Since 2005, The Small And Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS) has fostered entrepreneurship and financial sustainability in Yemen. We do this by linking development and humanitarian projects together in order to create sustainable jobs that influence social good. As such, we strengthen food supply chains and associated small businesses across the country. SEMPS hopes to see small and medium businesses expand into new areas of the market and introduce new products.
In Yemen, COVID-19 is an evolving disaster that is further challenged by ongoing conflict. The context and needs keep changing, so we have to remain nimble in our response. Even though much of the population lacks reliable access to information, and the changing circumstances of conflict prevent consistent outreach, SMEPS has launched several successful initiatives aimed at keeping people informed and safe.
Here are the three things that have helped SMEPS respond and adapt rapidly during COVID-19.
We already had trust with the communities. Our early response to COVID-19 was enabled by our existing good relationships with the communities we serve. Before COVID-19, we were in the field as much as possible and people came to know and trust us. Our Communications Team was responsible for going into the field to connect with people and hear what more we could do to help. We always tell people, “don’t thank us. Share your honest thoughts”, which opens up space for an honest conversation. Over the years, people came to see that we were there to serve and had good intentions, and they began to open up to us. Once I went into the field and there was a farmer who said that though we had supported him, we were late with our support. I took a video of him saying his complaint and we posted it with the hashtag #SEMPSLearning to show that we make mistakes but are receptive to feedback and trying to improve.
Publicly celebrating critical feedback showed people that we seek to be of service and can be trusted. As a result of this continual effort, we’ve built meaningful, mutual relationships with our constituents.
These relationships with the community proved paramount in our COVID-19 response. When the first case of COVID-19 was still announced in the neighboring country Jordan, we could tell things were going to get bad and we immediately started our response planning. Since many of the people we serve live in rural settings and don’t have access to reliable information, we figured that the best way to reach them would be to go through their social network. We went door to door in communities raising awareness to people like housewives (who see a lot of people each day) about COVID-19. We also called people who are well connected and got them on board to share information about the virus with their communities. We wouldn’t have known who to go to, or have been able to gain the trust of those well-connected community members if we hadn’t already worked to build a mutual relationship with them. At a time where we had to all be “socially distant”, I can say that relationships matter more than ever.
We adjusted our communications to the cultural context. Some communities lack access to typical communication channels such as the news or social media. At the beginning of the pandemic, we reached these communities through door to door visits. Often, we would show up and discover that they did not even know about COVID-19. When working in this context, we decided to take an approach of kindness over fear. We wouldn’t frighten them with news of death but instead explain what COVID-19 was and how they could take precautions.
To reach digitally active communities, we use a lot of social media (especially videos) to educate people about COVID-19. We have reached about 30 million people on social media with simple messaging and a simple video that had the main COVID-19 prevention measures in it and that message spread. This video was done in-house by myself and several colleagues. I remember walking into a grocery store once and being recognized by someone who saw the video! Of course, there are lots of people who do not use social media or do not have access to social media. For this audience, we have started using TV as another way of reaching people, and have reached 1 million views so far. Radio is another effective way of reaching people outside of cities.
We asked one livestock breeder what she listens to, and she said she and a lot of other agricultural workers use radios while they are working. We had never thought radio would be an effective tool, but it now allows us to reach new audiences.
No matter the method of communication, there are a few communication rules we always follow. We use simple language when talking about COVID-19 and preventative measures so that anyone can understand our message. And we always communicate with kindness so that we do not contribute to fear or hysteria in an often-fearful time. We want to be a positive source of information and guidance for the communities we serve during COVID-19.
Being able to reach people is essential during a public health emergency, and our multi-channel, flexible approach has helped us connect with a wider audience that otherwise may have never heard of the virus until it reached their town.
We gave people choices and opportunities for feedback. At the start of the pandemic, we continued our typical site visits where we collect feedback. Beyond collecting general data about the health and success of our projects, our Monitoring and Evaluation team operates a grievance system which people we work with use if they have a complaint. We respond within three days to make the problem right. It is a simple way of showing people we care and are willing to help. As COVID-19 spread across the country, this feedback system proved critical. After a few weeks of spreading the word and delivering supplies based on feedback, lockdowns between cities started and movement became restricted. We anticipated this happening but we were happy to have used the window of opportunity reaching hundreds of rural households with the awareness campaign. In response to the lockdowns, we dropped projects we could no longer run and shifted all of our funding towards emergency cash transfers to the people we serve. But we did not stop listening to feedback. We heard from communities that they had three main needs: food, hygiene materials (a result of the awareness campaign that we conducted!), and agriculture inputs like feed or seeds. The cash transfers supported them to procure these items.
Our communities had the choice of utilizing the cash to ensure we had the best outcomes. If we had just provided them with food, or our choice of agriculture/livestock inputs, some people would surely have sold it to get the other supplies they needed. Even though we had to drop some projects, feedback pushed us forward to continue making an impact.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly changed the world and our work. Though these times are stressful and present new challenges, SMEPS has been able to adapt effectively throughout, with both our communities and even with our staff. Our staff continued working even during the spread, following all precautionary measures to ensure that we truly made a difference to the thousands of people we serve. We also supported our staff with continuous medical check-ups & health support as well as nutrition through meals in the office. This support made us better prepared to face the challenges of the pandemic in our community.
We are nimble because we have deep relationships with the communities we serve, flexible, multi-channel communications, and a feedback system in place to notice and adjust to needs as they occur. Through these methods, we were able to develop a response that truly reflects the unique needs of the communities we serve in Yemen. As COVID-19 continues to unfold, but we will continue to support our beneficiaries with adaptability and an open ear.
Farah Fahd Abdulaziz Al-Wazeer, who hails from Yemen, works for The Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Service (SMEPS). SMEPS is a young development agency established as a subsidiary of the Social Fund for Development (SFD) in Yemen in 2006. They seek to build and facilitate the economic and technical capacities of market-driven private-sector parties. The program has been a huge success: Though Yemen is in a conflict zone, and salaries have been stagnant, Farah is proud to say that SMEPS has created 75,000 jobs this year. She is excited to bring her skills to the Feedback Fellows group, including her communications abilities, her knowledge of M&E and feedback systems. She is looking forward to learning from all of the other fellows’ diverse experiences.