Women’s economic empowerment is widely recognized as a key driver of poverty alleviation and sustainable economic growth. However, women entrepreneurs are still hindered by discriminatory laws, policies, and cultural practices that discourage them from starting, owning, and operating successful businesses, particularly in non-traditional sectors. Women face a distinct set of challenges that impede both their entry into business as entrepreneurs, and later their ability to ensure the survival of their businesses. For instance, women tend to be excluded from ownership of property and assets, making formal-sector financing difficult to obtain. They lack networking connections to district-level value chains and platforms for interacting with policymakers, and they are often uninformed about effective means to find customers and suppliers, market their products, and diversify their businesses to enter profitable sectors.
Recognizing the potential of women entrepreneurs, and the importance of women-friendly business environments, the Asia Foundation has brought special attention to developing women’s capacity to join forces and be more proactive in pushing for reforms. This work started at the village level in 2006, and has gradually progressed to the national level and regional levels, incorporating training, policy advocacy, and networking activities. Alongside the progression from the village level upwards, the Foundation’s work in empowering women entrepreneurs has also expanded to include emerging sectors that have traditionally not been the domain of women. Foremost among these is the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector, which is rapidly expanding in Bangladesh, and which has tremendous potential to create income-earning opportunities. The Asia Foundation is partnering with several other organizations in projects that address the challenges faced by women entrepreneurs to help then diversify into new ICT-related businesses. The focus of these projects is skill development of women and the creation of linkages with between women’s businesses and the ICT sector.
Integrating ICT in Women’s Entrepreneurship
The Asia Foundation, in collaboration with Banglalink, a leading mobile telecom operator, has designed a mobile-based network as a tool to increase the opportunities of women entrepreneurs for access to information and networking. The project objective is to promote women’s entrepreneurship and ownership and management of MSMEs, particularly through capacity building of women entrepreneurs’ associations using information and communication technology (ICT). The Foundation will accomplish this objective by strengthening and expanding women entrepreneurs’ access to information through the strategic use of mobile phone technology and enhancing the voice and influence of women entrepreneurs through networking opportunities and advocacy with key stakeholders.
The project, titled, “Connecting Women Entrepreneurs through Innovative Use of ICT” focuses on removing barriers for women entrepreneurs, particularly in the realms of business entry and access to finance and markets. The Foundation will build on the success of its established programs that have improved the business environment for MSMEs in Bangladesh by working closely with the existing DWBF’s to create the mobile-based network. The project will initially be implemented in four districts: Barisal, Rajshahi, Rangpur, and Sylhet, with the prospect of later expansion to more districts.