Rokia Afzal Rahman: From banker to entrepreneur extraordinaire

Eminent businessperson Rokia Afzal Rahman
Nasir Ali Mamun

Eminent businessperson Rokia Afzal Rahman passed away on Wednesday, 5 April, at the Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital in Singapore. She was 82. She wore many hats in the course of her illustrious life. She was an advisor to the caretaker government in 2001. She was the chairperson of MediaWorld Ltd and Midas Finance. She was director of MediaStar and ABC Radio. She was the founder president of Bangladesh Women Entrepreneurs Federation and president of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (MCCI). Back in the sixties, she had been manager of Muslim Commercial Bank. Overcoming all sorts of obstacles along the way, she reached the pinnacle of success.

This cover story about Rokia Afzal Rahman was published on 11 June 2005 in the Prothom Alo supplement Chhutir Diney. It has been reproduced here, rewritten in English:

The potato business was running at the RR Cold Storage in Tongibari, Munshiganj. The manager reported to the owner, “Extortionists are creating trouble, putting pressure on us. They threatened to destroy the cold storage if we don’t pay them.” The owner replied, “File a GD with the police station.” The manager protested in fear, “No, I can’t do that. They will harm me or my children if I do.” “That is all right, I will do it,” said the owner.”

She went and filed the GD herself. She met with senior officials of the police and told them the problem. The extortionists met her. After a lot of negotiations, there seemed to be a compromise in sight. They said, “Come to the village.” She did and was taken aback. There was a huge public gathering there. The extortionists publicly announced, “She runs her business here, making off with millions, but does nothing for the people of the village. We asked her for a grant for a school and she refused.” She realised she had fallen into a trap.

With husband, daughters and grandsons
Chhutir Diney file photo

The extortionists wanted to trap her in front of the village people. But she was no pushover. She stood up to speak and said, “I am with you all for any good work. You want a school? Good. Tell me. I will get it constructed myself. But I will not pay cash. In fact, I will join hands with you all for any good work here. I will do whatever I can in my capacity. But I will not be forced into anything. I want to give in all sincerity.”

The extortionists saw their plans slipping away! They had thought seeing such a huge crowd, she would make some sort of massive commitment. The people came to her and said, “The people of the village are very disappointed. Okay, just pay Tk 200,000.”

“No, I will not.”

“All right, Tk 100,000.”

“No way.”

“Then just pay Tk 75,000.”

“The question does not even arise.”

The haggling sent on, from 50,000 to 30,000 down to 10,000. But she refused to pay a paisa. She later recalled that the people were pleased by her firm attitude. They were well aware of the extortionist’s ploy. They were thrilled that she said ‘no’ to them, to their faces.

They warned her, “They can kill people. How could you manage this?” She replied, “My death will come on the day it is ordained, not a day earlier, not a day later. So there is no reason to be scared.”

As a bank manager
Chhutir Diney file photo

Her mother, Syeda Ali Afzal, used to say, “Roki, you are too gutsy.” Husband Azimur Rahman would say, “You are too strong.” Yes, this was the cold storage owner, entrepreneur extraordinaire, businesswoman Rokia Afzal Rahman.

Rokia Afzal Rahman studied at Loreto School in Kolkata. Her father was Barrister Khandkar Ali Afzal, the first Bengali secretary of the Bengal Legislative Assembly. He wanted to educate all 12 of his children in good schools. Rokia Afzal Rahman was the eighth child. She spent her childhood in Kolkata and Karachi. In Karachi she went to St Joseph’s Girls College.

To Rokia Afzal Rahman, it was a blessing to have spent 37 years married to her husband who was indeed, a friend too. She was shattered at his death. She said, “After a medical checkup in Singapore, we celebrated our wedding anniversary there on 15 October and returned on the 20th. He passed away on the 23rd. That was in 2001. It was very difficult for me to come to terms with this death. Suddenly there was a void in my life.”

