by Aydan Hussain
Last week, in a blog published by World Bank: ‘South Asia’s rural women enter the global marketplace’, writer Divya Gupta sheds light on the ways South Asian women have been scaling up their ventures. She cites examples of countries that have boosted women development through the sale of indigenous products. The article points out that in India, embroidered mirror work garments made by Rajasthani women are being sold to corporations like IKEA. Women in Nepal are selling pure honey, while Aarong, a Bangladeshi handicrafts brand, has become a leading retail chain. Thari women in Pakistan are selling embroidered crafts online. The common denominator is the great latent potential South Asian women have that’s waiting to be tapped.
The latent Potential & Challenges
The potential, however, is not just restricted to indigenous products.
Parveen Anjum, a 42-year-old mother of two, hailing from Bahawalpur, and her husband were daily wagers who saved a meager fortune to start off livestock farming on their family-owned patch of land. She says it took her almost one year to understand the tricks of the trade, and now she believes she can expand her operations if she has access to funding.
“I had to reach out to my mother to lend me her gold so that I could raise equity to invest,” Anjum remarked.
There are many women like Anjum in rural areas, who need a bare initial working capital of PKR 10,000 but are unable to.
One of the major problems, due to the absence of an existential economic framework in these rural areas is lack of financing opportunities. Womentrepreneurs, who have the basic know-how of running a business, are unable to expand because they don’t have access to capital investment. Whatever financing options are available are unregulated, and tantamount to usury by loan sharks.
BISP and Private Partnerships
In Pakistan, the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) has been a great initiative that has truly served the purpose it was conceived with. BISP is currently giving financial support to around 5 million families, considered to be the poorest of the poor.
BISP envisages that its beneficiaries will start earning livelihood on their own. That’s why it has partnered with the private sector and international donor agencies to optimize its impact.
A couple of years ago, BISP partnered with Nestlé Pakistan, to graduate its beneficiaries out of poverty by enrolling them as rural sales agents. The ensuing partnership enabled 500 women to go above the poverty line by setting up their own businesses. This project aims to widen its beneficiary base to 5000 women in the next couple of years.
“It’s a slow process, one that will take time, energy and effort,” says Waqar Ahmad, Head of Corporate Affairs, Nestlé Pakistan, credited with steering this project. “A long term approach – through collective action, partnerships and support of stakeholders –will help in generating sustainable economic value,” he added talking about this initiative.
This is just one example of how the private sector has come together with the government to jointly address Vision 2025 plan that is in line with United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Earlier in 2018, Telenor Microfinance also joined hands with BISP to facilitate its recipients to become potential retailers of telecommunication and financial products.
“Such programs are always welcome, because it adds to everyone’s collective efforts towards social uplift, that will yield a visible impact in the years to come,” says Ahmad, who believes that not just multinational companies, but local homegrown corporate entities should also follow Nestlé’s lead and invest in such projects.
Solutions & Way Forward
Microfinancing has been a generally unexplored segment in a developing country like Pakistan, but the recent influx of players in this domain has been a sigh of relief. Akhuwat Islamic Microfinance is a trusted name in extending interest-free loans – to small and medium enterprises in a bid to address the hurdle posed by lack of credit extension.
Akhuwat, led by Dr. Amjad Saqib, faced its own set of sociocultural challenges when it started out, and it took a while for his team to figure out solutions. They engaged with local mosques and seminaries to cut down its operational costs, and by virtue of their association, it helped eliminate the religious stigma associated with debt and interest – helping them propagate microfinancing. Akhuwat disbursed millions of rupees worth loans and donations in partnership with Sindh and Punjab governments in the last year.
This year, it collaborated with Nestlé Pakistan, receiving PKR 2 million from the latter to extend interest-free loans to the Nestlé-affiliated BISP beneficiaries. The two entities have come together to jointly build a social entrepreneurship model that can be replicated by others.
The overall aim is social uplift of the rural sector, by empowering women and allowing them to identify means of enhancing their ventures. Whether it’s selling indigenous pottery or packaged consumer products – engagement of rural women in earning livelihood will eventually help address the poverty challenges that the country faces.