Vol. 4 Num 258 Mon. February 16, 2004  

Emerging women microentrepreneurs in Bangladesh

In Bangladesh women constitute about half of the population, the majority of them are underprivileged, under-nourished, illiterate and poor. In their lifetime, they experience two fold realities: one determined by a culture and tradition that tends to keep them inside family homesteads and the other shaped by increasing poverty that forces them outside into wage employment for economic survival. According to the 1999/00 labour force survey (LFS) the labour force of Bangladesh was estimated at 60m. More than 20m are women. There are not enough employment opportunities for women. Therefore, economic activities through self-employment became essential for potential working women. There has arisen a new class: the women microen-trepreneurs. Though there has been substantial participation of women in the off-house activities, yet Bangladesh women still have not been able to impose a controlling authority in mainstream production.

Evolution of microfinance
Conceptually, microcredit can be described as collateral-free small loans offered to poor households to generate self-employment in income generating activities based on group lending methodology. The loan term is usually for one year. Saving programs play an integral part of the credit program. Microcredit , broadly known as microfinance has evolved in Bangladesh over the past 20 years as an important sector of development. In wider terms it includes micro insurance, microenterprise etc. Delivering microcredit to the poor and poorest still is basically a Non Government Organization- Microfinance Institution's ( NGO-MFIs) activity. More than 90 per cent of borrowers are women. About 13m poor people are under microcredit program (MCP) coverage. Besides NGO-MFI, Government initiatives through formal sector banks, are providing services to target poor people. On the other hand, a range of support groups spawned. Growth of NGO-MFIs has led to the establishment of two new institutions in Bangladesh: Palli Karma-Sayahak Foundation (PKSF), and the Credit and Development Forum (CDF). The two institutions are extending very useful support to MFIs MCP. PKSF is an apex financing organization providing credit and institutional development funding to NGO-MFIs, while CDF is a network of NGO-MFIs. It provides need-based training and customised service to its member NGO-MFIs.

Stylised facts of microenterprise
The types of microenterprises operated by women are of the following categories: (i) traditional, (2) non-traditional, (iii) household or family trade.

Generally, MEs under microcredit programme of NGO-MFIs are the expansion of IGAs to graduated or progressive borrowers. Usually, ME borrowers are involved with IGAs through regular MCPs for a minimum period of three years. Often, the extension of IGAs emerges as ME . To some extent, credit needs of the marginally poor or "missing middle" are also taken care of under MCP of NGO-MFIs. The "missing middle" are credit- starved people escaping the target range between microcredit and formal banking services.

An ME can be individual or family based, supported by one or two family members. An ME becomes full-time employment for graduated borrowers over a period of time. With scaling up non family members are employed. MEs tend to generate employment to 1-10 others, including the owner and help to stimulate growth- oriented economy.

Features: At the initial stage, in ME, there is likely to be very little investment in fixed assets . Inventory investment is minimal . And, the ME is operated on a cash basis only. Revenue earnings from ME are not distinct from any other kind of income of the individual or what household earns. The range of loan for microenterprise are Tk20,000- Tk200,000. As graduated borrowers move on and gains confidence in handling loans their average loan size increases.

Presently, with higher loan size, greater interest is observed in forming male groups. Also with scaling up, loan disbursement is drifting towards individual, instead of group based lending approach. There is flexibility in loan terms from the conventional one year to three years. A flexible repayment period adjusted with cash flows has been introduced. Installment repayment period have been extended from weekly to fortnightly, monthly , and quarterly payments. There is a trend to delink the savings program from the credit program. With scaling-up, ME emerges distinctly with an existence separate from that of the owner. The business may be incorporated or conducted as a sole proprietorship. Continuity is anticipated. There is some level of investment.

Successful entrepreneurs can move along towards small and medium enterprise with greater loan size. Business finances are gradually separated from the finances of the owner and her or his family. Usually, minimum equity participation is required, e.g. 10 per cent-20 per cent of total investment in the expanded IGAs or MEs might be required.

With scaling up of loans, collateral free credit disappears and a security against the loan is required. It can be in the form of a guarantee bond by the borrower or by an acceptable guarantor on behalf of the borrower.

Motivation: The initial driving force to join microcredit programme for the majority of female microcredit borrowers are to supplement their existing insufficient family income to afford the bare necessities of life. A distinguished feature of ME for the "missing middle" is relative ease of entry. Most of the microentrepreneurs go into business on their own after having worked in the same sector for someone else for a number of years, building their technical, managerial and marketing skills to the point where they are prepared to strike out on their own. In addition, during their preparatory years they save funds to launch their small businesses. It may start as part-time activities. Later on, they join targeted ME program of NGO-MFI , for example, ASA's small business program, ME program of Government sponsored agencies, e.g. Ministry of Industries initiated and USAID funded Women Entrepreneurship Development Project (WEDP) etc..

