For decades, women entrepreneurs were mostly limited to making pickles, handicrafts, sewing and weaving. But today, women are venturing into new areas such as e-commerce, waste recycling, biotech, hydropower, banking, IT, publishing and many more.
In 1977, Ambica Shrestha, the chairperson of Dwarika’s Hotels & Resort, helped her husband to start a hotel. Starting from a room, the couple gradually expanded it to a 10-room lodge. Shrestha took over the entire responsibility of running the lodge after the demise of her husband. With her dedication, perseverance and determination, she has managed to develop that 10-room into one of Nepal’s most recognized hotels. At a time when society was confining women inside their houses, she rose against the orthodox thinking and started teaching at Kanti Ishwari School for a monthly salary of Rs 80.
Ambica Shrestha is among the first generation women entrepreneurs who defied social stigma and stereotypes that women should be confined between their houses and engage in domestic chores.
"It was difficult for me to go out of home to work in the beginning. The only professions women were allowed during that time was teacher and nurse," she shared, adding that her in-laws as well as the society was not comfortable about her decision.
People wanted women to take care of household chores and not venture into the business world. However, women like late Yangzi Sherpa, Ambica Shrestha, Rita Thapa, Maggie Shah, Renchin Yonjan, Shyam Badan Shrestha, Shanti Chadha, Nilam Pande, Yankila Sherpa, Hajuri Bista, Mohini Lama, to name some, were the trailblazers at that time.
Hajuri Bista, one of the pioneer women entrepreneurs and owner of Hajuri Khadya Udhyog, remembers how her work of making pickles drew negative comments from the society. “People then used to think that women should focus on their family and household chores instead of working outside. ‘Why women should be engaged in business?’ was a common mindset at that time,” she said. “However, the mindset has changed with time,” she said. “Women entrepreneurship has reached new heights now.”
In 1987 when Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (WEAN), an organisation that was established by a group of first generation women entrepreneurs, was established, the women who were into entrepreneurship could be counted on the fingers. Shyam Badan Shrestha, the founder of Nepal Knotcraft and one of the founding members of WEAN recalls: “It was a big thing to be able to get seven or eight women entrepreneurs in Kathmandu at that time. But there are a large number of women entrepreneurs around the country now.”
In 2003, Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (FWEAN), an apex body of women entrepreneurs, was formed to further work for women entrepreneurship. Today, it has 57 chapters around the country and has representatives in each province.
According to the Economic Census Report, 2018 released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, women own around 30 percent of the enterprises in the country. Of the total of 923,356 enterprises across the country, 247,880 businesses were run by women. As per the report, 22% of such enterprises were manufacturing-based, 40% were food and hospitality businesses, and around 10% were related to information technology. Around 40% of them were home-based businesses. What is interesting is, about 55% of such businesses are owned by young people under the age of 40.
Different organisations such as WEAN Co-operative, FWEAN, FNCCI, South Asian Women Development Forum (SAWDF), Nabil Nari Udhyami Seed Camp are working to promote women entrepreneurship in Nepal. Such organisations are working to develop women entrepreneurship by organising training programmes on skill development, marketing, networking and governance, among others.
Women entrepreneurs, in the past, had to face several socio-cultural restrictions. They were expected to stay inside the house and look after their family. Working outside the house, especially starting a business, was beyond the social norms.
“Women entrepreneurs still have to fulfil family and social responsibilities, like in the past. But the difference is that, today, family members and society have accepted women working outside the house. They have become supportive now,” shared Shrestha.
As family members have become supportive, it has become a lot easier for women entrepreneurs now. However, even today, women entrepreneurs of rural areas have to face this challenge.
Women entrepreneurs say that the patriarchal mindset in the society still has not changed. Shrestha says as today’s men were brought up in a different environment, it will take some time to change. “But it is changing gradually,” she added.
Shyam Badan says people used to see women entrepreneurs in a cynical way then. “Though the people, including government officials, looked down on women entrepreneurs, they used to help women,” says Shyam Badan Shrestha. “It’s a different thing that women then were shy and hesitant to ask about things.”
Vice president of the Trans Himalayan Environment and Livelihood Program (T-Help) Yankila Sherpa, who has been into entrepreneurship for more than three decades, recalls how people try to be in charge of women and control them in the past. “I was rebellious and men could not accept this,” she shared, adding that her education was her strength “Education and knowledge is armour for all women.”
As someone involved in the tourism sector for more than 30 years, Sherpa says, “They (men) could not accept educated women at that time. They used to undermine and consider educated and outspoken women as over-smart.”
She recalls that there were very few educated women and most of the women lacked self-confidence. “But times have changed now. Education rate in women has increased. They have got greater exposure and are very confident today. With increased participation of women in every sector, be it in private or in the government organisation, there has been a positive impact on women empowerment,” she said. “Also, the government has come up with many women-friendly policies which has made it easier for women entrepreneurs.”
