As I sit at my desk to write this column, a thousand events flash across my mind. Looking back, I can hardly suppress the outpourings of joy and happiness which come from within watching the success of women entrepreneurs of rural to urban areas. I have found the Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs energetic, innovative, willing to learn, hard working, and have the ability to take risks. A little handholding takes them a long way and enables them to graduate from micro to more sustainable small and medium size entrepreneurs.
Women entrepreneurs are a small but steadily growing minority in the realm of the country's trade and manufacturing. And it is considered a desirable trend in conformity with the national strategy of empowerment and utilisation of the productive or economic potential of women. Greater participation of women in economic activities will surely add to Bangladesh's GDP, raise family income, expand employment opportunities and hence raise living standards. Few activities in life are more challenging and rewarding than building a business or developing a new technology. But for them, matching a product or service with a market in an effective and timely manner demands creativity, persistence, talent, passion and skill which they often have to earn. Therefore, women deserve to be encouraged to accelerate their entrepreneurial initiatives.
Recognising the potential of women entrepreneurs and their need to be fulfilled to play a more effective role in private sector development in the country, Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) was formed 2001. It now acts as a nucleus to assist, activate, inform, organise and assimilate Bangladesh's women entrepreneurs.
The main objective of BWCCI is to support the women entrepreneurs in terms of training, trade fair participation and exposure to domestic and global markets. This is because a large number of BWCCI member entrepreneurs both in urban and rural areas need such assistance to sustain themselves in the domestic market and the chamber. Some of the members are already exporting to Italy, Belgium and the USA as an outcome of trade fair participation.
It is well known that finance is the key to SME growth and development. Business concept, responsibility and courage are all coming into effect to add to the wealth creation under private enterprises. From BWCCI experience, it is found that more and more women are coming into business and achieve success with small scale finance. But their graduation often gets stuck up due to lack of finance because of the existing banking and financial regulations. BWCCI organises loan for them as loan guarantor. It has so far arranged loan for more than 80 members totaling Tk 15 million. Although the demand is very large and well beyond the resources available to the chamber of commerce, we were compelled to innovate and provide loans to some of the members. And BWCCI gets success when it sees that women loan borrowers have proven to be successful in ventures and we feel proud for whatever roles we have been able to play.
Still BWCCI finds that there are some universal constraints women entrepreneurs face. These are very much identified problems and can be met by ensuring access to finance, removing institutional barriers, low skill base etc.
At this circumstance, BWCCI is also highlighting the above-mentioned issues in its dialogue and advocacy initiatives and will continue doing that. It will also take proactive role and organise seminars, workshops and round table dialogues on policy matters focused on issues relevant to women's participation in the private sector. This will ensure focus on women's issues as entrepreneurs and influence those on the national agenda. Now it conducts many programmes with donors and several international partners.
The chamber has also a finance scheme for new entrepreneurs and has many borrowers on its portfolio. To make them successful, the chamber runs training courses and advocacy from its own training centre and business incubator. It has set up with the name 'ARUSHI MINIBAZAR AND FOOD COURT" model businesses in the service sector for its members and watches success. BWCCI members also participated in the national and international trade fairs in the USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, the UAE, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Italy, Germany. And all these have expanded the women entrepreneurs' scope to widen their market from domestic to the international level. For all these successes, BWCCI has now become the international partner organisation of Global Summit of Women, Washington and Humber Isntitute of Applied Learning, Canada.
The members of BWCCI are individual entrepreneurs of micro, small and medium enterprises and also NGOs that engage in micro credit programmes. The members of BWCCI are from the entire range of socio-economic spectrum. Although the members are predominantly engaged in various traditionally women dominated sectors, such as food, beauty, fashion, health products, handicraft etc. there are emerging group of women entrepreneurs in various non-traditional businesses such as IT, media, publications and other services.
As BWCCI still faces challenge while working with its members on the issue of finance to help bring micro women entrepreneurs in the economic mainstream. It has a plan to advocate the policy makers and financial institutions to meet the present need of these people. The process of loan sanction and disbursement has to be very easy and quick. These will require courage and innovation to breakout of the existing frame of mind and success of BWCCI and its members will come from encouraging the policy makers and financing institutions to meet the present demand of the women. If the banks come forward actively, contribution of the women in the private sector will be immense to the economy. The banks must gain the faith that the time spent on loan cases of women entrepreneurs is not wasted, rather it is a profitable market for them. So a change in the mind-set of the banks is necessary.
We found in every occasion that introduction as a women's chamber and as business women immediately raised the esteem of Bangladeshi women. In the countries we visited the professionalism and the commitment of the participating members of BWCCI were highly appreciated. The chamber is bubbling with ideas, people, need, problems and prospects. Our members have shown total co-operation, good networking and an eagerness to maintain the sustainability of the women owned enterprises. So now we have been invited to various policy level discussions in local and international organisations for inputs. The recognition has been due to the valuable contribution of all our members.
(The writer is the President of Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry)