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Against the odds

An entrepreneur is someone who undertakes an enterprise, owns and manages a business with a vision to making a profit by using innovative ideas. Entrepre­neurship depends on specific knowledge, skills, mentalities and attitudes. In principle, there should be no difference between men and women. In practice, various constraints limit women’s opportunities to realise their full potential. Bangladesh is an example of this unfortunate trend. Influential NGOs are making a difference however.

By Jinnat Ara and Syed Abdul Hamid

Development of women’s entrepreneurship is an important issue in developing countries like Bangladesh. So far, success remains meagre in the Ganges Delta. Chamber-of-commerce data from 2000 indicates that only 8.3 % of the self-employed population of Bangladesh were women. The situation was better in urban areas where 15.4 % of the self-employed were female. The rate for rural areas was only 7.4 %. Less than 10 % of all business entrepreneurs in Bangladesh were women. In advanced economies, women own more than 25 % of all businesses (Hossain, 2007).

Women in Asian countries typically face certain challenges (Tambunan, 2009), including
– limited access to credit, marketing networks and modern technology,
– lack of self-confidence and personal security,
– risks of sexual harassment and other social and
cultural barriers,
– restrictions on mobility,
– low educational levels and scant training
– heavy household chores,
– lack of peer-support networks,
– inferior status in society and gender-biases in general
– severe competition from organised units both in domestic and international markets.

Daunting challenges

These issues matter in Bangladesh too, as we confirmed in a small case study in Dhaka, the capital city. We interviewed 15 female micro and small-scale entrepreneurs.

All 15 women complained about limited access to credit in both traditional and non-traditional financial institutions. They also considered getting business licenses a key problem by the majority. Accordingly, the women agreed that the government could better support them by facilitating low-interest or even interest-free loans and making it easier to get licences.

Discouragement from family members, relatives and neighbours was another important constraint. Twelve out of 15 entrepreneurs mentioned that their family members, relatives and neighbours advised them against starting a business. Often, they would argue that a woman engaged in business creates a negative image in the society. One woman reported: “When I wanted to start my business, my mother-in-law rebuked and blamed my family for not having raised me properly.” Another woman was warned: “If you start a business, no one will marry you.”

Women who want to start businesses often only have a limited understanding of markets, price bargaining and business life in general. They typically lack vocational as well as technical training. About one-third of women entrepreneurs in our case studies reported at least one of these constraints. Lack of social support and marketing opportunities are further obstacles.

In our male dominated society, socio-cultural discrimination of women is pervasive, from the family to the market place. Women’s educational levels are generally lower than those of men. One consequence is that they find it harder to make sense of market information relating prices, demand, supply, potential competition or innovation options. Because of poor infrastructure, many women choose family- and locally based operations.

The women entrepreneurs, moreover, face the kind of obstacles that haunt small and medium-sized entreprises (SMEs) in general. Midas Financing is a non-banking financial institution that specialises in promoting SMEs in Bangladesh. A recent study that was done on behalf of Midas (2009) found that
– 87.9 % of female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh ­suffered from a lack of capital,
– 21.3 % did not have good marketing opportunities,
– 20.4 % wished they had better access to raw materials,
– 14.2 % lacked skilled workers,
– 9 % did not have any prior business experience,
– 8.7 % were not trained themselves and
– 2,5 % struggled with proper accounts keeping.

Overcoming obstacles

Against all odds, our interviewees are living proof of success being possible. One characteristic they share is a strong sense of determination. For example, one woman told us: “Yes, I’m a woman, but my first identity is I’m a human being. And human beings can do anything. With this strong belief, I always try to solve my problems with courage, mental strength and ­honesty.”

Most of the women we talked to borrowed their initial capital from a non-governmental organisation. There are many microfinance schemes in Bangladesh, and many target women as clients. Some of the women also got financial support from their husbands. Typically, they did active networking to become able to rise to various challenges. Big and influential non-governmental organisations, moreover, lend support to women entrepreneurs.

A leading example is BRAC. Last November, BRAC’s microfinance programme had almost 6 million members, the majority of whom are women. Apart from microcredit, BRAC emphasises skills training in diverse fields, from agriculture to computer literacy. Experience shows that raising awareness of gender issues and boosting the self-confidence of women matter very much in the fight against poverty. In a poor country such as Bangladesh, moreover, there often is no alternative to selfemployment. Mutual support among BRAC-members helps to overcome obstacles.

Aarong is the leading fashion house in Bangladesh. It is the commercial BRAC-division which markets handicrafts and other products of 1300 entrepreneurs, 65 % of whom are women.

BRAC also helps small-scale farmers – including women, of course – to market dairy, poultry and fishery products. BRAC’s Vegetable Seed Initiative is another social enterprise. It provides microcredit clients with quality seed. At present, some 500,000 BRAC members are growing vegetables as their principle way to generate incomes.

BRAC’s Employment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) programme caters to girls and young women. The approach is two-pronged. The programme runs various courses in vocational skills and supports participants with credit as well as savings services. The idea is to help some 230,000 participants to start small home-based businesses to boost their families’ standard of living (see D+C/E+Z 2010:5, p. 196 ff.).

BRAC runs a multitude of programmes, many of which target particular female groups such as widows, divorced women or members of disadvantaged minorities. To give but one example: the global financial crisis led to retrenchment in the garment sector, which is an important industry in our country. BRAC piloted skills training for garment workers who lost their jobs and helped generate new incomes through their own activities.

Another world famous institution that primarily focuses on women in Bangladesh is the Grameen Bank. It provides credit and saving services to more than 7 million micro-entrepreneurs of whom 97 % are women. Grameen Shakti (a corporate sibling of the Grameen Bank) provides training with technical and financial assistance to rural women entrepreneurs to set up renewable energy businesses.

BRAC and the Grameen Bank are the largest and best-known organisations that promote women’s entrepreneurship in Bangladesh (and, increasingly, other countries too). Many smaller NGOs are working with similar methods, however. There can be no doubt that their efforts have contributed to changing the way women are viewed. As elaborated above, women who want to start a business still face many obstacles in Bangladesh, but they are not moving into uncharted social territory.