Sita opened a fruit shop at Itahari Chowk 13 years ago. She invested a small amount of money which she had saved over the years from the daily family expenses. Her husband was totally against her decision to start a business, but she decided to go on. She would do the shop work all by herself during the day and would wake up very early in the morning and stay up late at night to complete other tasks at home. Now her 16 year old daughter helps her in the shop. They make a profit of Rs 9,000 per month on average which helps to fulfill the family needs. Her husband, though he never liked the idea of his wife working outside, doesn’t scold her or try to stop her as she goes to work.
--BY BINDU SHARMA
Generally, women face many obstacles on the path of realising their dreams in Nepal. It is the same with starting business ventures on their own. Mostly, men are leading the business sectors and women generally hesitate to venture into the area of business. Even if they start, their businesses do not get upgraded as often from microenterprise status because of the situational challenges that come along the way.
Women who start microenterprises face a lot of problems during the early days of the business. Many do not depend upon any institution such as training centres, vocational trainings and workshops provided by the government, non-profit organisations and other institutionalised support systems. However, they solve everything gradually by continuously working.
Unlike many of today’s young people who start businesses out of passion, the reason why women start businesses is different. Many of them start a business because of subsistence needs. It requires having a certain level of education, experience and expertise to get a job in any sector. So, opening a micro retail store, tailor store, small hotel are the options available as work and educational qualifications are not needed to open such businesses. That is when they may seek to start a microenterprise.
A study carried out in four major cities namely, Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Lalitpur and Itahari showed that women entrepreneurs, during their initial business days, face four categories of problems: lack of time, knowledge and resources, lack of support and an unbalanced investment-profit ratio. The problems are similar in all the cities while Itahari has a few additional unique problems.
Problems Identified in All Four Cities
• Lack of resources: funds and goods/facilities, i.e. refrigerator, furniture, water and sufficient space
• Lack of knowledge/skill:
i) preparing products/ services
ii) building network, building trust for buying and selling
• Not enough time to invest
• Less selling: less profit
• No support from family and community:
i) no help in daily operation
ii) not supporting the idea of women working
• Lack of customer trust over goods and services provided
• Pollution/dust from public roads
• Uncooperative behaviour of police
Women engaged in such income generating works struggle to balance the daily business and family responsibilities and they are not supported by their families. A few maybe assisted by their daughters in the shop, even fewer by their husbands, and not by their sons. Rather than physical assistance, women seek encouragement and the moral support of family members and the community. The lack of support from family members pushes them to re-think their decision to take on the challenge of starting a business.
Lack of knowledge and skills in operating a business are also drawbacks. For instance, they are not familiar with record keeping, warehouses to buy goods, costing, understanding customer needs/desires. Likewise, in the absence of adequate resources such as funds, equipment and other miscellaneous infrastructure women face a hard time running their business.
They are unable to understand customer expectations, or how to attract more customers to their products and services, keep financial records in the most effective manner, and manage goods and equipment related to their work.
The imbalanced investment-profit ratio during the first few months to one year is what makes it very difficult for women to sustain a business. They earn less profit or no profit at all. And they do not usually have the necessary money to continue the work for some time in case of no profit.
Similarly, local police come to shops/hotels to question both the owner and customers without any clear purpose. This discourages customers from revisiting the stores or hotels.
How do they learn the skills to excel despite the challenges?
Despite these challenges, a number of women entrepreneurs continue to work and expand their business. Most of them learn to excel by adopting the learning-by-doing approach. As the problems arise, they try to tackle them by experimenting, observing others, asking friends and relatives for advice; but they never attend formal institutionalised support networks such as training centres, joining associations, workshops etc. It is as if these formal ways of training are not an option for them.
One snack shop owner in Lalitpur says, “I used to have very few customers. And a similar shop next to mine would be comparatively crowded. I realised I didn’t cook food as tasty as in the other shops. I started cooking a few items at home and asked my daughter to taste them. Now, I find cooking very easy”.
How do they identify the types of micro businesses?
The first step to start any business is to have adequate funds. Once they are able to collect a certain amount of money to start with, women identify the type of business based on four criteria;
1. Amount of funds needed to start
2. Prior experience, knowledge/skill and training
3. Proximity to certain locations
4. Seeing family/relatives and friends doing the same work and making a profit
Maya, the owner of a vegetable and fruit shop in Kathmandu says, “My husband married another woman and brought her home and I left home. I wanted to earn for myself and live. I had seen my brother running a vegetable shop at Jamal, I used to help him sometimes before I got married. So, I went to him and he helped me to start this shop.”
Women entrepreneurs in Kathmandu are connected to cooperatives. But cooperatives in Ithari still seem far behind in attracting microenterprise women owners. But interestingly, studies have found that women in all places become associated with credit cooperatives mainly when they are able to earn some amount of money on a monthly basis and they want to save, not when they need loans and other financial services. Financial institutions such as credit cooperatives are used mostly for saving what they earn safely, not as a financial instrument to start up or to invest.
As the country aspires to upgrade its status from underdeveloped to developing by 2030, we cannot deny the importance of bringing women into enterprises. For more women to seek alternative livelihood options in micro businesses, the most important factor is to change the mindsets of people so that families support the initiatives of their female members. Similarly, there is a need to increase the access of women to micro credit and loan services.
The author is the Programme Coordinator at Rakshya Nepal, a NGO working on women rights and empowerment.