When Chantal Napa’s award-winning tour business ground to a halt, she looked for new opportunities.
She settled on the Kia Orana Podcast – but though it was embraced by private business, she ran into a brick wall seeking government support.
When she applied to the finance ministry for a SMART information technology grant, they referred her to an economist in London, who told her she didn’t “fit” the criteria. He acted like a gatekeeper, she says, rather than working with her on solutions.
Her frustration echoes that of women across Cook Islands and the Pacific, according to a new survey of 200 businesses.
The Pacific Trade Investment Network is an agency of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, with offices in Australia, China and New Zealand. Their survey finds most male-led businesses expect revenues to recover by the end of next year. Only a third of female-led businesses are so optimistic.
“I can’t say for sure if women are treated differently by MFEM and IntAff and other institutions as I can only speak from my own experience and not that of a man,” Napa says. “For myself, it has always been me using the pen as my sword.
“My daughters, who are 8 and 11 years old, started to stress about how were we going to pay for all our needs, expenses, housing,” she says.
“So not only was I trying to cope with all the Covid anxieties, I had to teach my children at a fast speed, the lessons of resilience and the capacity to recover from difficulties.”
That is the juggling act performed by working women, she says, who are often both primary carers and primary breadwinners.
“School drop-off, then work, then school pick up, then groceries, then house chores, then homework – and trying to put in the same amount of creativity, energy, drive and innovation into our businesses.”
A cross the Pacific, 66 per cent of business owners and decision-makers report an impact on their mental health, the new survey shows. Most Cook Islands business operators say they are worried most of the time.
Ninety-five percent of Cooks businesses said they were negatively impacted, almostly all seriously. That was far higher than other nations.
The good news was, business operators were pleased with the response by government – unlike elsewhere, they were worried but not angry.
Trade and Investment Commissioner Caleb Jarvis said the uncertainty and having no definite timeline was extremely challenging for businesses, especially female-owned and led businesses. Nearly three-quarters of female-led businesses said the pandemic had a very negative effect on them.
“Although the majority of the Pacific remains free of Covid-19, the economic impact of closed borders has been debilitating, especially for Pacific nations that are reliant on tourism and it’s a sector that has a high proportion of female employees.
“Access to finance continues to impact female-owned/led businesses more than male-owned/led businesses.”
A policy brief from the United Nations Secretary-General showed women and girls were suffering more from the socio-economic impacts of Covid-19, in part due to higher care responsibilities, including home school, and the disproportionate lack of access to working capital and digital tools and skills.
“These barriers are reducing the ability of females to work remotely or access digital markets – a critical element for business continuity.”
Liana Scott, the Tourism Industry Council’s new president, said the survey findings married up with what tourism was experiencing here.
They couldn’t forecast how long borders would remain closed and how long cash-flow would be poor, she said.
“Operational costs continue to bleed businesses which are experiencing massive revenue decline, and their debt equity continues to worsen.”
Chamber of Commerce president Fletcher Melvin echoed that. “Unlike the likes of Papua New Guinea, Fiji and New Caledonia, our GDP is overwhelmingly reliant on tourism. The government response has definitely cushioned us ... If we are able to get closer to the eventual opening of the border with as much of our industry intact then that is the ultimate aim.”
For Chantal Napa, she said women keeping their businesses afloat could explain what academics and economists never could.
And out and about, interviewing people for the Kia Orana Podcast, she reckoned it was men who were most anxious. “I dislike that woe-is-me stuff,” she said. “Everyone has suffered during this pandemic. Women just get on with it!”