Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

12 April, 2011

Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua


Women around the world, especially in 'developing' countries, are key players in the management of natural resources and the development of healthy communities. As the primary caretakers of children and the family, they are responsible for nutrition, health and management of the household. As managers of the household, they also engage in environmental activities, often assuming the roles of food producer, animal tender, water and fuel collector. Furthermore, they represent approximately half of most countries’ population and therefore half of the potential labor force. Yet, despite their significant contributions to the well-being of society, their voices remain underrepresented at all levels of the decision-making processes on issues related to the environment and development.

In the last two decades, the voices of women are being increasingly heard. Their full equality, participation and leadership are being supported and promoted at the local, national and international level through countless programs. Microenterprise is one such program that has spread like wildfire across developing nations targeting rural women, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Hailed as a form of economic salvation, microenterprises have not only helped women generate income, but also overcome gender barriers,develop invaluable leadership skills, a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit and a strong sense of activism. In this sense, female-led microenterprises can have a positive impact on multiple levels—economic, environmental and social—which essentially reflects the goals of “sustainable development.” Limited research shows the impact of women entrepreneurs on sustainable development. Most studies tend to focus on economic growth and the market economy.

This comparative study examines the increasingly important role of female entrepreneurs in achieving sustainable development at the grassroots level. Drawing on five case studies conducted over a two month period in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, the study shows the remarkable transformation of everyday rural housewives into social entrepreneurs leading microenterprises that benefit themselves, the community and the environment. It will also provide a brief overview and summary of the characteristics most common to these organizations including noteworthy successes and challenges.

The following are the woman-led microenterprises covered by the study (click on names to view individual posts):

1. Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de Abanico (GEMA) – A medicinal plant cooperative that grows, processes and sells herbs in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. 

2. Colectivo Feminino Resclatando Nuestro Ecologia (COFERENE) – A community-wide recycling program in San Ramon, Costa Rica.

3. Asociacion de Mujeres Agroindustriales de San Luis de Grecia (ASOMAG) – An all-natural beauty product industry in Grecia, Costa Rica.

4. Asociacion de Mujeres de Reciclaje (AMURECI) – A recycled art and souvenir business in Santa Clara, Costa Rica.

5.  Genesis A cotton spinning cooperative in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua


    The concept of sustainability arose in 1983 with the United Nations creation of The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) led by Gro Harlem Bruntland, former Prime Minister of Norway. The Commission was formed to develop and implement ways environmental concerns could be addressed cooperatively among developing countries and result in the fulfillment of common goals that integrate ecological, social and economic issues.

    With the release of the world-reknowned Brundtland report in 1987 entitled “Our Common Future”, an official contemporary definition of “sustainable development” was established. Sustainable development is still widely regarded as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".  The Brundtland report was groundbreaking in that it integrated social justice in the environmental debate declaring that inequality and poverty were the fundamental causes of the environmental crisis. After all, a world in which poverty and gender inequity persists will always be prone to both ecological and economic disasters.

    At the heart of sustainability lies the concept of the three E's: Ecology/environment, economy/employment, and equity/equality.  Ideally any proposed initiative should consider the simultaneous interaction of these three elements. All Three Es require a long-term perspective and recognize the interdependence of all the “E’s.” Sustainability seeks to satisfy the needs and interests of all parties within the framework of concern for equity. This expanded focus offers the great possibility for broader changes to happen within a community and between communities (Edwards, 16-21).

    Within this holistic model of sustainability, we shall see how female entrepreneurs in Central America have naturally incorporated the Three Es into the mission of their microenterprises and made an incredible impact on their community.


    In the last 10-15 years, rural women across Costa Rica and
    Nicaragua have taken ownership of problems plaguing their
    community by organizing themselves and forming small
    productive organizations that promote personal economic
    growth, environmental conservation and social justice.  GEMA,
    a medicinal plant cooperative,and ASOMAG, a natural
    beauty product business emerged to combat the widespread
    use of toxic pesticides that resulted in chronic health problems
    among women and children, as well as the destruction of fertile
    lands. COFERENE, a community recycling program and AMURECI, a recycled art business began as a way to creatively
    reduce the level of trash suffocating their community while generating meaningful employment for women. Genesis,
    a cotton spinning cooperative, made up of mostly women from
    the second poorest city in the second poorest country in Latin
    America, organized to secure basic services and a stable income
    for their families. In sum, being most affected by the environmental degradation, pollution and/or lack of basic services, women have taken matters into their own hands and constructed microenterprises in the hopes of creating a better future for themselves and their family.

