The attention women entrepreneurs need

The financial Express, May 03, 2021

By Selima Ahmad

Despite having a significant quantity of quality products at very low prices, the women entrepreneurs are unable to sell the items in the international markets, even in the neighbouring countries like India, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar


Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) in collaboration with CUTS International and UKAID conducted a study on “Gender Dimensions of Trade Facilitation: Evidence from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (GeTRaf- previously known as GDTFA)” during December 2018 to April 2021. The main objectives of the study is to collect evidence from women led/managed/owned Cottage Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (CMSMEs) to study the gender dimensions of trade facilitation in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal and create awareness on gender-inclusive trade facilitation in these countries. As part of the programme, BWCCI conducted the study in Bangladesh.

This study is conducted mainly based on – (a) review of existing literature of women entrepreneurs and exporters in Bangladesh and (b) field survey. Field work was conducted in the following locations – (a) Dhaka, (b) Sylhet, (c) Rajshahi, (d) Chattogram, (e) Narayangonj Districts. Benapole under Jashore and Tamabil under Sylhet District- Land Ports were also covered under the study. In addition, Jashore and Khulna Districts were covered under the study. The Project Advisory Committee (PAC) played a significant role in identifying the issues through their viewpoint papers. Since the above mentioned locations are major trading centres for domestic and international business, these locations were selected by the project. Besides, awareness workshops on export procedures in Bangladesh for women entrepreneurs in 3 divisions, webinar on the Impact of Covid-19 on women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, field survey on the impact of Covid-19 on women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh, development of an animation video on export and import procedure and national policy dialogue with the women entrepreneurs and policy makers are being accomplished under the project in Bangladesh. This report covers the challenges and concerns and recommendations of women entrepreneurs in export businesses and impact of Covid-19 in the business sector managed by women entrepreneurs.

CHALLENGES FACED BY WOMEN ENTREPRENEURS: Women entrepreneurs and exporters in Bangladesh face various challenges in every step of their business including cross-border export-import operations. Despite having significant quantity and quality products at a very low price, women entrepreneurs are unable to sell their products in the international markets even in the neighbouring countries like India, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar. Moreover, during the Covid-19 pandemic, women entrepreneurs are not able to continue business without government support. As a result of the prolonged pandemic, a large number of small and micro level women entrepreneurs are forced to lose their income. Most of the women entrepreneurs have to reduce their business significantly, some of them fully closed their businesses and many of them have shifted their business to their homes from showrooms and had to layoff substantial number of workers. Due to the lingering Covid-19 pandemic, their businesses have been closed or partly closed since March 2020 but they have to pay house rent, tax, VAT, utility bills, staff salary etc. As a result, women entrepreneurs are facing social and economic challenges and mental depression, resulting in domestic violence, lowered buying capacity and stress during the pandemic. Some major findings of the study are given below:

LACK OF ACCESS TO FINANCE : In Bangladesh access to finance is the main obstacle for the women entrepreneurs in establishing and continuing business. As most of the women have no inherited property and other resources of their own, they do not have the capital to start or expand their business. It is very difficult for them to get loan from banks or any other formal financial institutions. In terms of bank loan, most of the women face problem while submitting required documents and certificates. When they do not get family support and guarantor and can not manage papers for mortgage, it becomes very difficult to process loan applications for business expansion. The situation becomes worse for the startup businesses.

In order to support and compensate the entrepreneurs in the pandemic situation, the government has already introduced stimulus package for businesses but there are no special facilities for women entrepreneurs, that’s why they are facing problem in receiving bank loans.

INADEQUATE TRAINING AND CAPACITY BUILDING: It is identified in the study that most of the women traders in Bangladesh face difficulty in managing financial aspects of their businesses, especially they are weak in proper book-keeping, accounting, documentation, profit and loss calculation, buyer sourcing, participation in the international fairs, collection of purchase order and delivery, export- import readiness etc.

INADEQUATE INFRASTRUCTURE AND TESTING FACILITIES: Many women traders responded that they face difficulty in storing their products if they receive bulk orders. On the other hand, testing and certification agencies/institutions are insufficient in the country.

