Breaking stereotype, Nepali women are making their presence felt in entrepreneurship.
--BY MANISHA BALAMI AND BIJAYA LAXMI DUWAL
When a 19-year-old Nikita Acharya started an online marketplace called Urban Girls (UG) in 2012, primarily to sell women’s accessories, e-commerce was in a nascent stage in Nepal. Fast forward seven years and UG is now regarded as one of the most successful home-grown e-commerce companies backed by a massive growth in the electronic retail market. The startup Acharya co-founded with her friend Kiran Timsina grew to become Urban Girls IncPvt Ltd, which operates UG Bazzar, an e-commerce portal that sells items ranging from premium clothes and accessories for both male and female and top-quality cakes to automobiles.
Acharya is among the few new generation entrepreneurs who represent the changing face of women entrepreneurship in Nepal. Her entrepreneurial journey began at a time when Nepal was politically very unstable, and youngsters were leaving the country in droves to seek better opportunities. “Back then, people viewed the youngsters who would stay in the country as academically weak or deprived of opportunities abroad. So, starting a business in such a situation was challenging in itself. But I was determined to do something new and explore the potential in it,” she recalls.
While Acharya established herself as a pioneer in domestic e-commerce business, Shweta Upadhyaya, founder of Laavanya Luxury Ayurveda is working to make her brand globally recognised. Upadhyaya, who has a diploma in fashion merchandising from the Paris Fashion Institute and experience of working in high-end luxury retail, is taking her Ayurvedic skin care company to international markets. Manufactured in Nepal, Laavanya promotes bath products and facial products.
Nobody in Nepal had thought trash recycling can be a good business for well-educated urban youths before Aayushi KC. Her venture Khaalisisi, an online platform which connects people who have recyclable household wastes to sell to collectors of such materials. Leaving a well-paid job at USAID Nepal, KC started Khaalisisi in 2017 in a bid to change the traditional ways of trash recycling.
Those who are consuming Mates wines may not know that a 25-year old biotech graduate from Kathmandu University is behind this home-grown wine brand. Binita Pokhrel's company Pure Joy has recently launched the first lot of Mates wine in the domestic market. Pokhrel, who started in 2017 with an initial investment of Rs 30,000 and some amount loaned by her family members and friends to lease four ropanies of land in Dhapakhel, Lalitpur, to establish the winery, is charting new path to produce premium Nepali wine. Pure Joy, which has launched four varieties of wine till date, is working to introduce wine made from fruits such as plum and banana.
A Changing Paradigm
The Himalayan country is currently witnessing attempts made by women to break through the corporate and entrepreneurial glass ceiling to become master of their own destiny which was elusive for them a couple of decades ago. It is promising in a sense that Nepali women, who were largely confined to household works in the past, have taken charge of their own future. It is important to mention the invaluable contributions of the country’s first generation women entrepreneurs such as Ambica Shrestha, the late Yangzi Sherpa, Rita Thapa, Maggie Shah, Shyam Badan Shrestha, Hajuri Bista and Nilam Pande, to name a few, who have paved the way for other women to get involved in business. They are the ones who during the 1960s and 70s first stood against social stigma and stereotypes that female should dedicate themselves only to domestic chores and raising children and that engaging in business is something reserved for men. The difficulties they faced during the early days helped to instill confidence in other women that they can also get into businesses like men. “It was difficult for me to go out of home to work in the beginning. My in-laws and other people in the society were not comfortable about my decision not to follow the conventional societal norms. However, this notion has changed with time,” says Ambica Shrestha, chairperson of Dwarika’s Hotel and Resorts.