    Furthermore, rural women appear to be drawn to the idea of self-employment in microenterprises for a number of reasons: flexible hours, close proximity to the home, working with close friends and family members, combining income generation with domestic and reproductive tasks, freedom to make structural changes and connection to local markets.

    • Small to medium size; comprised of 5-18 workers
    • Led or dominated by women

      • Age: between 20 and 70
      • Marital status: mostly married but also includes single and divorced women
      • Number of children: 1-5
      • Education level: women above age 40 tend to possess a K-6 level education while others a K-12; very few have a university degree.
      • Socioeconomic status: marginalized, low-income communities
      • Current occupations: President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, or member of an association or cooperative
      • Former occupations: housewife/homemaker and occasionally with small side jobs such as selling food drinks and handicrafts in the community.
      • Multifunctional role: perform multifunctional roles as homemaker and businesswoman combining the concern for the well-being of their family with the business activities.


      There are striking similarities in the successes achieved and the key values practiced by the organizations that truly resonate with the concepts of sustainability.
      • Environmental Stewardship – All of organizations are committed to the sustainable use of natural resources. GEMA and ASOMAG grow the natural ingredients for their products on 100% organic farms. COFERENE and AMURECI are dedicated to the 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. COFERENE collects, processes and sells recycled materials compiled in the community to local, national and international businesses. AMURECI’s products are 100% environmentally friendly and made from natural or recycled materials. Genesis believes in the clean, sustainable production of organic cotton.
      • Fair distribution – Women in the microenterprises have equal access to fair wages and professional growth. The businesses are owned and managed by the workers. As a “worker-owned” cooperative, Genesis lives and breathes fairness as each worker is entitled to a fair share and the business is based on the 1person/1vote principle.
      • Democratic participation- All workers have a voice and participate in the decision-making process. As mentioned Genesis was designed to guarantee the democratic participation of all cooperative workers.
      • Cultivation of women’s leadership – As female-oriented groups, they are dedicated to supporting the spiritual, economic and social growth of other women by facilitating women’s workshops, supporting local women’s initiatives and continually recruiting more women into their program. All the women have grown tremendously in their entrepreneurship roles. They have gained enormous self-confidence in a strong “macho” society and attained unimaginable levels of socio-economic independence from their husbands.
      • Inter-generational perspective- As mothers responsible for the well-being of the family, especially the children, they tend to think about the impact of their actions on future generations. Their long-term perspective motivates them to pass the valuable skills acquired through trial and error and formal trainings to their children. Many of the women plan to pass their business roles on to their daughters. Some of their children already participate in their businesses to a certain degree.
      • Interdependence – Participating in both domestic and agricultural work, these female entrepreneurs possess a natural understanding of the interconnectedness of the social, economic and environmental fields. They made a conscious decision to build a business that would benefit the entire community including the natural world. Generating income alone does not fully sustain families if they are being debilitated by widespread diseases from the consumption of contaminated local food and water.
      • Community development – The women are continually developing new ways to meet the changing and growing needs of society. The small size of their businesses allow the women to easily refocus their efforts on different areas of the community at any given time. AMURECI is predominantly concerned with recycled paper and artwork, but they also connect women to employment opportunities, provide them with leadership advice and support small local projects.
      • Education – Having minimal formal education, these women feel blessed to have completed a vast numbers of trainings virtually related to every sector in society: business management, leadership, gender, communication, conflict resolution, information technology, construction, art, beauty, farming, medicinal plants and the list goes on. Becoming educated in an array of fields has significantly raised their self-esteem and helped them perceive themselves as professional businesswomen. Some have continued their education on their own at local universities and received government-sponsored scholarships. Others have used their skills to start side businesses to supplement their income. Not only are they dedicated to educating themselves, but they become inspired and motivated to educate more women by organizing and facilitating workshops, sharing what they have learned others.
      • Multi-level partnerships – The success of all of these organizations can also be attributed to the resources leveraged from local, national and international institutions. The Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje (INA), a national Costa Rican vocational training institute has been instrumental in imparting basic skills to women that are starting a new business. The Jubilee House Community Inc is an American NGO in Nicaragua that has worked vigorously to train cooperative workers of Genesis in all the nuts and bolts of business administration and management . In all of the microenterprises, women have worked with local schools, universities, private businesses, the municipality, the national government, other microenterprises and international organizations to secure funding, training opportunities, equipment and new markets for the products.
      • Optimism – No matter how great the odds, the women have managed to maintain a remarkably positive attitude. AMURECI is severely struggling with finances and also dealing with the constant lack of community support for their program. With their well-endowed creativity, they have generated new projects bring in additional income. Genesis was deceived $150,000 and have not been able to start work because of the fraud. Amazingly, however, all 18 members remain motivated, hopeful and strong. Like AMURECI, they have designed an alternative income generating project to focus on in the meantime.
      • Unity – Combined with their positive outlook, the women have grown and bonded tremendously together. They have supported each other through the organizations’ peaks and valleys. They have learned to work cooperatively together and also learned much from each other. It is impressive that a group as large as Genesis has continued to work together despite the magnitude of their challenges. COFERENE successfully maintains worker moral by organizing several family-oriented staff excursions a year, bringing the members closer together each time.