Studies by PKSF revealed among marginal poor women's to be involve in family businesses, the percentage of "forced women entrepreneurs", that is those who are compelled by circumstances, are quite high. Husband's prolonged illness, death , divorce or abandoned by husband are the main causes for women's involvement to carry on existing family businesses.

Apart from push factor, traits for driving and motivational factors for scaling up ME the loans include education, self-confidence, male counterparts' involvement in the ME, use of larger loans and low household income. The educated, experienced and confident micro borrowers show interest to scale up. Scaling up leads male counterparts to become visibly more involved in providing assistance especially in marketing. As social and rural infrastructures are not favourable towards women's mobility, with expansion son's or husband's involvement in the handling and marketing side of the extended small businesses are observed. It has been found that, at the initial level, when the female spouse was involved in MCPs, a portion of the loan was invested in her husband's small business. With the increase in loan size the small business scales up, takes the shape of full time employment for the family or household. In some NGO-MFIs it is customary, if the trade license is under the husband's name, for the loan to be transferred in his name as well. But, the wife or the whole family takes active role in upkeeping the extended business, e.g. BRAC's MELA.

Sector of work: An important element facilitating the overseeing of an ME is that the technologies or processes used are often relatively simple. Businesses in which this is true include, food processing, tailoring, hot gram (chanachur) production, grocery stores, poultry farm, cow rearing, sweetmeat shop, restaurants etc. Required skills for these kind of MEs can be picked up through observation, being associated with on the job training by an older family member or craftsmen in the trade. These skills can be acquired through informal apprenticeships, without trade school training or special courses. In times of family crisis, the female head can move on with the existing business, even if they have not had formal education or training.

There are fewer self-employed women in urban areas in comparison to rural areas where greater opportunities lie with the IGAs of NGO-MFIs which provide credit. The training facilities offered both by the government and the NGOs increase their efficiency and competence especially in rural areas.

Impact of microfinance interventions
In an impoverished country like Bangladesh, poverty alleviation through economic growth, as well as employment generation in mass scale is heavily dependent on the development and expansion of MEs. Self-employment and the creation of new employment through MEs help to reduce disguised unemployment and under employment in the farm sector, creating employment for the hard-core poor. With increased family income for the poor, the income disparity in the society reduces to certain extent. Rising rural income prevents migration of the rural poor to urban centres in search of jobs and reduces further burden on the already strained urban infrastructure. Instead the microent-repreneurs and their families are able to explore utilization of local resources in rural areas. As a result they help in creating a market for local products in villages and towns with new income and products. This is not limited to program participants, since indirect spillover, second-order effects spread through the entire locality due to an increase in economic activity .

Focal issues for microenterprise
Microfinance has evolved as an important sector of development. Until recently, the objective centered on graduation of clients from poor to non-poor status. But presently many program women are moving up the scale and they need an environment to flourish. "Poor people are like bonsai trees. They could have grown into giant trees if they had been supported by the right environment for growth" (Yunus, 2003). If remedial measures are taken for impediments, MEs may trigger economic breakthrough and maintain a virtuous circle of rural growth in motion.

Business Development Service (BDS)
Derived demand for Business Development Services (BDS) are emerging. The initiative to provide such services are progressing slowly from felt needs. Broadly speaking, the major BDS needs of MEs are credit, training, information, technology, marketing and consultancy. As IGAs scale up in the long run for sustainable development, it is imperative that business development services are made available to microentr-epreneurs. BDS needs and demands vary by size of the enterprise and by sector.

Capital: Availability of adequate funds for credit operations from informal, as well as the formal sector is a must for microentrepreneurs. Many of them are dependent on their friends, relatives and moneylenders for capital accumulation. But an enabling commercial term for ME should be adequately introduced by a formal/informal credit supplier. For a vibrant economy, the scope of the rural non-farm sector should, of course, go well beyond the NGO-MFI led ME sector. The government should also fulfil the credit needs of the land owning rural classes under the "missing middle" along with properly addressing the needs of the hard- core poor. Often, NGO-MFI target criteria excludes them. Transactions through banks can be a problem for beginners, especially for rural producers that have access to only the most rudimentary banking facilities.

Marketing: There are several barriers to marketing that hinder ME's extent of income generation. There is lack of institutional support in marketing. There is no facility for preservation of raw materials and finished goods. Quite a large number of microenterprises are currently supported by GOs, NGOs, donors and international agencies in Bangladesh through financial, technical and marketing assistance.

Training: Education has a direct and long-term positive impact on quality of life. Opportunities in education and employment for women would bring long term benefit to society. There is a substantial scope for quality building through formal training on women business leadership development, financial management, marketing and entrepreneurship development. Government programs/projects generally include a training component. On the other hand, NGO-MFIs impart training as a regular feature on business, production planning, and credit management before credit disbursement. The existing training arrangements for female micro-entrepreneurship development are inadequate and have much scope for quantitative and qualitative improvement.

