Women economic empowerment is the policy level priority to bring the previously neglected half of Bangladesh population into the mainstream of the economy. The FE was face to face with a few women who are empowered and work for the development of other women entrepreneurs.
Ignore all recorded statistics. The evident fact is that women are half of the total population, their contribution to the economy is unrecognised in most cases. They are underrepresented in many economic sectors. These discouraging figures turn momentarily pale when it is seen that, among women, a good number are successful and have scaled to the peak where many men find it hard to reach. They are mentors for hundreds of thousands of women particularly in business having the qualities like hard work, devotion, sincerity, professionalism, significant managerial capacity.
Laila Rahman Kabir is a name that is associated with the country's economic growth since the Liberation for a number of her successes. Making tea an export item was one of them. With her right and timely decision on reorientation of tea policy, she was able to give each of her tea estates a strong foundation, facing the post-liberation challenges in the tea market. Her decisions helped the nation to get a broader international market for tea afterwards.
"My education and training helped me develop the mentality to face challenges and work with professionalism for excellence," she said the FE to describe her grounds of success.
Laila Kabir said when she took charge of the gardens, the country was handicapped by severe lack of infrastructures, loss of captive tea market in what is now Pakistan. The country had a war-devastated economy. "Each and every experiences I gathered during that period was in valuable because those experiences taught me to become a professional in my field."
The reputed tea planter said some time her focus was on quality and price of tea, some time on increase of its quantity and some time she focused on capturing local market. In business, she said, one has to anticipate the changing market and respond to the change timely and correctly to achieve success.
And that is why, with her able leadership, Modhupur, Dinarpur and Jhemai tea estates, which she owns under Kedarpur Tea Company Limited, are able to increase production to one million kg a year, which was barely 0.15 million kg when she took over the charge as Managing Director in 1971.
Laila Kabir who was born in a family of tea estate owners, is a pioneer in achieving the honours degree on Agricultural Botany from the University of Durham, UK for the country in 1958. But her subject was hardly the choice of women studying in her university too. She was among three female students in honours class and the lone female in her major subject.
As she has always received equal treatment in her family, Laila says she always works as an individual and earned successes.
But her successes also led her to the top positions in a number of business and trade bodies. Laila Rahman Kabir was the first female elected Chairperson of Bangladeshiyo Cha Sangsad in 1992, first female Presidents of the both Bangladesh Employer's Association, now known as Bangladesh Employer's Federation, in 1994 and Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1998. She is now the chairperson of Social Marketing Company that has successfully weathered a challenge of existence with her able leadership.
While talking with her at her office, Kabir said even with all her recognitions, she never ignores the interest of labour and is un-compromising about having a close relationship with the labour community. Laila Kabir always remains in the committee of Bangladeshiyo Cha Sangsad (BCS) that deals tea labours. She is also a member of Tea Labour Welfare Fund aiming at building a good relation between management and labourers. She led the initiative to establish the right of equal wage for men and women in the tea garden while working in the sub-committee of BCS.
Admitting that she is fortunate among many women, Laila Kabir however believes that other women can also rise up to good position in business if only they get the protection of an improved law and order situation and access to information.
"If women get the opportunity to develop as entrepreneurs, I think they can do very well because they very early in life learn from their mothers to manage available resources and time successfully," Laila Kabir whispered adding that if women are not committed they could not have taken care of their children be efficiently.
From her experience while working with rural entrepreneurs as a member of FBCCI standing committee on "Women and Women Entrepreneurship Development," Laila Kabir says that many literate and illiterate women in rural and urban areas face challenges in entering into small skill industry as entrepreneurs due to lack of knowledge on product, market and quality. And she feels happy when she finds some of recommendations which were placed by the sub-committee are now being implemented in phases.
Rokeya Afzal Rahman is another legendary woman whose name is linked as the pioneer in a number of sectors. She was the first women bank manager, and possibly the first woman to have received big loan from a bank in 1980. Not only that, she was also the first woman who refunded the loan amounting to about Tk 75 lakh to Bangladesh Shilpa Bank in time.
Rokeya Rahman is now Director of Midas and President of Women Entrepreneurs Association (WEA) and Small Enterprises of Bangladesh. She was also one of the advisors of the 1995 caretaker government and director of Bangladesh Bank for three years from 1999. While carrying all these duties, she was successful and proved her expertise no less superior than expert men.
But her starting as a businessperson was linked with the gender role. She said after seven years of banking experiences, she gave it up being dictated by the responsibility of taking care of her two minor kids. As business gives flexible time, she managed her time for it. Gradually, she expanded her cold storage business from local market to the world market by exporting potato working with commitment and sincerity.
"It so happened that my home often turned into office or office into home.. ……I even used to take my kids at my office or sit and manage their study while working," Rokeya delightfully told the FE. She said that it was a challenge for her to prove successful in business at that time and she did it remarkably well.
And her commitment and devotion brought awards for her. BSB honoured her as the best businessperson for repayment of loan. She also received "Leading Women Entrepreneurs of the World" award from the United States in 1999 and "Prime Customer Award" of Janata Bank in 2002.
Rahman from her experience as director of MIDAS found that majority women have the capacity to attain success in business for their rare characteristics of honesty, sincerity and hardwork. Rokeya A Rahman said after introducing the collateral-free small to medium loan for women entrepreneurs from MIDAS for the first time, she found 99 per cent success cases in loan refund.