      • Tradition – Stands as one of the greatest to barriers for women’s participation in public processes. Women are still expected to dominate the domestic sphere. Their valid reasons for involvement are no match for the religious, cultural and other sociological influences that keep women at home. In the beginning stages of every microenterprise, there is always a large number of female participants. Over time, however, the numbers tend to drop by more than half. Lack of spousal support is cited as the number one reason for the lack of female participation in small business initiatives.
      • Dual roles – All the women juggled multiple responsibilities as the primary caretakers of the home and family, and as the income generators outside the house. Many times, women were permitted to participate under the condition that all responsibilities in the home remained in their hands and completely unchanged. This dual role puts immense pressure on women to combine household responsibilities with business activities and may limit their ability to reach their full potential as female entrepreneurs.
      • Lack of financial capital – Microenterprises are constantly finding themselves struggling to keep their goods and services afloat due the continued lack of funds. Even when financial stability is secured, the loans women receive are seldom large enough to enable the expansion of microenterprises.
      • Capacity building – All of the female entrepreneurs expressed their love and enthusiasm for learning through various capacitation workshops. Local, regional, national and international conferences that regularly bring these change-makers together would help reaffirm their efforts, inspire new ideas for growth and change, provide training in new skill sets, and facilitate the exchange of successes and challenges with like-minded individuals. Conferences also greatly increase the representation of women in the decision-making process at all levels, allowing them to voice their specific needs. A step further would also be pairing newly emerging entrepreneurs with veterans from at home and abroad that share similar experiences and expertise.
      • Volunteer support- Ecotourism or sustainable tourism is an increasingly popular trend among developed countries. In a country that attracts the largest number of tourists in Central America, organizations can recruit volunteers not only through national and international volunteer organizations, but also through tour agencies. They can market their programs in a way that catches the attention of tourists seeking authentic opportunities to interact with the locals in a meaningful way. Sending a flyer or brochure with their mission statement and the volunteer opportunities available could expand their volunteer base. While they may receive short term volunteers, they may also find those that come with the intention of staying for longer periods. Furthermore, a focus on long-term volunteers will also require that lodging options. Organizations can generate extra income by hosting volunteers and charging a reasonable fee. This way, they gain free labor, supplemental income and an enriching intercultural experience.
      • Marketing – All of these microenterprises offer goods and services that are highly beneficial to the community. Yet, most community members are uninformed about the noble work these entrepreneurs do. A comprehensive marketing strategy that targets government officials, local community members, national and international organizations would attract greater attention and lead to greater support in various forms (funds, in-kind, volunteer, etc) for their businesses.


      Women-led microenterprises can become an important vehicle of sustainable development from the bottom-up. As small-scale, low investment projects, they provide immediate personal fulfillment and stable employment, especially for uneducated or semi-educated women. Microenterprises empower women to be self-sufficient financially and emotionally, enabling them to make a meaningful difference in their lives. As this study shows, women are generating new concepts for entrepreneurship by leading microenterprises that, in the long run, produce far reaching economic, social and environmental impacts for the entire community.


      Christie, I. & Warburton, D. 2001. From Here to Sustainability: Politics in the Real World. London: Earthscan.

      Edwards, A.R. 2005 The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. B.C.: New Society Publishers.

      GTZ. World Bank. Inter-American Development Bank. 2010. "Women’s Economic Opportunities in the Formal Private Sector in Latin America and the Caribbean: A Focus on Entrepreneurship."

      Portilla, Melania. 2007. “ The Growing Strength of Rural Micro-entrepreneurs in Latin America and the Caribbean.” COMUNIICA.

      Author: Joan Ngo