Boosting productivity in ethnic minority microbusinesses

  • Economy
  • Society

Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship, Aston University 


Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Productivity from Below (PfB) project worked with ethnic minority microbusinesses to understand what support they needed to improve their productivity. These insights were shared with business support organisations which developed customised business support programmes based on the project’s findings.

Research focus

Micro and ethnic minority businesses contribute an estimated £55 billion and £25 billion respectively to the UK economy. Yet despite this contribution, these vibrant enterprises rarely feature in debates on productivity. In addition they also do not attract policy attention, or have access to mainstream business support programmes and initiatives. This results in knowledge gaps on the meaning of productivity, the role of business support providers, and a lack of support that makes a difference to these firms.

Research approach

The project follows the principles of ‘engaged scholarship’, which is an approach to research whereby those closest to the issue of interest (in this case microbusiness industry representatives) are involved, just as much as the researchers, in identifying the research question (establishing the research focus/what are the important issues), recruiting participants, designing research materials, making sense of and contextualising research findings, and developing solutions (where appropriate).

Collaborators and partners

The PfB project is led by Professor Monder Ram, Principal investigator and Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Minority Entrepreneurship (CREME) and Dr Imelda McCarthy, Research Fellow at Aston University and chartered occupational psychologist.

The project is also supported by researchers at Aston University, University of Birmingham and University of Warwick. There are also four practitioner partners – ACH (an award-winning social enterprise promoting employability of migrants), the Bangladeshi Network (comprising four groups with local and national reach), Citizens UK (a national civil society alliance), and Punch Records (a business with a mission to promote artists from diverse backgrounds).

Practitioner partners worked as co-investigators on the project, sharing understanding of what productivity means for ethnic minority-owned microbusinesses and their specific support needs leading to the development of customised business support programmes.

Key findings

PfB demonstrates how learning and insights from grassroots initiatives can be scaled-up, and the value universities can get from developing long-term relationships with local businesses and communities. This is integral to the idea of ‘civic’ universities.

PfB also shows that businesses are keen to engage with academics if the relationship is based on mutual respect and that the partnerships are resilient. These partnerships will be key ingredients of recovery initiatives in the post pandemic era and will make a real difference to local businesses and communities.

Impacts and outcomes

PfB has directly influenced three separate one million-pound projects:

    • Pathways to Enterprising Futures (PEF) an initiative to support 600 women into employment or self-employment in Birmingham
    • The Migrant Business Support project that will provide business support to 500 migrant-owned businesses in Bristol and the West Midlands
    • A programme of support, funded by the European Commission, that will support migrant businesses across Belgium, Greece, Latvia and Spain.

Other project outcomes

    • PfB has produced immediate and long-term benefits for ethnic minority businesses during the pandemic. For example in collaboration with Citizens UK the researchers helped local  retailers access emergency funds and aided the establishment of a Business Leadership Group. Restaurateurs were helped to access training in digital marketing to enhance their reach and offer to customers, at a time when they could only offer takeway services due to lockdown restrictions.
    • Researchers worked alongside Punch Records, to develop ‘The P Word’, a leadership development programme for creatives that targeted professional and practical barriers to commerciality (an area that creatives, who excel in their craft, are often reluctant to develop for fear of losing authenticity but as a consequence may miss out on the benefits of enhancing their business acumen) by focusing on career development, entrepreneurial fundamentals, finances and funding, digital marketing, and branding. The programme was  successful in securing funding for several participants, which has gone on to support activities ranging from developing business services to artistic performances.
    • Contrary to received wisdom in academic and policy circles, we find that micro and ethnic minority businesses are: open to support programmes to improve productivity, keen to engage with Universities and policy intermediaries, and interested in developing long-term collaborations to promote economic and social value developmental programmes aimed at improving their productivity more than is often portrayed.

Find out more

“The intervention that Aston [University] facilitated was really important in helping us tackle the challenging situation caused by the pandemic… once you start utilising social media you realise that you can actually access thousands of people, and it really broadened my horizons and gave me a new way of marketing the restaurant.”

Shahab Uddin Restaurateur and owner of Bangladeshi restaurant Streetly Balti

“The incubator space [provided by The P Word] gave me a platform to bury down into my ideas, think about things practically and turn my ideas into a business.”

Namywa Jazz musician, artist and participant in the P Word Leadership Programme