Information: On the district level, there are no organizations that can be contacted for market information. In Bangladesh, there is no single organization that organizes or maintains any market information on the items that women microent-repreneurs handle. There are sunk costs involved in acquiring, adapting and assimilating new technology, in learning about and then plugging into urban and overseas marketing networks. Public or nongover-nmental assistance with information gathering can lessen entry barriers of MEs.

Management: ME needs management assistance to improve the administrative capacity and increase productive activity and capacity in quality as well as in volume. The majority of microentrepreneurs lack the training for running their businesses and expanding because of their low levels of formal education. They lack the basic bookkeeping, vocational and technological knowledge. Weak management leads to high rates of closures and "start ups". The microentrepreneurs are good at producing the goods and services mainly for local markets. Most microentrepreneurs get handson training or on-the-job training. Lack of good training in production skills affect the quality of product they are trying to trade.

Macro-economic situation
Amartya Sen (2000) found that between microcredit and physical infrastructural development, anti-poverty impacts are higher in case of the latter. Apart from the anti-poverty impacts, infrastructural development also implies consumption and productive benefits. It also helps to activate demand for trade and industrialization through linkages to domestic urban centers as well as export markets abroad. Research shows that the location of manufacturing activities was strongly influenced by proximity to a highway and telephone connections in Indonesia and Taiwan.

Awareness and attitude
Lack of quality, hygienic practices, attractive packaging, uniformity and adherence to specifications are hindrances to capture urban and export market, though in local, rural and peri-urban markets it is manageable. Entrepreneurs are not motivated to be quality conscious due to lack of awareness of these issues. So, microentrepreneurs are weak in negotiating prices and do not have much bargaining power as their products are not up to the required standards. Though individually, small MEs do not have an environmental effect, but collectively it might. There is a lack of consciousness about environmental degradation, health, hygiene and personal safety risks. NGO-MFIs should take the initiative to inform the borrowers about health and environmental hazards involved with their specific economic activities.

Product innovation
The real challenge for the future of women MEs lies in meeting the need for innovation and diversification in delivery methods and the introduction of new MCP products. It is expected that women should be out of the poverty trap. They should be able to combat the risks on non repayment due to shock or disaster when income and consumption for them decline suddenly. Because of lack of innovative micro insurance microcredit borrowers are still likely to be adversely affected by floods, which occur on a regular basis in Bangladesh. The need for designing special programs to address the needs of the very poor remains. Efforts should be taken to provide for financial products in affordable terms for start ups and scaling ups for target as well as non target "missing middles".

Government policy measures
The realisation has gradually dawned on all concerned that a society cannot afford to waste half of its potential human resources. This increasing awareness has led to the adoption of national policies to facilitate a development process involving women in all spheres, focusing mainly on microent-repreneurship development. A distinction between IGAs and MEs needs to be made for devising necessary support programmes.

Strengthening local government
Local Governments have important leadership, administrative, and catalytic roles to play in developing rural industry in partnership with the private sector and NGO-MFIs. As MEs are active in rural sectors in local markets, local government must be strengthened for proper administrative support. Local Governments in Bangladesh are extremely weak and ineffective in promoting development , as a result, these capabilities and local government structures need to be improved for revamping. Appropriate supporting policies should be instrumental in encouraging the microfinance sector. Enabling policies shall help the germination of small and medium enterprises out of today's microenterprises.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
The manifold problems of women cannot be overcome only by small IGAs, ME and credit support. A package program consisting of leadership and managerial development, of rights and laws, of education, credit, income, health and reproductive issues seems to be appropriate for removing these problems and for stepping up women's positions in the society. As donor funds are drying up, NGO-MFIs and community organizations in Bangladesh are finding it difficult to carry on their social development programs (SDPs). Multinational companies (MNCs) as well as local business enterprises in developing countries are undertaking CSR in varying degrees in local business operations to address such issues. In order to carry on SDPs, MNCs and national business enterprises can find out a road map in a coordinated way to facilitate the social-need based programs. The Philippines Business for Social Progress (PBSP) is an example of the umbrella model. PBSP was a means by which the Philippines business community could rationalize and coordinate its funding and technical support to socio-economic projects and programmes across the country. For sustainable development within a country, shared responsibilities between the government and big corporate houses along with NGO partnerships can supplement government efforts to fight against poverty.

Entrepreneurial qualities are same for men and women to succeed as entrepreneurs. Economic and social environment, educational process, family background and community priorities all play a role in the making of the entrepreneur. Compared to men, women have to put in more labour and to combat social obstacles to succeed and continue with their ventures by keeping pace with their personal, family and social life.

Parveen Mahmud FCA is DMD, PKSF.