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Selima Ahmad: Empowering Women Entrepreneurs in Bangladesh

1st of December 2022

Selima Ahmad MP, is the Founder and President of the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry and serves as an elected member of the Parliament of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. In 2014 she received the Oslo Business for Peace Award for her work empowering women and developing entrepreneurial talent. In this interview, we discuss her recent projects and expectations for the business sector after COVID-19.

Empowering Women Entrepreneurs

Selima’s work in the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry has focused on women entrepreneurs, especially at the micro and grassroots levels. They have identified one key challenge that most of these women face: women make the initial investment of time and resources, but men in their families take the benefits. Once the business starts flourishing, men take ownership of the business and remove women from it. 

To solve this problem, the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce is running a project to educate and empower female founders by teaching them how to register and legalise their business, obtain a trade license, scale their enterprises into SMEs and follow the tax order. This project will allow women to retain ownership of their businesses and provide them with independence and financial freedom.

COVID-19 has changed the business landscape in the country, which is seeing a boom in e-commerce enterprises. Traditionally, female entrepreneurs have been shy about using online business platforms, but during the pandemic, something changed. Online commerce became the only available platform to conduct business, and women realised they could have more competitive prices when they eliminated the costs of a physical store.

The Chamber of Commerce is currently running a digital capacity-building project for over 5,100 women focused on three main industries: fashion and design; catering and baking; and mobile repair and digital services. Regarding this last, they are implementing a program with Meta to train female entrepreneurs to learn how to conduct business using their platforms.

Gender-based Violence and Equal Representation in the Workplace

In collaboration with the Centre for Private Enterprise in Washington, they have launched a new initiative to address harassment and violence that many women suffer in the workplace. There are policies already in place that deal with gender-based violence in the home, but they are lobbying to bring more policies and practical solutions that create a harassment-free environment for women in their workplace.

One of the main objectives of Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh Prime Minister, is to achieve 50% representation of women in all spheres by 2030. Selima notes that there is still a long way to go in the entrepreneurial sector. One way they are trying to bridge this gap is through a new training institute that will bring female entrepreneurs from rural areas to the city, where they will have the opportunity to learn from women role models and learn from their experiences. The training institute includes a residential area where these women can live together during the training days.

Selima believes in the power of women sharing their stories and experiences. As she highlights, every woman, herself included, has faced some of the same problems, including harassment. For this reason, it is important to create a space where women can talk and learn from each other, and especially have access to women that are role models. “The journey is tough, but we can do it!” says Selima.

Addressing Structural Challenges for Women

Selima’s work as a Parliamentarian is trying to address two structural challenges that hinder women’s participation in the economy. 

The first one is early marriages. Bangladesh is one of the top 10 countries in the world with the highest levels of child marriage, with 38 million child brides according to UNICEF. Although this trend is in decline and child marriage is prohibited by law, this is still an extended practice, especially in rural areas and low-income households. Selima’s work in Parliament is trying to raise awareness and develop initiatives that can educate women and their communities about the dangers of child marriages and give them other options through entrepreneurship that can allow them to be economically independent.

One example is Selima’s initiative back in her natal village, where she has made available a water pond, free of charge to a project led by 20 women. The government provided them with fishing equipment and other resources to start production. These women invested between 13 and 20 USD in this business, and this year’s returns have reached over 200 USD. In addition, they can also use the resources the pond offers to bring fresh food to their homes, and have created a space for the community children to be and play safely. 

The second structural challenge is infrastructure, in particular the roads in her district. Poor connectivity through land affects mostly women, children, and the elderly population. She is encouraging citizens to report bad road conditions using social media and raising their voices to make these issues known. However, corruption remains one of the main challenges within the infrastructure sector.

 

The Role and Future of Business in Bangladesh

When asked about the role business can play in the post-COVID recovery, Selima is clear: they must raise awareness and double their capacity-building efforts. Many things have changed in the last few years and consumers are more conscious and informed than before. This means that businesses can be more profitable when they are compliant with the law. However, corruption in the regulatory and license bodies is still a big challenge, and it might be the root cause of the establishment of many industries and businesses that are not safe or compliant.

She insists that “blaming” business is not the solution, and points out that sometimes the small entrepreneurs lack the information or training to understand compliance requirements. Training new and small entrepreneurs in these matters are therefore fundamental, as well as motivating them and explaining to them how to do things differently. “People are good,” says Selima “it is us who make them bad”.

Selima has witnessed another big change in recent years. “We are seeing the second generation of entrepreneurs in Bangladesh that is connected with the outside world, educated and aware. They have inherited all the assets and experience from the first generation, and can now take gender and environmentally friendly actions in their business”.

Selima Ahmad received the Oslo Business for Peace Award in 2014 for her work empowering women and developing entrepreneurial talent. You can read more about her here.

Interview with Juan Cano: Accelerating Sustainable Impact in Colombia

1 November 2022

During the last year, Juan Andrés Cano and the team at PeaceStartup have consolidated a new structure and business model centered around impact entrepreneurship. They are moving from being “simply” an NGO to solidifying their role as an impact accelerator. Their team is growing, and the number of projects they manage has also increased in just over a year. We sat down for a chat with Juan Andrés to discuss entrepreneurship and the impact of PeaceStartup in Colombia.