As said by Shrestha, things have progressed and an environment has developed in Nepal’s entrepreneurship scenario where young women can come forward to work shoulder to shoulder with men. “Women have become much aware and their issues are being advocated and addressed. There are various organisations like Federation of Women Entrepreneurs’ Association of Nepal (FWEAN) working for women’s empowerment. The government is also introducing various women-centric programmes. So it is easier today for women entrepreneurs compared to a few years back,” says Reeta Simha, first vice president of FWEAN. These changes are visible in the current vibrant Nepali startup scene. Well educated and tech-savvy young women of today are venturing into different new areas such as e-commerce, software and mobile app development, beauty products, waste recycling, biotech, publishing, agriculture, and many more, like never before. Shweta Upadhyaya, Nikita Acharya, Prarthana Saakha, Aayushi KC, Eeda Rijal, Sabi Singh and Sunita Nemaphuki are some of the successful young businesswomen who are working to take their startup businesses to new heights of growth and recognition.
“I feel young girls today are very dedicated, confident, creative and ready to give time to business,” says Mridula (Jolly) Rajbhandari, executive director at Tara Orientals. Rajbhandari is among those few passionate Nepali women of the late 90s and early 2000s who strived for business excellence facing several odds in front of them. Tara Orientals is now a top Nepali pashmina and cashmere exporter and the buyers of its premium products include elites and celebrities from the world over. It was difficult for women to become entrepreneurs when she started 18 years ago as there wasn’t much exposure and people were mot much educated about women empowerment. “The perception towards women as business owners has changed now. People are supporting and praising their works,” she says.
An Inclusive Drive in Family-run Businesses
In the meantime, the country's leading business houses also see a meaningful inclusive drive with a growing participation of female members in their businesses. Ritu Singh Vaidya, Seema Golchha, Ashrayata Karki Chaudhary, Srijana Jyoti, Megha Chaudhary, Vidushi Rana and Latika Golyan represent women in business families that have been run by men.
Successfully leading various business verticals of their respective groups, they are proving that they can be as efficient as men whether it is in planning and policy making, dealing with clients, and organisational management. Seema Golchha, director of Him Electronics, has set an example. She is the first woman in the Golchha family to join the family business and has demonstrated that women can be excellent risk takers, planners and innovators. “Business involves taking risks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and that should not scare those who have entrepreneurial spirit,” she says.
Vidushi Rana, director of marketing and business development at Kiran Shoes Manufacturers, the makers of Goldstar shoes, sees the situation for Nepali women in business improving. “Women in Nepal are much more progressive than many other countries. Yet, there is a need for the government to create a platform where they can showcase their skills,” she says. Rana thinks that a favourable environment should be created for exporting products made by women entrepreneurs. “Besides, support and motivation from family is very important,” she adds. Latika Golyan, director at Golyan Group, feels that voices of women are being heard lately at boardrooms and offices. “People have started taking women more seriously at work today. There are a lot of women entrepreneurs coming up and we have few female CEOs in corporate institutions,” she says. In a contribution to increasing female faces in the corporate workforce, Golyan is working to employ as many women as possible in her organisation and give them leadership roles wherever possible.
Ritu Singh Vaidya, managing director at United Traders Syndicate (UTS), a Vaidya’s Organisation of Industries and Trading Houses (VOITH) company, is an example of women’s tenacity in business. She has been overseeing all operations of VOITH as her husband Suraj Vaidya is busy as the National Coordinator of Visit Nepal 2020 campaign.
At present, women are gradually taking up various roles and responsibilities in business houses. Particularly, a good level of gender balance can be seen among the young generation members who were educated abroad. Ekta Golchha, daughter of Raj Kumar Golchha, and Suruchi Jyoti, daughter of Dr Roop Jyoti, are examples of new generation women in business houses. Ekta has been handling IT business of Golchha Organization, while Suruchi is overseeing Hero motorbike and Philips Electronics business of Jyoti Group.
Official data is clearly indicative of the significant growth of women entrepreneurship in Nepal. According to the National Economic Census, published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) in July 2019, Nepali women own 29.8 percent or one third of the total 923,356 enterprises in the country.
According to the CBS, 247,880 enterprises in various sectors were run by women as of April 14, 2018. The census found that most of such firms are related to retail and wholesale trade, followed by vehicle repair, food services and manufacturing.