Women loan borrowers have proven their commitment to refunding loan money not for once, also for several times while they expanded their small businesses, she said adding that it was true for all cases -- rural or urban women.
From the responsibility of helping the potential women, Rokeya A Rahman formed Women Entrepreneurs Association in 1993 and was able to support rural and town level women in business promotion, products development, marketing etc.
As a woman advisor in the caretaker government, she successfully ensured the women rights to voting. From her assigned Ministry, she was able to bring women into 10 centres in such areas where women voting was restricted by local influentials. Not only this, she also ensured voting by expatriates, both residents and those who were in the process of going abroad.
At present, being a victorious leader in her sphere, Rokeya A Rahman works with the successful women entrepreneurs who need support to graduate themselves as owners of mid and big enterprises. So Rokeya Rahman from her association is now giving training to prepare its members with further capability so that financial institutions including banks find no fault to refuse their project proposals.
Monowara Hakim Ali, a name may be unknown to some people in business community in the country. But she is in her city -- Chittagong -- as a successful businessperson in areas of tourism, agriculture, hotel, real estate and energy. And her successes has made male entrepreneurs envious.
Monowara started her business career late in 70s with the encouragement from her businessman father. She first established Intraco Tours and Travels. She then moved on to expand her business setting up manure producing plant named Jenetica, Intraco CNG Conversion and Intraco Properties and so on.
Monowara Hakim said she has learned to take risk in business from her father, who was in chemical business in the port city.
Monowara performs her social responsibility as she excels in businesses.
"My manure producing plant, which is the country's first plant, has received tremendous response from the farmers using it as a substitute to chemical fertiliser," she said. The Intraco CNG Conversion, which provides services to four divisional cities, is also a clean energy resource of gas to make the environment pollution free. The real estate aims at solving housing problem in the port city.
Monowara Hakim Ali, also the president of Women Entrepreneurs, popularity known as "WE", said women in her area have tremendous potentials to do business, but they face challenges because of an existance of a conservative social structure.
She said this kind of structure is creating obstacles for the womenfolk to become entrepreneurs in the port city.
But Monowara has taken this obstacle as a challenge as she works with 450 'WE' members and help each another to become successful in life.
She stressed on support from the all stakeholders including the government, society and family to exploit the latent skill effectively.
And with this vision "WE" offers a wide range of courses in production, business management, marketing, quality controls and strategies to make these women entrepreneurs competent in the era of globalisation.
She said that in the present day globalisation one needs to be active, innovative and industrius to reap benefit from the new world economic orders.
Selima Ahmad, President of Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI), turned into a businessperson only to manage time after taking care of her minor kids. Her education in Management from the University of Dhaka supported her in tracing the path of the business world.
"During my academic life, I was involved in the handicraft business and a trade association named Bangla Craft as well as a partner of a consultancy firm, and all these experiences helped me to stand on my feet," Selima enthusiastically mentions. But she started business sincerely as an active partner of Nitol Motor when she found that her male friends of her firm were accepting job opportunities in the banking sector in which a large vacuum of manpower was created due to opening of banks in the private sector.
Selima retained her interest in business with the thirst to be self-reliant and to earn economic empowerment as well as maintain her family efficiently. And by making efforts in sales and procurement efficiently and with sincerity, Selima Ahmad helped her company to grow bigger within a short time. She now runs the country's cent percent export-oriented flower factory in Gazipur - Nalita and Co, which has drawn its entire workforce from rural women. She is now the vice chairperson of Nitol Group and is also the chairperson of Road Fund and member of Gender Platform Group.
"I always try to work to the best of my ability and have received recognition from all quarters including government," she told the FE.
Selima from her experience believes that every woman has the potential to be an entrepreneur and it can be developed through nurturing skills and ideas. She says women in business attain success for their intelligence, efficiency, commitment and honesty.
But she said women in our country have to earn an extra quality to consider the society and its norms and values for the sake of business and added that although it is an added burden for them but this consideration helps them to stand beside the men as equals.
She, however, feels that the big thirst for finance and knowing the markets created among women need to be satisfied through taking necessary steps by all stakeholders including banks and the government.
Nasreen Awal Mintoo started her business career in 1982 after completing graduaion from the United States and actively involved in "Nari", an organisation for a group of reputed women. But she formed Women Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh watching the potentials of women as entrepreneurs in rural and urban areas.
"Women always think the market of their products is within their community and I face the challenge in bringing these women from the grassroot level," Nasreen told the FE to describe her success as a leader.
She said WEAB assists the women entrepreneurs through providing training and creating scope to participate in national and international fairs.
WEAB sends member producers to trade shows, exhibitions, fair and festivals around the world, including the UK, the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, India, Pakistan and other countries which are prospective buyers of Bangladeshi products and found significant development among the entrepreneurs.
These have helped the local entrepreneurs in improving the quality and design of products as well as earn confidence and courage to sustain in the business.
The WEAB President feels the necessity for continuation of the support to the women entrepreneurs through establishing state level institution and financial support with easy disbursement procedure.
She also feels the need for establishing a Women Development Bank (WDB), a separate and independent bank for women, in the rural and remote areas after observing a large numbers of women failing to compete with the male entrepreneurs in receiving bank loan and assistance.
(The interviews were conducted and compiled by Munima Sultana with Jasim Uddin Haroon and Doulot Akter Mala)