Natia Ninikelashvili receives us at the Farmers’ Association on Ateni Street, Tbilisi. She is not a farmer, but for the past five years her life has revolved around Guda cheese from Tusheti and traditional Kakhetian wine or churchkhelas. Because Nina has founded an online platform, Soplidan.ge, that supplies the population of Tbilisi with products delivered from various villages.
She had never thought about starting an e-commerce company, but circumstances came together to create Soplidan.ge. When Natia had children, her mother began sending them farm products from Kakheti, such as eggs, herbs, and chickens. It soon turned out that other mothers, and not only, wanted the same. That was the spark for the idea of creating an innovative platform, connecting customers from the city with farmers in the countryside.
Natia stands out as a woman in the field of technology: just 12% of women in Georgia are employed in science, technology and engineering, compared to 30% internationally.
“Computers and maths are not a women’s business”, “girls don’t usually choose this profession”… With such stereotypes, the field of information technology has lost many successful professionals.
International studies show that girls in Georgia do just as well as boys in scientific and technical subjects at school, but they do not continue in the field at vocational and higher educational institutions. Girls who do choose such subjects receive less support from teachers and parents, and often find doors closed when it comes to jobs.
Natia founded her company in 2015. At the time, there was no similar start-up on the market.
“I shared the idea with one of my woman friends. We each collected 1500 GEL. We didn’t say anything to anyone, not even our husbands, because we thought they would tell us the idea wouldn’t work and to take care of our stable jobs. We performed all the work in secret. We had our web page ready in June. Soon, the products were purchased, packed and prepared, and we launched the platform on October 1, after observing, thinking systematically, and promoting it on Facebook in advance.”
Soplidan.ge received orders on the very first day and hasn’t stopped since – indeed demand rose even further during the coronavirus lockdown, which closed markets and made it vital for farmers to find alternative ways to distribute their produce, and consumers to buy them online.
According to Natia, more than 400 farmers supply the company now, while 60% of staff at Soplidan.ge are women.
However, Natia has often found it difficult impossible to get funding for business development.
Access to finance is a major problem for start-ups, especially for women. In most cases, a woman who wants to take a loan to start a business, does not own property as collateral, reducing her chances of getting funding.
It’s no coincidence that the European Union’s EU4Digital initiative has focused on access to finance for digital innovation companies when developing a country-specific strategy in Georgia. Based on EU best practices, the project has developed a set of recommendations that identify EU tools, platforms, and practices that can be transposed to Georgia, addressing the financing needs of both start-ups and SMEs with digital innovations at the heart of their business model.
Natia adds that despite her good education, she had no experience in technology-related business, and the process felt like walking an unmarked path. She learned on the job, listening to consumers and their needs.
This is a challenge acknowledged by the EU4Digital’s ICT Innovation lead expert Anna Pobol: “The EU4Digital Facility attempts to involve women in all of its ongoing activities, and exhibits a distinct approach to targeting the needs of women in networking and training,” she says, adding that support for women in ICT innovation should include awareness raising on opportunities, promotion of digital skills & education, and mentorship and guidance for women like Natia who decide to start their own business.
A growing emphasis on technology around the world
Technological innovation is the driving force for socio-economic change. It allows countries to reorganise their economies and become global players, grow faster, create new jobs and provide better living conditions for their citizens. It also helps traditional sectors of the economy through digital transformation.
The technology sector is expanding in all the Eastern partner countries, including Georgia. Many innovative ideas are born in the region, some of which reach the global market, but shortcomings in the ecosystem hinder further growth. Where there are 80 business incubators and 150 accelerators in the EU, there are only 42 incubators and 19 accelerators in the six Eastern partner countries.
Start-ups often say they do not need support from the government, mostly meaning that they want the freedom to develop and innovate without interference or red tape. But innovation needs an appropriate environment to thrive. This means that access to knowledge or finance must be facilitated by the government. The recommendations from EU4Digital highlight the experience of EU countries and the presence of necessary players in the ecosystem, whichprotect start-ups from mistakes and offer guidance, guarantees and safeguards for investors. In the absence of such protections, innovators will leave to implement their ideas elsewhere.
What about education?
Until now, people involved in technology in Georgia have often acquired knowledge through trial and error. But thesituation is changing, with students’ interest in technological innovations rising every year.
“More and more students want to get an education in this field,” says Nino Enukidze, Rector of the Business and Technology University in Tbilisi. “Georgia is taking on the latest technological trends at a fast pace. These trends are changing very fast, and the adaptation process is also very prompt. In the last few years, demand has increased in all the universities where the programme is taught.“
But the share of women remains small.
“An average of 25% of students on IT programmes are girls. We and other universities face a similar picture, which is reflected on the labour market as well,” says Nino.