“I would play with my brothers more than my sisters in my childhood,” says Rokia Afzal. “I never played with dolls. I would like riding a cycle. One day one of our relations told my mother, ‘Is it right that Roki plays cricket with her cousins?’ Back in those days in Karachi, I would drive my sisters to the shops. My father was a deeply religious man. But he said he had nowhere seen in the religion that girls were to be kept at home. My education, my work, was all from his encouragement and support.

Becoming a businesswoman
Prothom Alo

In 1962 when I joined Muslim Commercial Bank (now Rupali Bank) in Karachi, many relatives had told me not to, saying it would tarnish the family honour, etc. But my father gave the courage to go ahead. He felt that rather than clothes and jewelry, he would give his daughter the gift of education when she gets married. It was with my father that I first started my studies. He was skilled in Bengali, Urdu and Arabic too.

In 1964 I was transferred to Dhaka as bank manager. I was still unmarried at the time. Even my brother who lived overseas said, you don’t need this bank job. But my father gave me the courage. He said, she is working on her own merit and education. Why will I stop her? And so I came to Dhaka as a bank manager.

Marriage of two managers

When Rokia Afzal Rahman and Azimur Rahman got married, Azimur Rahman had been a tea garden manager in Sylhet. So the two managers married.

The couple only got to meet each other on the weekends. Sometimes her husband would come to Dhaka and sometimes she to Sylhet. Then Azimur Rahman changed jobs and came to Dhaka since Rokia Afzal Rahman’s work was in Dhaka.

“In his passing, I have lost not just my husband, but a friend too. I struggled against loneliness. Alongside my business, I had to look after my husband’s huge business too. On one hand I struggled with my sorrow, and on the other I stayed strong and carried on with the work.”

“My children gave me a lot of time in my solitude, gave me mental strength. I have two daughters and a son. My son Imran is in the business. My daughters are married. They are both working. My elder daughter Mariam works with BRAC and the younger one Faiza with Aarong. Mariam has gone to Cambridge now to do her PhD. My daughters were always interested in development work and have chosen their careers accordingly. I have a grandson Iman, my son’s son. He is my best friend now. This 10-year-old Iman is filling the gap left by his grandfather.”

With Indian president Abul Kalam Azad at MCCI's 110th anniversary
Prothom Alo

Proud of women entrepreneurs

“I left my job because of my children. I feel that just as one’s work and career is important, as a mother my first responsibility is towards my children, looking after them. I wanted my children to have my company. I would turn up at all events, all programmes, with my three little kids. When they grew up a bit, when my elder daughter was 15 and younger daughter was 8, I began my business. That was in 1980. With one’s your own business, you can manage your own time. I would sit in my office working, my daughter study for her exams by my side.”

“My son had high fever once. I was washing his head and calling the manager to come over to the house to discuss some important office work. As needed, I made the office my home or the home my office.”

“I thought to myself, since I have to work hard for my business, let me think big. So I started my business with a cold storage. Potatoes were a good investment at time, an agro-based business. The raw materials were there, being produced in the country. My life was city-based, but this potato business gave me strong ties with the villages. I had very short hair, but that made no difference when I would sit with the farmers in the fields, taking to them. I had an excellent rapport with them.”

Other than the cold storage business, Rokia Afzal Rahman has expanded her businesses to insurance, real estate and the media. After he husband’s death, she is having to look after his business too. But before that, she hadn’t joined her husband’s business, but did her own independently. In our country, a woman’s business mostly revolves around boutiques, sari shops, food outlets and such, but on 1980 Rokia Afzal Rahman took a loan from Shilpa Bank and began her cold storage business.

She said, “I say with pride that women in most cases run their businesses honestly. They repay their loan in time, pay VAT and taxes. I pay my banks loans in due time and so I have no problem in availing cash credit. I received the respect from Shilpa Bank as a good manager, a good entrepreneur. I was honoured as Janata Bank’s prime customer. I received the AmCham award too.” Rokia Afzal Rahman feels she received these awards because of her hard work and perseverance. She said, “I am not afraid of hard work. And I also have my family’s support. Once there were problems with by cold storage’s electricity lines and I had to go to Munshiganj to the executive engineer there. It was rough route and I had to travel by boat and rickshaw too. I just left my husband a note, I am going to this place to resolve this problem, don’t worry. Such support from the family is a big support.”

