pastries.
Harieta shared that she is also inspired to reduce wastage. “I’m looking at ways of using the entire pumpkin from the root to the stem and the vegetable itself. I’m looking into ways of not wasting anything at all,” she said.
She brought a compost bin from the Lautoka City Council and she is also trying out ways to dry out pumpkin seeds and make oil. Producing biofuel is another option she is exploring.
With so many ideas bubbling inside her mind, Harieta is keen to take her newly formed business venture forward and has started the process of registering her business, although her efforts have been recently hampered by lack of funds.
NOTE: Harieta will be selling her pumpkin pastries at the AWE Christmas Fair on 3 December 2020 at the Ratu Sukuna Park from 4-8pm. Her mobile number is 9371869.
In the Spotlight: Informal Women Workers
As part of the 16 Days of Activism global campaign, we are sharing a series of stories featuring the experiences of women entrepreneurs in the informal sector as well as those who have transitioned, or are transitioning, into the formal sector.
16 Days of Activism is a global campaign focused on ending violence against women and promoting women’s rights. In 2020, the Campaign is dedicated to informal women workers whose lives and livelihoods have been acutely impacted by COVID-19 and the unprecedented economic crisis that has followed. According to the International Labour Organization, more than 60% of the world’s employed earn their living in the informal economy and 92% of women in employment in developing countries are informally employed. They face precarious workplace conditions and are typically excluded from national labour laws and denied social protection.
The Australian Government through the Fiji Women’s Fund has been supporting women’s groups, networks and organisations to amplify the voices of women in the informal sector through our partnerships with grantees like the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council, Women in Fisheries Network, Talanoa Treks, Rise Beyond the Reef, Ra Naari Parishad, Naitasiri Women in Dairy, Waisomo Women’s Group and the Soqosoqo Vakamarama Kadavu.