Fostering Growth for Women-Led SMEs: Insights from USAID CATALYZE’s Engines of Growth Activity in the Western Balkans

3 min readFeb 13, 2024
Granum Food, produced by the Serbian company Suncokret, is a women-owned family business that exports pumpkin, almond and cinnamon butter to the United States. Suncokret benefitted from USAID CATALYZE EoG’s support through Filly Foods’s technical assistance in marketing and access to new markets. Photo credit: USAID CATALYZE

In the Western Balkans, women entrepreneurs face notable challenges in accessing finance, stemming from issues such as high collateral requirements, societal norms, and financial literacy gaps. USAID CATALYZE Engines of Growth (EoG) in the Western Balkans addresses these challenges by establishing a network of Business Advisory Service Providers (BASPs) and promoting alternative financing sources tailored to SME needs.

Learning from Experience:

Through learning events, stakeholder interviews, and beneficiary surveys, CATALYZE EoG has fostered knowledge exchange, enabling participants to share insights, best practices, and practical recommendations for mobilizing private capital to support SMEs, particularly women-led enterprises.

Ecosystem stakeholders discuss W-SMEs’ access to financing at the CATALYZE EoG Learning Event in Belgrade, Serbia. Photo credit: USAID CATALYZE

Key Learnings:

Blended Finance Approaches: BASP programs have emerged as a practical solution, enabling women-led SMEs to access finance and essential advisory services. The presence of financial consultants significantly enhances W-SMEs’ ability to secure financing and make informed investment decisions, underscoring the importance of tailored support mechanisms.

Alternative Financing: EoG’s success in unlocking new financial products, such as Women Entrepreneur Loans, demonstrates the potential of alternative financing to address the unique needs of W-SMEs. While traditional bank loans remain prevalent, initiatives promoting factoring, leasing, and private equity transactions offer promising avenues for diversifying financing options.

Addressing Constraints: Persistent challenges, including limited collateral, financial literacy gaps, and gender biases, continue to hinder women entrepreneurs’ access to finance. To overcome these barriers, concerted efforts are needed to enhance financial literacy, challenge societal norms, and foster gender-sensitive policies within financial institutions.

Promoting Sectoral Diversity: Women-owned SMEs are disproportionately represented in service sectors, highlighting the need to encourage diversity across industries. Initiatives aimed at promoting women’s participation in traditionally male-dominated sectors, coupled with targeted support for skills development and networking, can drive sectoral inclusivity.

Harnessing Digital Opportunities: Embracing the digital economy presents a transformative opportunity for women-led SMEs, facilitating access to markets, finance, and essential resources. Closing the digital gender gap and integrating new technologies can amplify the visibility and competitiveness of women entrepreneurs in the evolving business landscape.

“The first time, when applying for my initial loan, I sat across from the banker and proudly declared, ‘I have never taken out a loan. I finance the entire business from my own funds.’ To my surprise, he said, ‘Well, that’s the problem,” Milica Calija, owner of Andeli. Photo credit: USAID CATALYZE

To strengthen the ecosystem for women-led SMEs, EoG advocates for expanded access to information and consultation services, tailored education programs, and the development of gender-appropriate financial products. By fostering collaboration between financial institutions, policymakers, and SMEs, EoG aims to create a supportive environment conducive to women’s entrepreneurship and economic empowerment.

Building on the insights gleaned from the learning event, EoG is actively engaged in initiatives to analyze and address the unique needs of women-led SMEs. Through partnerships with local banks, leveraging innovative financing, the establishment of regional networks of BASPs, and participation in educational initiatives, EoG is unlocking the full potential of SMEs and driving sustainable growth and opportunity for women entrepreneurs in the Western Balkans.