Rokia Afzal Rahman
Prothom Alo

Proud of women entrepreneurs

From 1997 till 1999, for two consecutive years Rokia Afzal Rahman had been president of the Employers Federation. She was member of Bangladesh Bank’s board of directors, member of the MIDAS board, president of Women Entrepreneurs Association (WEA) and president of Women in Small Enterprises (WISE).

In 2001 she was advisor to the caretaker government. Recalling that role, she said. “Our main task was to hold a free and fair election. Before that year, there were 10 centres where women could not cast their votes. At the initiative of the women’s affairs ministry at the time, I created an inter-ministerial committee of the home, religious affairs and women’s affairs ministries. We ensured extensive awareness campaigns in those 10 centres and that year for the first time, women could cast their votes.”

“Another thing is, I drew attention to another matter through the women’s affairs ministry. There was the ministry called labour and manpower ministry and I said, why ‘manpower’? Are the women workers not a labour force too? Now it is called the employment ministry, though. Whenever I get the chance, I speak out for women. If I speak on six issues, at least one will be about women’s development. There is very little women’s presence at a policy level and so we must speak for women and take their message to the policymakers.”

Saris were a great favourite
Prothom Alo

Rokia Rahman believes that even if it means giving them double promotions, the number of women at the policymaking level must be increased. There are a large number of women at the worker level, but very negligible in number at the policymaking level. She said religion is often used to keep women back in society. But as far as I know, she said, our religion does not advocate keeping women at home. Our religion has example of women at work and in business. Religion is not an obstacle. The obstacle is our socio-cultural backward thinking.”

Rokia Afzal Rahman, who won the Leading Women Entrepreneur’s of the World award in 1999, said, “I have contested with many in various organisations and have been elected, but I want to step down from the contest when another women contests. I feel that women must come forward. When we work together, there are misunderstandings and I have faced some backlash too. But I generally do not bear grudges. Secondly, if anyone hurts me, I respond with good behaviour.”

Proud of women entrepreneurs

Rokia Afzal Rahman said, “I am very hopeful about women coming into business and the expanding of women’s entrepreneurial initiatives. I attended an event in Mymensingh and the wife of an imam, wearing a burqah, said, “A family can’t run on one person’s income nowadays. We have to do something or the other.”

Starting with microcredit from MIDAS, women are forming groups and taking large loans and doing well in business. Before they would rent spaces at the MiniMart, now they are buying the spaces with Tk 5 million. Women have good business management skills and good understanding of accounts. And their repayment of loans is very good. Banks are at a loss with loan defaulters, but in MIDAS, the repayment rate of the women entrepreneurs is 99.5 per cent. I am proud. Men’s repayment rate at MIDAS is not bad either, 95 per cent.”

Rokia Afzal Rahman feels that more than problems in capital, women have problems in preparing project profiles, in arranging machinery, dealing with increased price of land and so on. They lag a bit behind in these areas. She feels the women would be benefitted by short-term effective business management training. She said, “Training is a must. In 1995 I underwent training in management at Tufts University in Boston. That really helped me in management in my business.”

Favourite things

“I really love travelling. It feels good the moment I go out of Dhaka. I love nature, peacefulness. I am drawn to the hills. When I got to Darjeeling or Nepal, I feel so close to the Himalayas. It is a special sort of thrill. I have to go to Switzerland. I am amazed by the natural beauty of that country. I love reading and books are by travel companions. I also love music and movies. I don’t get the time much, but I make the time. I like jamdani saris. I have a penchant for cotton.”

“My father was my ideal. My husband was my friend. And in my long career, among those whom I respect, whose patriotism and commitment to the country’s development moves me, are Dr Muhammad Yunus and Fazle Hasan Abed. I am personally inspired by the word of Yunus bhai and Abed bhai. And as a woman, I draw strength from Begum Rokeya. I am amazed that she spoke of things back then which even today requires a lot of guts to say,”

*This cover story about Rokia Afzal Rahman was published on 11 June 2005 in the Prothom Alo supplement Chhutir Diney.

*It has been reproduced here, rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.