Baby Hassan (R) inspects items at BS Apparels, her own enterprise, in Chattogram. A recent photo by Sowrav Das
Baby Hassan (R) inspects items at BS Apparels, her own enterprise, in Chattogram. A recent photo by Sowrav Das

Nargis Ahmed didn’t feel quite easy about taking money from her husband to buy her ailing father fruit and medicines. She decided to do something about it and started on online business through Facebook, with just 30 dresses.

Nargis today owns a full-fledged boutique as well as a crockery shop. Her husband and she have even bought a flat in Dhaka with their pooled resources. And now Nargis pays for the installments on their flat, her two sons’ school fees and other family expenses.

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Women are rapidly jumping onto the entrepreneurship wagon, many in the clothes, cosmetics and such businesses, as well as entering the software, light machinery, furniture and similar industries. With the help of social media, women are getting more and more into business as they can do so from their homes as well. Their entrepreneurship is also providing employment to more women.

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Senior researcher of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) Nazneen Ahmed said that women entrepreneurs are contributing to their families and to the national economy. However, they still face innumerable obstacles on their way forward. Many women plunge into their businesses without proper preparation.

According to the last economic census of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) carried out in 2013, there were around 7.8 million business enterprises in the country, of which only 7 per cent were owned by women.

The latest labour survey of BBS (2016-17) stated that just over one-third of the women within the 15 and over age group were involved in some income generating activities and 12 per cent of them were entrepreneurs.

Mastercard's last year’s survey said that just over one-third of Bangladesh’s entrepreneurs are women

The multinational financial transaction company Mastercard carried out a survey in 58 countries. Their last year’s survey said that just over one-third of Bangladesh’s entrepreneurs are women.

Homemakers and students

Lubana Yasmin of Sylhet got married before she even passed out of high school and became a mother within a year. She later earned her Bachelor’s degree and today she is a contractor. She has her own firm and is implementing three government projects in Sylhet city.

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The government-run Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) Foundation ran a survey in 2017 about 1510 women entrepreneurs. The results of the survey published last year showed that most of the women entrepreneurs were between 30 to 50 years of age. And 67 per cent of them were homemakers. Students were next among the women entrepreneurs.

Shakera Begum of Khulna took up a job as school teacher back in 1984 and her salary was just Tk 300 a month. Later she began a block print, batik and embroidery business.

Joyeta Foundation of the ministry for women and children’s affairs provides training for women entrepreneurs. They arrange for the marketing of products. Women entrepreneurs of 88 member organisations of the foundation can avail these facilities.

Online entrepreneurship

Taslima Miji designs and manufactures leather products in her factory and sells these at home and abroad. She said that by virtue information technology, anyone can now tap into local and foreign markets. Women must take advantage of this.

The increase in women entrepreneurship is linked to the growth of e-commerce and Facebook. Women are selling everything online, from clothes to cosmetics, food to furniture and more.

ShopUp is a one-stop solution for entrepreneurs. Over 20,000 small entrepreneurs are involved in this, half of whom are women.

Vice president of the e-commerce Association of Bangladesh, Mohammed Shahabuddin, said that there are around 40,000 Facebook pages actively involved in online business with an annual turnover of around Tk 200 billion.

Ishratul Jahan, who graduated from Dhaka University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications, borrowed Tk 30,000 from a friend to start up business of doing bridal makeup in her own house. Today, through Facebook publicity, she now owns a beauty salon.

Obstacles remain

State minister for women and children’s affairs, Fazilatun Nesa Indira, said that the government gives importance to women’s economic equality. They want to create 100,000 women entrepreneurs this year. The government is increasing facilities in this regard.

But women still have many obstacles, both within the family and within the society as a whole. They face more challenges than their male counterparts.

Professor Abu Yunus of the development studies department at Dhaka University said that capital remains the main challenge for women entrepreneurs. The family is often unwilling to provide start-up funds. Banks require trade licences and guarantors for loans.

women still have many obstacles, both within the family and within the society as a whole. They face more challenges than their male counterparts.

Not all women can meet the conditions for a trade licence, particularly students. According to the National Industrial Policy 2016, 15 per cent of the loans must be distributed to women entrepreneurs in the SME sector, but that does not always happen.

According to a survey run last year by the international organisation Asia Foundation, Bangladesh Bank provided Tk 800 billion in small loans from January to June 2019. Only 7 per cent of the recipients were women. Yet 22 per cent of the enterprises were owned by women.

Swarnalata Roy’s in-laws were adamantly against her doing business so she secretly started her business, doing women’s make-up in her bedroom. Only her husband was aware of the business. Now she had two beauty salons in Sylhet and an outsourcing training firm. She is the president of the divisional Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

In 2004 Swarnalata had applied or a bank loan and was turned away. She told Prothom Alo, in the beginning the family does not provide funds. Banks too reject you.

Women entrepreneurs speaking to Prothom Alo stressed the need for the government to facilitate easy procedures to avail bank loans. They want easy procedures for licences too. They want assistance in training and marketing.

Experienced entrepreneur of Khulna, Shakera, says that alongside all this, changes in the social attitudes are vital.

* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.