Meeting the Changing Needs of Women Entrepreneurs in Post-Conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina

As memories of war fade in Bosnia and Herzegovina, an organization established 15 years ago to help women heal their emotional wounds of battle is finding that it must reorganize to meet changing needs. But the people who work at the organization still believe they have an important role to play in the new Bosnia.

In 1995, when Nejira Nalic was director of Bospo, a humanitarian organization that helped women recover from the emotional wounds of the Bosnian War, she visited a female refugee in Zivinice, a town in northeastern Bosnia and Herzogovina. The woman, Tifa Patkovic, had been receiving therapy, but when asked what she would do if she had money, she showed that her concerns were economic as well as emotional. “I would do what I do best,” she said. “I would buy a goat.”

The encounter made a lasting impression on Nalic, and began a transformation in Bospo that is still underway. Initially established by the Danish Refugee Council to provide psychological and social services in the war-torn nation, the organization increasingly has focused on meeting its clients’ financial needs. In 1996, the organization – by then it was chartered as a Bosnian non-governmental organization, MI-Bospo – received World Bank funding to explore opportunities for microcredit. In 2000, it registered as a nonprofit microcredit organization. IFC provided a $2 million loan to support MI-Bospo’s microfinance operations. Also, with advisory services from the IFC, MI-Bospo is becoming a commercial microcredit company.

The changes at MI-Bospo reflect broader shifts in Bosnian society. Ten years ago, Bosnia was still reeling from the war. Places like Zivinice were overwhelmed with refugees, and many citizens were living at subsistence levels. Today, while scars remain, economic development is replacing recovery as people’s leading concern.

MI-Bospo’s own client base reflects the change. A few years ago, 90 percent of its clients were people like Tifa Patkovic who borrowed small sums to buy goats, cows or chickens, typically using the animals’ milk or eggs to feed their own families and selling the surplus to repay the loans. But today, that type of customer represents only 55 percent of the organization’s client base. The remainder – now 45 percent and growing – want to start or expand businesses, and intend to plow much of their profits back into their businesses once they have repaid the loans.

Mirjana Pejic, who with her father, Rudolf, runs a family restaurant on a few hectares near MI-Bospo’s headquarters in Tuzla, typifies the new breed. She raises fish for the restaurant from a man-made pond on the property. The family would like to borrow 50,000 euro to expand the business – among other ways, by putting up bungalows for overnight guests. The business is a clear success. But to keep such clients, MI-BOSPO needs to raise more capital and free itself of legal restrictions on how much non-profit organizations can spend.

Nalic is determined to do just that, but she insists that the organization must remain true to its original mission of helping women. As she sees it, women differ from men in what they want from a financial institution. “They want better explanations and better relationships with their lenders, while men tend to focus more on the ‘mathematics’ of a deal,” said Nalic.

Women also want lenders sensitive to their business aspirations. Consider Vera Durakovic, a Tuzla businesswoman, who has opened two hairdressing salons and a perfume shop with help from MI-Bospo, and would like to start a health food restaurant.

She got into business to feel useful after her children had grown. But she’s not really in it for the money. “The most important thing for me is that I provide employment and wages,” she said. “It’s also important to create a place where people can interact in this post-war period.”