Even parents wanted their daughters to be involved in a job rather than getting into business. “Two decades ago, people, including family members, were sceptical when a woman wanted to start a business. A lot of lower-middle-class women had to face this challenge,” Dikila Lama, proprietor of Sherpa Adventure Outlet, Himalayan Outdoor Gear and Summit Outdoor, said. “They did not want their daughters to take risks and put their money at risk. This reluctance has impaired the growth of women-led enterprises,” she added.
Nevertheless, people today encourage women to get into business and parents are also ready to invest if the business idea is nice. “Compared to decades ago, people support women entrepreneurs. It may be because women today have gained wider exposure, they are knowledgeable, confident and empowered,” Lama added.
For decades, women entrepreneurs were mostly limited to making pickles, handicrafts, sewing and weaving. But today, with females getting wider exposure to the world and education, women have been venturing into new areas such as e-commerce, waste recycling, biotech, hydropower, banking, IT, publishing and many more. Young, well-educated and tech-savvy women today are taking their steps in the startup scene and growing their businesses to new heights.
Although there have been sea changes in women entrepreneurship over the years, access to finance is one problem that continues to haunt women entrepreneurs. Talking to New Business Age, Sabita Maharjan, proprietor of Kirtipur Hosiery Industry, says that the lack of finance obstructs women entrepreneurs' dream of starting their own business and becoming financially independent. Like Maharjan, many women entrepreneurs still face similar challenges.
President of FWEAN Neeru Rayamajhi Khatri says that it will be easier for women entrepreneurs to move ahead in an institutional way. “Sometimes it’s difficult while we try to do everything on our own. If women entrepreneurs can join some organisation, and work in a more organised way, it will be easier to solve the problem,” said Khatri. By working together, women entrepreneurs can develop themselves and the company, create new networks and learn from each other. She further said that the government can help develop women entrepreneurship by adopting concepts like that of craft village where women entrepreneurs from all the provinces can display, exhibit, and sell their products.
Echoing Khatri, Vice President of FWEAN Mahalaxmi Shrestha said manufacturing or making products is not a problem at the moment. “The problem is finding markets for the products,” she added.
Over the years, the government has also realised the importance of women entrepreneurship. Women, who make up more than half of the population, are mostly in Small and Medium Enterprise (SME). According to Dr. Neelam Dhungana Timsina, deputy governor of Nepal Rastra Bank, SMEs make 22% percent contribution to the total GDP of the country. Among the total contribution of SME, about 13% contribution comes from SMEs run by women entrepreneurs. So, creating an environment conducive for women entrepreneurship can make a huge contribution to the country’s economy.
Pramila Rijal, president of SAWDF also says that there has been a shift in the development of women entrepreneurs, albeit at a slow pace. “The government has also come up with women-friendly programs and schemes in order to develop women entrepreneurs which were not there a decade ago,” Rijal said.
In 2015, the government brought programmes like Women Entrepreneurship Development Fund (WEDF) to help women entrepreneurs start their businesses. Through the fund, the Ministry of Industry provides a collateral free loan of up to Rs 500,000 at 6% interest rate. At the moment, the government has increased the size of such loans to Rs 1.5 million.
The government has also introduced many initiatives and policies to create a favourable environment for women entrepreneurs. For instance, the Civil Code which enables equal property rights to sons and daughters, income tax exemption, collateral free loans at six percent interest. The government, at present, is taking initiatives to support women entrepreneurs by organising programmes for their growth, providing technological support, making business plans, designing trademarks and creating market access.
Similarly, the federal government has recently issued Women Entrepreneurship Facilitation Center Operation Procedure 2021 for the economic development of women entrepreneurs. Likewise, the first women entrepreneurs green industrial park in Panchkhal Municipality is in the process of being established.
Mahalaxmi, however, says women entrepreneurs are facing difficulty in getting the subsidised loans. “Even though the government has made arrangements to provide concessional loans to women entrepreneurs, some women are not aware of it and some have faced difficulty getting it as banks and financial institutions ask for collateral,” she said in an interview with New Business Age.
Women entrepreneurs, earlier, were not aware of the legal issues. Also, because of their shy nature and lack of confidence, they were hesitant to ask. But today, women are equally competent and do not hesitate to put forward their words and clear queries.
Furthermore, many women still say the regulation system of the government is not simplified. “Women, particularly small entrepreneurs, find it difficult to put all the documents together for business registration,” said Rijal, adding: “There are too many bureaucratic hurdles and one of the core reasons behind micro entrepreneurs’ reluctance to upscale themselves is the cumbersome administrative procedure.”