THE Asean-Japan Centre is an intergovernmental organization established by the Asean member states and Japan in 1981. It has been working to promote economic partnership in trade, investment and tourism, as well as promoting exchanges of persons between the two parties. As part of its exchange promotion activity, the Centre has annually organized an exchange program among women entrepreneurs in the Asean Member States and Japan since 2014.
“Since I assumed the post of Secretary General of the Asean-Japan Centre in September 2015, I have committed to promoting a gender perspective in Centre’s activities as it contributes to the sustainable development of the region,” Secretary General Masataka Fujita of the Asean-Japan Centre explained during an exclusive interview with The Manila Times.
He explained that as the international community contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that were adopted in 2015 at the United Nations, Asean is making efforts to create a people-centered, people-oriented community; Asean women entrepreneurs are also expected to play an active role in it. Women, however, continue to represent an under-utilized pool of entrepreneurial talent. Therefore, he continued, enhancing human capital development for women MSMEs is advocated in the Asean Economic Community Blueprint 2025 and the ASEAN Strategic Action Plan for SME Development (SAP SMED) also highlights the need of promotion of women entrepreneurs through capacity building, market access, branding and packaging (Action Line E-2-2-2).
In response to this, the Centre launched the AJWELP, which is a renewed exchange program for women entrepreneurs designed to include various approaches to empower them as well as provide them with a platform for a meet-up with private companies that could become their supporting enterprises, mentors and academic partners, and help them support each other with their knowledge and resources for sustainable development.
Fujita mentioned that there are three areas in which the Centre can orient itself toward furthering women entrepreneurship in Asean and strengthening the partnership between Asean and Japanese women entrepreneurs.
One area is to establish a network on women entrepreneurs in Asean and Japan to exchange best practices and share experiences in overcoming gender-related problems and expanding their own businesses. The Centre’s past exchange programs for women entrepreneurs rather focused on this aspect.
The second area is how the Centre can support women’s business start-ups and provide training that can help such businesses to grow. The comprehensive training program is required if the objective is to foster women entrepreneurship.
Third, women entrepreneurs should be more linked formally with the big or established companies. Some transnational corporations (TNCs) have already supported women’s empowerment through the provision of training, skill upgrading and the promotion of gender non-discrimination policies and actions within their businesses. Linking women entrepreneurs with TNCs is another strong venue to propagate gender equality in businesses.
The business presentation of the AJWELP, which pursued to foster voluntary support linkages, was close to this third area, but the approach was different, he said.
“Formal establishment of the linkage between local SMEs and TNCs requires involvement of the central or local government as has been seen in Malaysia and Thailand. On the other hand, linkage formation on a voluntary basis does not necessarily lead to concrete results such as business expansion and transfer of technology to women entrepreneurs, but they operate free from any constraints, and many parts of SME businesses grow by chance.” As voluntary linkage and formal linkage have benefits respectively, he emphasized that both are important.
Fujita also stressed that women entrepreneurs are powerful agents of change, the change that can contribute to sustainable development. Women business persons tend to be engaged more in sustainable development sectors and, even if engaged in different sectors, pay more attention to corporate social responsibility and should contribute to sustainable development. Therefore, he continued, the AJWELP is also designed to contribute to sustainable development by emphasizing more socially responsible entrepreneurship.
In conclusion, Fujita said, “The Asean-Japan Centre will continue to assist in creating links between Asean women entrepreneurs through the Asean-Japan Women Entrepreneurs’ Linkage Program because we believe that by creating links, Asean women entrepreneurs could grow far. With the many challenges these women are facing, support from the big companies would be of great help until the linkages are established formally.”