E-commerce buoyant riding on women entrepreneurs

March 7, 2023

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Women entrepreneurs are playing a vital role in keeping Bangladesh’s digital commerce segment buoyant using their skills and resilience, giving a much-needed fillip to a sector reeling under crisis because of plummeting sales, scams and unprecedented inflation.

Overcoming many odds, thousands of women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh who started their businesses with technology platforms have become self-reliant and created jobs for others.

They have also become promoters of local products, helping local handicraft artisans deliver their products to the doorsteps of end-customers and ensure fair payments.

After completing graduation in 2006, Farhana Akter Lucky began working at the quality control department of a top pharmaceutical company for four years.

She quit her job after her marriage to look after her family, as usually happen to most girls in Bangladesh.

Since she had to give up her promising career, she was very dejected. What was even more painful was that she attained good results throughout her student life and had a head-start at the very beginning of her work life. So, it started to seem to her that she had lost her identity.

Lucky appeared to get back her professional identity in January 2020 when she started a Facebook-based business, Farhana’s Dream, inspired by the Women and e-Commerce Trust, a Facebook-based community marketplace for women entrepreneurs.

But her journey with Farhana’s Dream, which sells nakshi kantha and other products, wasn’t easy.

This is because it was initially tough to find products since artisans mainly live in the villages across the country.

“And it was very difficult for me to visit different districts amid the lockdowns owing to the coronavirus pandemic,” Lucky said.

At the end of 2021, her sales started to pick up. So far, she has exported nakshi kantha to nine countries.

Women in Bangladesh are skilled at making the finest handicraft products. Although these products have a high demand at home and abroad, artisans don’t get fair prices in many cases.

“So, it feels great that I am working with them and I am trying to ensure a fair price for them,” said Lucky.

She employs four people directly and 50 artisans, mostly women, supply her products.

In Bangladesh, F-commerce has been thriving for the last few years thanks to the huge size of the Facebook population, which surged to 44 million, placing the country among the top 10 nations in terms of people using the social networking site.

Most of the platforms have sprouted since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic as consumers were forced to turn to digital platforms to communicate, work, buy and find entertainment.

Women-owned 70 per cent of F-based businesses opened since the pandemic and there has been an increase of more than 65 per cent in Instagram businesses owned by women, said Meta, the owner of Facebook, in March last year.

During Covid-19, some women even chose to be an entrepreneur, leaving their well-paid jobs.

One of them is Nashid Andalib Nikita, who quit her job at a top company and established the Facebook-based fashion brand Kabbo Konna.

“Initially, I started it as a hobby. But it was difficult for me to maintain a corporate job and sell products online at the same time.”

When she decided to pursue her dream of becoming an entrepreneur, her family was against it. Initially, they thought that it was degrading to sell cloth online.

Kabbo Konna now sells about Tk 3 lakh worth of products every month and it goes up to Tk 10 lakh during Eid seasons.

According to entrepreneurs, Facebook-based platforms are now struggling due to a spike in raw material prices and a decline in sales amid the global economic downturn and higher inflation.

The unprecedented surge in the US dollar price is a big headache for them as they have to pay more to buy the American greenback needed to make payments in a bid to boost their posts on Facebook pages, reach more people and promote their products and services.

Industry people say F-commerce sales have dropped 20 per cent to 25 per cent in the last several months, as people are tightening their purse strings amid the rising cost of living fuelled by higher food and energy prices.

A few months earlier, the cost for a $1-boosting was around Tk 105 to Tk 110 after paying a 15 per cent value-added tax. It has now surged up to Tk 120.

Besides, top courier and logistics service providers have increased their charges by around 20 per cent since August.

“Many women have now become breadwinners of their families by selling products online. They are contributing to the economy a lot,” said Nasima Akter Nisha, president of the Women and e-Commerce Trust.

She said the purchasing power of customers has declined due to the economic downturn. “A low sale volume is a global trend and women entrepreneurs have to keep patience.”

She urged entrepreneurs to keep their digital commerce alive.

AKM Fahim Mashroor, chief executive officer of Delivery Tiger, a digital SME parcel aggregator, says women-led online platforms have helped keep the digital commerce scene vibrant.

He credited two factors: first, customers trust women more than men. Second, most online customers and sellers are female.

Despite their huge big contribution to the economy, women SMEs receive very little recognition. And since most of them don’t have a trade licence, they don’t get loans from the financial sector to scale up their ventures.

Mashroor thinks banks should consider the bank accounts of women entrepreneurs as a personal retail banking account in order to provide them financial services.

In February 2020, the central bank issued a directive to this effect. It said those with bank accounts can be allowed to open a personal retail banking account. There will be no transaction limit in those accounts.

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