DOMESTIC AND INTERNATIONAL SALES AND MARKETING HAVE BEEN REDUCED SIGNIFICANTLY: All the festival markets (two Eid festival, new year celebrations etc) are missed due to the pandemic. Export and import business with other countries got totally stopped due to boarder closer and flight cancelation for an uncertain period.

INADEQUATE TRANSPORTATION FACILITIES: Women entrepreneurs who have international buyers but do not have export- import licence are not in a position to produce and submit required documents for foreign trade. They use FedEx, DHL courier service etc. Due to high transportation cost for sending their goods using courier services, they cannot profit.

CHALLENGES IN SCALING UP BUSINESSES: In the manufacturing sector, women entrepreneurs face difficulties, especially in maintaining quality and regulatory standards of products, sealing and packaging, branding and labeling, and application of other mandatory standards that are pre-requisites to international trading.

NO GRIEVANCE REDRESSAL MECHANISM: There is no specific organisation for addressing grievances of the businesses run by either male or female entrepreneurs. These can be related to undue waiting charge levied by customs, transport charges etc.

LACK OF KNOWLEDGE IN DIGITAL ECONOMY AND CONNECTION WITH GLOBAL BUYERS AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS: Although a number of women entrepreneurs at the grassroots level use smart phones for their business purpose and are familiar with social media, they have very little idea about how they will connect with the global buyers and how they can create a market of their products at the international level.

LACK OF GENDER SENSITIVITY: Since Bangladeshi society is conventional and often follows patriarchal norms, there is a lack of gender sensitivity among the working male population. These hindrances pose a major challenge for women entrepreneurs in starting and scaling up their businesses.

RECOMMENDATIONS: Recommendations for the women entrepreneurs to increase their participation in exporting are as follows:

  • The government should facilitate for more working capital for women entrepreneurs. Simplification of the loan procedure of banks, speedy disbursement of stimulus packages as well as reasonable time for repayment of loan are crucially needed.
  • Gender specific components must be included in foreign trade, industrial, finance and other economic policies.
  • Fees for participation in international trade fairs should be reduced and tax/VAT should at a lower rate for the women entrepreneurs involved in export and import.
  • Government, specifically the ministry of commerce, Ministry of Industries and Ministry of Finance, non-government organisations and business chambers and industry associations should initiate skill based training courses and capacity building programmes for women traders, exporters and entrepreneurs regularly.
  • Officials working for government institutions such as industry ministry, commerce ministry, banks, insurance firms, customs and district industrial offices etc. must be sensitised on gender issues.
  • Bangladesh needs to have more institutions and infrastructure facilities for international trade such as testing laboratories, storage facilities with modern facilities. New institutions and infrastructures of such kind should be established and existing institutions must be upgraded with modern facilities.
  • Citizen Charter for ensuring quality services should be introduced in all offices. Women entrepreneur-friendly environment and dedicated desk for one stop service must be established in the land ports and other relevant offices.
  • Traders and entrepreneurs should be encouraged to explore non-traditional businesses and product segments which are in high demand in developed countries.
  • Awareness campaigns need to be organised regularly targeting women traders and entrepreneurs so that they can get necessary information regarding schemes, subsidies and network opportunities timely and easily.
  • Grievance redressal mechanism needs to be established in trade, finance and other major institutions that can facilitate easy solution of the challenges raised by women entrepreneurs.
  • Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) shouldmust ensure special arrangements for exporting goods by women entrepreneurs through land borders
  • Quality of internet services, especially Wi-Fi service, is not up to the mark at the grassroots level. Towards ensuring digital economy and digital Bangladesh, the quality must be improved and cost should also be reduced at a significant level

CONCLUSION: Usually, women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh are dynamic and they are very much dedicated to their work. They want to do business at the local and international levels. Right now, in the new normal situation due to Covid-19 pandemic, they are focusing more on online business. It is cost effective and hence this should be adequately facilitated.

With a view to encouraging more women in business, they must be supported by the government and all concerned. The challenges and concerns including the recommendations of the women entrepreneurs must be addressed and at the same time access to finance needs to be ensured for them. Accordingly, women being new in the formal business sector, they require information, training and capacity building support. It is crucially important for the government to identify short, medium term and long term interventions and introduce some specific policies in conducting smooth business by women entrepreneurs.

Selima Ahmad MP is President, Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI).

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