Small business owners in South Sudan bear the brunt of COVID-19 as livelihoods shrink

As of early July, South Sudan confirmed more than 2,000 coronavirus cases. The implementation of social distancing rules, curfews and the closure of non-essential business has had a drastic impact on small businesses, especially in the informal sector where women constitute the majority of the work force. Now that businesses have been allowed to re-open with social distancing measures in place, women are working to adapt their businesses and get back on their feet.


For Margret Raman, 38, the COVID-19 pandemic and prevention measures have cost more than 50 per cent of her income. Raman, 38, a single mother of five, supports her family by selling beans and groundnuts at Masiya Market in Yambio, South Sudan. As social distancing guidelines drastically reduced the number of people visiting the market, Raman’s business has suffered a major loss.

Raman, whose business had grown in the last few years after participating in training on business and financial management skills, is devastated by the impact on her business.

“Our businesses have been growing, only to be disrupted by COVID-19,” she said. “Since the [advent] of COVID-19, our lives have not been the same. Under normal circumstances, I make about SSP 28,000 [USD 100 ] in a week. This has recently been reduced to below half, SSP 10,000 [USD 34 ] a week.”

Since 2018, UN Women in partnership with Change Agency Organization (CAO) has been running a livelihood and gender-based violence protection programme to help women like Raman grow their small businesses. Funded by the Government of Germany, the programme has reached 3,650 individuals, including 2,980 women, but with the spread of the new coronavirus in South Sudan, many participating business-owners are unable to sustain their growth. 

Agnes, a vendor at Masiya Market in Yambio, South Sudan, sells vegetables while wearing a face mask distributed by UN Women.
Agnes, a vendor at Masiya Market in Yambio, South Sudan, sells vegetables while wearing a face mask distributed by UN Women. Photo: UN Women/ Estella Turukoyo John

During the COVID-19 pandemic, UN Women is shifting gears to support women during the ongoing crisis.

“UN Women in South Sudan continues to provide training to women on business management, and also on diversifying their businesses to create products that can continue to sell even in the context of COVID-19,” said UN Women Deputy Country Representative Paulina Chiwangu. “UN Women is currently supporting 52 all-women tailoring groups to produce masks,; in this way women are not only earning income from selling face masks, but they are directly contributing to efforts aimed at preventing further spread of COVID-19”.

UN Women is currently supporting 52 women’s tailoring groups to produce and sell face masks. Photo: UN Women/ Estella Turukoyo John
UN Women is currently supporting 52 women’s tailoring groups to produce and sell face masks. Photo: UN Women/ Estella Turukoyo John

With the price of goods in the market rising, and fewer customers, restaurant owners like Helen Poni need support to adapt their businesses.

Poni, 25, operates a mobile restaurant business in the evenings. Ever since her father passed away, she supports her younger siblings and is the sole provider for her family.

“The number of clients who used to come to eat dinner at my restaurant has reduced because of the fear of the coronavirus,” she said.

Poni hopes that small businesses such as hers can be scaled up in order to continuing operating.

“I hope to get more money so that I can rent a shop and operate from morning to evening and earn more profits by keeping longer working hours. Now I have to wait for sunset because there is no space,” she said.

In South Sudan, most businesses operated by women are overwhelmingly micro or small sized. For Raman, the decreased income now has forced her to make tough choices about her future business plans.

“I have suspended some of the activities I planned to do this year,” she said. “For instance, as the rainy season sets in in South Sudan, I had planned to buy seeds and increase my acreage of maize so that I can have food security and sell some maize to World Food Programme at the end of the season.”

Raman and fellow small-business owners are turning to one another for support during the hard times.

The Anigi Village Savings Group, a community-based savings and loans group formed as part of the programme, and which Raman is a member of, has decided to continue meeting to help its members. In order to follow social distancing guidelines, the group has agreed to have only the executive committee members meet on behalf of the rest of the group members to calculate savings and administer loans.

Last month, when one of the members needed 30,000 SSP [USD 230] the Savings Group stepped in to provide a small-interest loan so that she could start selling of vegetables in the market to support her family. The loan is expected to be refunded in two months maximum, after the member makes profits and the business is stable enough to stand on its own.

The Anigi Village Savings Group usually gives out loans without interest to women in the community who have business ideas to explore but don’t have money to implement their ideas.

“In the meantime, savings and lending continues, as this is the only way to secure our small businesses," Raman said.