It has been found that women residing in different areas of the country have different business preferences. Rural women are engaged mostly in micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) related to agribusiness, small shops and food stalls, animal husbandry, forest and cottage industries that produce traditional household items such as broomsticks and stools, and other handicraft items. Meanwhile, women entrepreneurs in urban areas are engaged in handicraft, retail and wholesale stores, along with travel trade and hospitality, food processing and small businesses like mom and pop shops.
The past decade has been important in a way that educated young women have grown their interest in new fields such as IT, e-commerce, biotech, merchandise products and business consulting, among others. There has been improvement in the participation of women, albeit slowly, in these areas of business, which are traditionally known for male dominance.
Of late, there have been institutional efforts to promote women entrepreneurship in Nepal. Udhyami Innovations, a startup platform, has been organising programmes to support women startups led by women. Udhyami's ‘Nabil Nari Udhyami Seed Camp’ is a business boot camp dedicated to providing a platform to women with creative ideas in start up businesses.
Started in 2017, the focuses of Nabil Bank-sponsored programme are on mentoring budding women entrepreneurs, providing them a platform to pitch their business ideas and find potential investors. It has helped 48 teams and 119 individuals to realise their enterprising ideas, enabling more than 60 senior entrepreneurs and experts to share their insights, and has provided opportunities to investors to invest in the best business ideas. Three teams have succeeded in securing investment and are working to scale up their ventures while five other teams have received investment commitment from investors.
Thanks to growing startup culture in Nepal, the number of aspiring young women venturing into business with innovative ideas has increased compared to a few years ago. Kavi Raj Joshi, founder and managing director at Next Venture Corp observes a gradual growth in the number of women-led startups. Those who've studied abroad and have some work experience in the organised sectors, are either become co-founders or part of the founding team in startup companies," says Joshi. "There are hundreds of companies that have female co-founders."
Narottam Aryal, executive director of King's College has a word of caution. "Female founders of startup companies are still facing cultural and social challenges compared to their male counterparts. We as a society must be very sensitive towards this issue," says Aryal whose college has been running incubation centre to facilitate social and commercial entrepreneurship through academic teachings, trainings, providing access to seed capital, mentoring and networking. While young women have come forward in recent years to establish their own startup companies, Aryal says only a small percentage of such ventures are founded by the women.
In spite of the positive developments, several hindrances exist to supporting women entrepreneurs in Nepal, with access to finance being the major concern. Issues related to financial access matter the most to those coming from middle class and marginalised groups. According to a 2017 study conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), Nepali women entrepreneurs find access to finance and market as two major obstacles for their business growth.
Most of the entrepreneurs interviewed by New Business Age said that though the government has introduced policies to increase their access to financial resources, they fail in implementation. “Many women today are keen to do something on their own and become financially independent. But the lack of capital obstructs the realisation of their aspirations,” says Hajuri Bista, treasurer at FWEAN.
Sabita Maharjan, founder of Kirtipur Hosiery, echoed Bista. She shares her experience of different banks rejecting her approaches for loan. “The government has announced that banks will provide loans up to Rs 1.5 million to women without collateral. But when I visited around half a dozen banks, I was told that the policy is yet to be implemented,” says Maharjan. “Due to such announcements which are limited to paper only, women entrepreneurs are in a dilemma.”
Another challenge for women entrepreneurs lies in market access. They find it hard to find buyers for their goods and services in a marketplace where there is little trust in women. “Compared to men, the market platform for women is very adverse. They are required to prove that their goods and services are at par with the same products men sell,” says FWEAN First Vice President Simha.
To address this issue and create a platform for women, FWEAN has been organising the International Women Trade Expo every March. “This expo enables women entrepreneurs to showcase their products and provides link to the market. The expo has become an important event to improve the situation,” says Simha.
According to her, this has created a platform where participants learn from the experiences of others, helping them to build linkages, and connect and develop good relations with entrepreneurs of their kind. “Learning from each other, many participants have enhanced packaging and labeling of their products,” she shares.