Accelerating Impact in Colombia

Creating connections between different market actors has always been one of PeaceStartup’s core purposes. However, Juan Andrés and his team realized that this wasn’t enough, as many small businesses did not have the capacity to maintain those commercial relationships in the long term. For this reason, they decided to re-think and re-structure PeaceStartup’s business strategy and go through an acceleration process with Bancolombia, one of the largest financial institutions in Latin America.

Now, their main workstream has become accelerating entrepreneurial impact in the country. Through its accelerator program, PeaceStartup is currently supporting 254 entrepreneurial activities, 30% of which are led by women or women associations and families. Most of these initiatives are focused on agriculture and are located in 56 municipalities, 60% of which are prioritized in the country’s peace agreement.

As an accelerator, they have established three core lines of work: capacity-building with a long-term vision that takes as a starting point the existing market needs; investments in the form of grants, fixed assets, machinery, microcredits using crypto coins, and stocks, and finally; project management support. The main objective is listening to the market and ensuring that the products and services are commercially viable. Juan estimates that PeaceStartup’s accelerator program has impacted 3,500 families directly and 12,000 indirectly. 

PeaceStartUp's Venture Studio

The second innovation in PeaceStartup’s activities is their venture studio. The main objective of this initiative is to find market solutions to the existing peace and development challenges in Colombia. As an NGO, they didn’t have enough “financial muscle” to close the existing market bottlenecks. Now, they have re-structured to act as a business group with an impact foundation matrix. 

Juan Andrés remarks that the peace process and agreements led to an almost immediate increase in investments in Colombia. However, almost six years later, some of these investments have proven unsustainable, as they invested in products and services that were not viable in the market or didn’t have a commercial outlet. To address these gaps, they have initiated four projects, mainly within the agricultural sector.

The first one is “Ormiga Comercializadora”. After a thorough process of stakeholder mapping and consultation, they identified two main supply chain challenges for small farmers and entrepreneurs in the agri-business: last-mile logistics and maintaining the quality of the products until their delivery. Through this project, PeaceStartup becomes a supply chain actor making sure that small farmers can sell their products for a fair price, and also ensuring payment on delivery and last-mile liquidity.

They also act as intermediaries, emphasizing the need for fair trade conditions. Juan Andrés gives the example of one of their most recent collaborations with the food company Crepes and Waffles. The company was facing challenges with the distribution of their products as they wanted to buy from small local farmers and entrepreneurs, but they had a very complex value chain – each of their products requires very specific freezing conditions. For this reason, they needed an actor in the middle of the distribution chain that could deal with both challenges. PeaceStartup stepped in to become that intermediary buying from the small farmers, ensuring fair trade conditions while acting as a middle distributor. This also allowed them to ensure the traceability of the products and transparency of the supply chain, as well as the liquidity in the end-mile.

The second project is “Ormiga Financiera”, still in the pilot phase. Its objective is to implement a closed-loop cryptocurrency market in cooperation with farmers and agricultural cooperatives. The project was set to pilot in Antioquia but was paused due to covid. However, Juan is hoping they can move ahead soon, perhaps in a different municipality. 

The last agricultural project is “Fondo Semilla” (“Seed Fund”) through which they support entrepreneurial initiatives that do not necessarily fit in the investment thesis from impact investors from the Global North. The main difference with other seed investment initiatives is that PeaceStartup bases its decisions on actual market needs that they have previously mapped through research. At the moment, they are trying to identify new investment vehicles for specialty products such as Colombian coffee and cocoa. They are working to consolidate this investment thesis approach, but the partners, investment capital, and brand are already in place.

Last but not least, they are collaborating with some international cooperation agencies with the objective of bringing energy to off-grid communities by installing micro energy networks. However, the project was not sustainable because they had installed the grids in areas where the population did not have a need for those energy levels. As a result, the networks became abandoned and once they malfunctioned, the population did not have the resources or knowledge to fix them. 

PeaceStartup is now collaborating with private and public partners to create an integral project using blended finance, build commerce and create logistics networks. The first step was to map the areas that are most in need of energy access before installing the energy networks. The next step is to involve business partners 1) that sets and operates these energy grids in the long run, ensuring that they are repaired whenever needed, 2) commerce the products, 3) finance the local business. 

Bringing Business and Human Rights into the Picture

Juan Andrés tells us as also about PeaceStartup’s think-tank. After many years operating in Colombia, they have accumulated a great deal of knowledge both in the practice and in the theory about the needs of the territories. Acting local, but always thinking global, they are supporting the private sector and advising them on the best ways and practices to operate in different areas of the country, always considering the specific contextual needs and characteristics of each place. 

They view this as a long-term investment, as they can bring business and human rights as well as ESG considerations into the private sector activities, but always from a practical perspective. Their goal is to reflect on these aspects before the investments are completed, instead of retroactively working to fix them once the investment is done.

Juan Andrés received the Oslo Business for Peace Award in 2015 for his work in ethics, sustainability, and human rights within the private sector. You can read more about him here.