She notes that girls studying IT have a higher academic achievement than boys: “Since there are very few girls studying in this field, their decision is very deliberate. Girls are far more motivated than boys, despite the fact that the number of boys applying for this programme is three times higher.”
“Technologies are changing every industry, and with such a high demand for skilled staff, it is not acceptable for women not to be involved in this process.”
According to Nino Enukidze, stereotypes remain the main obstacle. Not only are computer-related professions seen as amale preserve, men are seen as stronger in generating innovation and more capable of running a business.
In response to this challenge, the Business and Technology University, in collaboration with UN Women, has established a Coding School for Women, enabling women to study programming free of charge. In the first phase of the project, 30 women from Tbilisi were selected, and employed in web companies after completing the course. In the future, women from the regions will also join the initiative. They will be able to work from Georgia for companies in different countries.
EU member states are taking important steps to empower women in the field of innovation and technology. And learning from EU experience is an invaluable opportunity for Georgia. Universities are now actively involved in developing the proper ecosystem for start-ups, including business incubators, accelerators, hackathons, laboratory research centres, and fablabs.
“I would tell girls interested in technology that not a single girl should give up the knowledge and skills she has in maths, computer science or engineering. The whole civilised world is working to ensure that their talents are not overshadowed, their experience is not lost and their work is supported by international organisations. Therefore, regardless of what the family and society thinks, I would advise them to take a step in this direction because our future is related to technology,” Nino insists.
What is Georgia doing to encourage women’s involvement in technology?
Mariam Lashkhi is the Deputy Chairperson of the Georgian Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA). She has an education in technology and has faced a number of barriers herself.
“There were only one or two girl students on my course. When I chose to acquire this education, everyone was wondering why I was so interested to master a boy’s profession. When someone mentions an IT specialist, everyone automatically thinks it’s a man. This stigma should be overcome once and for all.”
Now Mariam is helping other women to start working in technology. Her daily activities cover the creation of a proper ecosystem for the development of innovations and technologies. She identifies three key elements that are crucial to increase women’s involvement: raising awareness to battle stereotypes – Mariam Lashkhi points out that parents often encourage girls to “stop playing with computers and find a proper job, such as working in a bank – a position that might not even exist tomorrow because of technology!”; forming a community, something GITA encourages through annual events for women in technology to meet up and share experiences; and encouraging women’s participation – “we are well aware of success stories in EU countries where incentives have helped to create a friendly technology environment for women,” she says.
Finland, for example, has implemented programmes to increase women’s involvement in technology, including access to loans, grants and mentoring programmes, the provision of resources necessary for business development, and even the reimbursement of the salary of the first hired employee. The share of women-led start-ups there is 30%, and the immediate goal is to increase this to 40%.
Mariam Lashkhi says the EU Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement give Georgia an opportunity to participate in a very important process.
“Our country really needs such cooperation. The assistance from donors such as the European Union is important because it expands the access to expertise and additional financial resources.”
Through the EU4Digital initiative, the European Union promotes reforms and activities to support the development of information and communication technologies (ICT) research, start-ups and innovative ecosystems across the Eastern Partnership region. The initiative aims to increase access to high quality scientific research and international investment, open the EU market for start-ups in the region and develop the innovation ecosystem for the creation of more jobs for talented young people.
Anna Pobol, EU4Digital’s ICT Innovation lead expert, notes that the distribution of workload among women and men in the Eastern partner countries is disproportionate, compared to the EU. Women spend a lot time on household chores and are responsible for raising children, all on top of their working hours. And so the daily routine, on top of existing stereotypes, limits the formation of a more balanced, customer-oriented and intellectually rich field in the digital economy.
She adds that evidence shows that women in this field are more prudent than men. They analyse possible risks in advance, discuss possible scenarios, and only then take further steps. They can add more creative elements, more inclusive approaches and emotions to the field, and are more focused on conflict resolution.
Anna notes that Georgia is a leader of the region in certain areas such as the development of a regulatory environment for digital finance. Existing companies and start-ups here are getting more and more opportunities to become large global companies and these opportunities should be exploited by men and women equally.
Studies show that 65% of children currently in lower grades will be employed in professions related to technology and science in the future. As a result of the development of EU support programmes and start-up infrastructure, Georgian women will not be deprived of this process either.
EU4Digital aims to extend the benefits of the European Union’s Digital Single Market to the Eastern Partner states, channelling EU support to develop the potential of the digital economy and society, in order to bring economic growth, generate more jobs, improve people’s lives and help businesses in Georgia and the other Eastern partner countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine. Find out more about EU4Digital at https://eufordigital.eu/
By Salome Chikviladze, full story published on On.ge