There’s woman behind many successful startups in Bangladesh

Dhaka, March 5 :  Entrepreneurship symbolises dreams, struggle and success. And like in many countries around the world, entrepreneurship is buzzing in Bangladesh with startups mushrooming by the year to capture the new business opportunities.
Defying all odds, women are also making their presence felt in the startup ecosystem and scripting their own success stories in today’s new age world. Some of these startups are also gunning for the global markets, having made a mark in Bangladesh.
Meet Roksana Parvin Tuhin, one such female entrepreneur. She started out small but grew her venture into a well-known brand in Bangladesh.
“Along with nine economically challenged women, I started an association — Chhaya Mohila Unnayan Sangstha Joypurhat. All of us chipped in with money and created a corpus fund of Tk20,000 to start the venture,” says Roksana.
It was a step-by-step approach. First, Roksana herself acquired vocational skills from the SME Foundation and through the Entrepreneurship Skill Development Programme of the PMO. Then she taught these women sewing and the art of batik block design.
“Once that was done, I started looking for orders for different products. Initially the marketing strategy was restricted to the near and dear ones. Overwhelmed by the response, I subsequently floated a website to market our products online,” she says.
Today, there’s no dearth of customers, thanks to an intangible asset the Chhaya Mohila Unnayan Sangstha has acquired over the years — goodwill.
“Already I have trained some 70 women in different areas of Joypurhat. I have equipped them with skills like block batik printing. I have also taught them to prepare different food items. Many of these women have now started their own ventures,” says Roksana.
The pandemic has in a way helped Roksana’s venture to prosper. “We wasted no time in launching a cloud kitchen after the Covid-induced lockdown last year. We created an extra webpage on the portal to cater to the food lovers,” she says.
“Our association is registered with the Women Affairs Ministry of the district. We get a number of orders not only from across the country, but also from abroad,” Roksana says.
However, she says that the lack of high-speed internet is an impediment to doing business in the rural areas of Bangladesh. “Many rural areas in this country still can’t match the broadband opportunities of their urban counterparts.”
Roksana feels that the government should take immediate steps to impart vocational training to rural women “if it wants to strengthen the rural economy of the country”. “The government should support rural female entrepreneurs financially,” she adds.
Monirua Munni is another startup founder. Amid the pandemic, she launched a business in November last year to help preserve the country’s cultural heritage.
“I have started selling Nakshi Ponno, hand-stitched cotton cloths, since November last year. There’s a niche market for Nakshi Ponno in Bangladesh and we are trying to tap it. We sell our products anywhere between Tk1,600-8,000 a piece,” she says.
However, Monirua says there are many challenges for startups — getting the capital being the primary one. “This is the biggest challenge the startups face in this country today.”
Another entrepreneur, Fatema Khatun Shraboni founded a startup with Tk 1,000 to fund her studies. “I started my business of selling saree, bags and ornaments online last year just after the lockdown restrictions were withdrawn. Now, I have started getting good response.”
Laaibah Ruti Maker inventor Md Humayun Kabir also feels that the biggest challenge for startups in Bangladesh is capital.
“After I invented Laaibah Ruti Maker, I ran from pillar to post to get a loan to start production — from Grameen Bank to Sonali Bank to Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation (BSCIC). But no one supported me financially in the initial stage,” he says.
According to Humayun, government officials just don’t care about small-scale entrepreneurs, who don’t have backing of politicians or senior bureaucrats. “On the other hand, NGOs are reluctant to support startups during the nascent stage.”
And wherever there’s a little chance of obtaining government financing, bureaucracy’s red tape throws hurdles. “I had met the chairman of BSCIC. He had agreed to give me a loan of Tk2 lakh, but the complex process compelled me to decline the loan offer,” he claims.
“Thousands of youths are looking for financial support to launch startups. I request the government to set up a particular financial institution to give funding to SMEs and give due respect to ‘inventors’,” he adds.
Kabir claims his wooden Ruti Maker is the first such invention in this country. “I started the business with Tk4,000 in Bunagati village of Magura district. I thought about the invention of the machine long years ago, but began production in 2011.”
In fact, the entrepreneur began selling his products on Dhaka’s footpaths. And hard work and diligence paid off. “Later, I took an office in Rayerbazar on rent after getting Tk1 lakh from a private investor on profit-sharing mode,” he said.
“Now, many people work in my factory. Alongside male workers, around 25 women are on my payroll. We prefer female workers. Their numbers will be increased soon,” Kabir says.
His company also receives orders from abroad on “Our products are available in online stores too like DARAZ and Evaly. Now, Laaibah Ruti Maker is sold in around 28 countries, including the UK, the US, Australia and Canada,” Kabir says.
He sells three models of the machine, the prices of which vary between Tk2000 and Tk3500, depending on quality.
“Ruti maker is an essential product in every household. So there is a potential market in rural Bangladesh too. We want to tap this local market. All that is needed is a little government support,” Kabir says.
According to Light Castle Partners, all businesses and startups in Bangladesh have been affected by the disruption caused by Covid since March last year.
“24% of companies reported to have stopped operations, with 56% of startups seen at least a 50% drop on revenue generation. 60% of startups have runway less than three months threatening 1.5 million jobs and an annual loss of over USD 53 Million in 2020,” it says.
However, the consulting firm claims that the pandemic has accelerated the use of ICT (information and communications technology), including digital commerce, education, healthcare and agriculture across the globe.
It may be mentioned here that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government enacted the National ICT Policy in 2009 for making ‘Digital Bangladesh’ by 2021. The policy aims at improving the startup ecosystem in the country, including setting up of 28 Hi-Tech Parks, reports UNB.