A silent revolution has taken place in Bangladesh society over the last four decades. It has added a new dimension to Bangladesh economy with the prospect of changing its structure or reinforce the existing ones that have stood the test of time. Motivated by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), rural women have engaged in various income generating activities taking the non-traditional role of small entrepreneurs. By all accounts, they are the most dynamic in whatever small-scale business activities they are engaged in. For some of them the limit to what their business acumen can accomplish is determined by the availability of credit and access to market. It has been proved empirically that they are better endowed with entrepreneurial skills than their male counterparts in many business undertakings. The two inhibiting factors mentioned above, viz. access to credit and market act as disincentives to the full utilisation of their potentials.
The first hurdle that rural women entrepreneurs have to overcome is the social prejudice that discourage taking up business activities out of doors. One aspect of this handicap is the stigma that is tagged to those who defy traditional social norms meant for women. The other is the lack of facilities for marketing their produce. A third one, not so inconsequential, is the harassment by their male counterparts in the market. The experience of the female agro-producers is a case in point, particularly in respect of market accessibility.
Female agro-producers in rural areas have been playing an important role for a long time. But the majority of them come up against the same hurdle and struggle to sale their produce in local and regional markets. As a result of this they are deprived of fair prices. Often they are forced to sell to wholesalers at home accepting whatever price they offer. Though rural markets are the hubs for agro-based traders very few female entrepreneurs can find their place there because of dominance by male traders. Very often rural women entrepreneurs have to depend on their husbands for help to transport their goods to the market. In many cases this become problematic as husbands have their own economic activities to take care. When they agree to carry and sell the products of their wives the control over sale proceeds remain with them, placing the women entrepreneurs at disadvantage for carrying on their production of agro crops. For those women entrepreneurs who brave to weather the obstacle and venture to sell their products in the village market there are no designated places that act as a handicap. Study by reporters from an English daily (The Daily Star, January 24) found that rural markets are not gender inclusive because male traders are not favourably disposed towards women engaged in selling their goods alongside men. To make matters worse, the few women traders who venture to sell in village markets are often subjected to sexual harassment, according to the newspaper report. Another handicap is that women traders have to return home before evening because of safety consideration. Though women producers and traders have increased in number, they continue to face discrimination and harassment from male traders in the market. They can not give vent to their grievances as they are not represented in market management committees.
Women entrepreneurs in urban areas face no better conditions though discrimination against them is more subtle. Like their rural counterparts, urban women entrepreneurs have little or inadequate access to market (supply chain) in local markets. In case of foreign supply chain their handicap is even greater. As regards moving up the value chain (producing high value goods), for the majority of them it is next to impossible.
Realising that female-owned businesses in Bangladesh need better access to markets and corporate value chains to boost inclusive growth, the World Bank has recently launched a project to help 1200 women entrepreneurs in collaboration with WE Connect International. Based on the results of a successfully completed pilot project, the second phase of the project will start soon helping business firms run by women to have access to supply and value chains so that they can expand their business operations. The pilot project that has just been completed promoted capacity building through training of 150 women entrepreneurs and has facilitated linkages with large corporations through business network. As a result of this intervention nearly 90 per cent of the trainees registered improvement in their business operations. The project also led to the creation of the country's first Suppliers Diversity Advisory Committee, designed to promote bargaining power of women entrepreneurs.
Like the rural women entrepreneurs their urban counterparts urgently need access to existing supply chain in the local market. In addition, because of the type of some products they also need to move up the value chain. In both respects they find themselves at a disadvantage because of lack of networking and wilful neglect by male counterparts. The World Bank and the collaborating agencies in the project envisage to help create a data base of women entrepreneurs in order to increase their participation in corporate value chain. Unfortunately this data base will not include rural women entrepreneurs as they are not the target group in the project. In view of this the government of Bangladesh should come forward and create a data base of rural women entrepreneurs for inclusive growth in the agricultural sector. This may take more time than the preparation of a data base for urban women entrepreneurs because of the number and dispersal all over the country. But this is an initiative whose time has come. In this case the goal will be to facilitate the participation of rural women entrepreneurs in the local (district and regional) markets.
According to WE Connect International globally, women-owned small and medium businesses earn less than 1.0 (one) per cent of the money spent by corporations and governments on supplies. WE Connect International envisages a movement of women entrepreneurs to take off based on their project co-sponsored with the World Bank and financed by Women Enterprises Finance Initiative that will help buyers gain a competitive edge and women-owned business to reach a broader market with their goods and services.
Considering the commonality of problems, a holistic approach has to be taken to help women entrepreneurs in both rural and urban areas. Urban women entrepreneurs should not be the only beneficiaries of initiatives by international development agencies to improve access to market and supply chain. Though rural women entrepreneurs are not in a position now to think of, not to speak of actually doing so, moving up the value chain they have to be helped to overcome the hurdles to access local markets with no less urgency. An integrated approach to the problems of marketing by women entrepreneurs should be taken jointly by government of Bangladesh and donor/lender agencies with varying emphasis on the needs of women entrepreneurs in the two segments.
Though access to market by both rural and urban women entrepreneurs and moving up the value chain by the latter are important, more important is the availability of credit. According to available data less than 5.0 per cent of credit disbursed by financial institutions have been available to small and medium-scale industries. When it comes to rural women entrepreneurs the figure is almost negligible. In any programme or project for improvement of business by women entrepreneurs availability of credit at concessionary rate should find a central role. Focusing exclusively on access to market, the World Bank co-sponsored project is not only narrow but also gives the wrong signal about the priority need of women entrepreneurs. The government should not be carried away by initiatives of donor/lending agencies because of their novelty. All projects and programmes meant for target groups, including women entrepreneurs, should fit in with the overall strategy for their development.