By Luis Brizuela (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Rosa del Pilar Luque learned through family tradition the art of making sweets. In 2014, when she found herself without work, alone and tasked with taking care of her three children, she decided to use this talent to start a business in the San Agustin neighborhood, on the outskirts of the Cuban capital.
“I felt that the world was collapsing on me, I didn’t know how to confront my household economy, because I was the sole provider”, this desserts maker told IPS. She started without any initial capital nor any partner, working with a depressed and unstable supplies market and a rustic oven.
Becoming an entrepreneur changed her life, a process which, she assured, was helped by the courses and workshops of CubaEmprende, a project of the catholic Archbishop of Havana that since 2012 offers training and business assistance to people who decide to start or improve an economic activity within the types of independent work allowed.
Today Dulce Rosa, as Luque named her business, operates with five industrial ovens and specializes in pastries (cakes) for weddings and birthdays.
The business also caters buffets, with salty and sweet dishes prepared on demand for distinct celebrations, taking advantage that since December 2018, new provisions reordered self-employment and authorized more than one license per person to carry out different activities.
“I travel abroad and import some candies and supplies, such as little gift bags, table cloths, napkins and other supplies”, explained the entrepreneur.
Thanks to the use of social media to promote her products and services, a task that her children assist her with, Luque has gained customers from distant places such as Old Havana, Guanabacoa and Eastern Havana, three of the fifteen municipalities of the Cuban capital.
The government says that some 600,000 of the 11.2 millions of inhabitants in Cuba work as self-employed workers, as the government refers to the country’s private sector, in the 128 authorized activities. Of them, 32 percent are young people and 35 percent – women. (Self-employed includes working for others who have businesses).
Havana, with almost 20 percent of the country’s population, is where the vast majority of people who work in private businesses live. [Nonetheless, the State is still by far the largest employer.]
Statistics indicate that the most common modalities of private activity are food processing and sales, freight and passenger transport, renting of homes, rooms and premises and workers employed by other small business owners.
In the capital, such work is usually more attractive in municipalities like Old Havana, Central Havana, Revolution Square, Playa, Cerro and Diez de Octubre.
On top of the high population density and the large presence of markets and commerce, it is here where the headquarters of government ministries and businesses, including the principal political, economic, cultural, touristic and diplomatic entities of the nation – are located, which boosts its attractiveness.
However, far from these zones, women like Danilsy Ramirez also show successful experiences.
This cosmetologist, 36, decided in 2009 to branch out in beauty products and haircuts, alongside searching for accessories, she stated to IPS: “various female friends told me that I was talented for doing hair and makeup.”
As such was born the Salon Dany, Ramirez’ hairdressers, located in her neighborhood of Capdevilla, in the Boyeros municipality, which is never without clients, and its owner classifies her establishment as a ‘consolidated business’, in spite of being in a sparsely inhabited zone.
“At the beginning I doubted a lot of it would work. I made a strong investment in quality products that I needed to accumulate, as the market here is very unstable. The customers grew, mainly be word of mouth. Even though I haven’t a website, many people know me already and come looking for me.” She added.
Both Luque and Ramirez assured that the locations of their businesses do not limit their development and that managing them has contributed to personal empowerment and social advancement.
“My beauty salon has grown thanks to the effort and persistence in daily work”, stated Ramirez.
Meanwhile, Luque reflected “when a woman manages her own business, and she does it with the help of her family, the household has more harmony because income improves as well the quality of life and wellbeing.”
In 2010, the then government of Raul Castro (2008-2018) authorized the extension of some self-employment, with the objective of updating the Cuban economy.
The measure, which the socialist government has described as “irreversible,” sought to free the enormous state apparatus of hundreds of thousands of workers and non-strategic activities, as well as capitalize on taxes, in order to revive the national economy immersed in a persistent crisis since 1991.
As part of this stimulus, which has not been without obstacles and delays, the private sector grew – and with it, also the number of Cuban entrepreneurs and those who were hired in small and medium businesses in the sector throughout the country.
However, the figures reveal the persistence of gaps such as gender, and the need to reduce them through public policies that complement state laws stipulating non-discrimination and equal rights.
This would contribute to the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda of the United Nations, with 169 goals in the economic, social and environmental dimensions.
SDG 5, related to gender equality, notes that empowering women and girls has a multiplier effect and helps to promote economic growth and development worldwide.
Arlen Martínez, Communication Coordinator of CubaEmprende, told IPS that “the majority of those who come to train are women… because they aren’t afraid to say they don’t know and need help, unlike many men, permeated by the macho culture.”
However, elements conspiring against equal opportunities remain in this country.
“Nobody tells a woman that she cannot start a business; however, when she starts, she faces difficulties that men usually don’t have,” said Martinez, a 31-year-old communicator, mother of two children and also an entrepreneur.
She mentioned, for example, the double work day that also includes domestic tasks, as well as the care of parents and/or children, along with other social activities.
The National Survey of Gender Equality (Enig-2016), published in February of this year, showed that in a given week Cuban women spend an average of 14 hours more than men in unpaid work whereas men undertake 12 more hours of paid labor than women.
In the home, men and women spend an average of 28.22 hours a week on domestic and care work, but with important differences: 35.20 hours for women go against the 21.94 hours by men.
“Another problem is that many female entrepreneurs often have problems with their suppliers or subordinates when they are men, because they find it hard to recognize a woman as the leader of a project,” Martinez said.
In her opinion: “more value must be given to the entrepreneurial woman and her efforts”.
The specialist advocated, beyond diversifying the laws that support female entrepreneurship, there is a need to make use of existing ones – as some, she said, protect women in terms of maternity leave, with or without pay, loans and other benefits, but they are not known.
“As the country lacks a history of policies related to independent (non-state) work, there is a lot of skepticism. Perhaps we should learn from other countries in the region with many more public policies that stimulate development, not only for women but also for entrepreneurs in general,” she said.