Nurturing the Entrepreneurial Spirit

Entrepreneurial ecosystems
Stories of female char-dwellers in Bangladesh

Following the birth of her third child, Asma Begum felt like she had achieved her lifelong dream of a perfect family. Asma happily toiled away in the kitchen and in crop-fields to do her part for the family.

Her husband, an agreeable and hardworking man, did his best to keep the family afloat. Through good times and bad, they worked as a team and made do with whatever they had.

But then, one day, Asma’s husband passed away. He died suddenly, without symptoms or treatment. And Asma found herself adrift and marooned in her own home.

Shielded from family finances all her life, Asma now felt exposed and vulnerable. She felt as though the entire community’s gaze was on her next move. She unknowingly withdrew into her cottage, refusing to eat or meet anyone. She still has no idea who fed her children during those dark days.

Finally, nearly three months later, Asma finally emerged from her cocoon. Her head had cleared: they had no savings to fall back on. There was hardly anything in the house that could be sold off. Asma herself did not possess any special skills that could land her a job. But then she turned her gaze towards her children, and immediately knew that she could not let ‘hopelessness’ or ‘fear of failure’ hold her back.

Asma Begum
Asma Begum selling agricultural products

Three months later, Asma Begum had sold her cottage and moved to the Hatbari char (riverine land, susceptible to erosion and soil deposition, which remain disconnected from the mainland either seasonally or throughout the year). Her children had never seen this side of their mother. They were amazed. In fact, Asma Begum herself did not know there was this side to her.

Asma embarked on a new journey. Her first lifeline came in the form of manual labour, toiling in the acrid chili fields of the Hatbari char. The work was exhausting and exploitative, but as a freshly arrived widow, she had no choice.

It was around this time that Asma heard a few women discussing SKS Foundation’s microfinance scheme. Asma immediately put her heart and soul into obtaining a loan for herself.

Asma Begum became one of the first women who received a micro loan from SKS. With BDT 10,000, Asma prepared to get a grip on her fortunes. For guidance, she regularly attended M4C community meetings, and sought advice from M4C and SKS staff. With time, she learnt about good agricultural practices, importance of quality inputs and efficient production techniques. Asma Begum joined a farmers’ group under the guidance of the M4C project. Gradually, she gained fellow group-members’ admiration, and soon became the team-leader. As she gained experience, Asma also started selling agricultural inputs. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, standing outside her store, Asma Begum meekly admits her joy at making it this far. She candidly admits that at one point, she had lost all hope. And she had even blamed her husband for leaving her in the lurch.

Now, Asma has married off both her daughters, while her son works a job in the capital city. All of them visit her regularly, and they often speak about Asma’s fortitude that held the family together. Asma now has many friends and neighbors in the char, who visit her regularly. Many come for advice. Her financial standing allows her to entertain frequent guests. Asked if there is anything she still desires, Asma Begum replies with a grin, “grandchildren.”

Asma Begum has gone from being a veiled housewife, to a migrant widow, and finally to a successful businessperson and community leader. There are now traders who want to be in business with her, and young schoolgirls who want to be like her.

No one can say what sparked this remarkable transformation in this ordinary woman from Hatbari char. Asma herself thanks M4C and its partners for paying attention to char-dwellers, and for creating empowering conditions for women. To be successful, she says, one must start out with unwavering determination. And then, everything else will fall into place. 

“When a woman becomes economically empowered then the chances of falling victim to domestic violence decrease”, Asma Begum of Hatbari char, Jamunabazar, Saghata, Gaibandha 

Thousands of female char-dwellers like Asma have risen to their potential, thanks partly to market development activities by M4C. Some of these stories are tangible while others are barely visible to outsiders. For instance, the story of Mosiron Begum whose entrepreneurial journey helped her find her place in the family.

Mosiron working in the chili field

Mosiron Begum (35) had long been a housewife, engaged in a variety of unpaid, daily household chores. For many years, she had to ask for money from her husband, to run the household. Even when the children needed to buy something, she had to appeal to her husband for money on their behalf. Each time, the act made her feel smaller and worthless. To add insult to injury, her mother-in-law would often express doubt about where all the money given to her was going.

But those days are gone now. Mosiron and her cohorts have come a long way. With these women generating their own incomes, it is not necessary for them to ask their husbands for money all the time. There were initial hiccups, Mosiron confides - at the beginning, her in-laws were dead against her working outdoors, alongside other men. But then M4C intervened and convinced the in-laws on behalf of Mosiron. Soon after, when the in-laws observed the interventions for themselves, they dropped their objections, allowing Mosiron the liberty to pursue her business goals. 

Similarly, Ayesha Begum (60), who at her age, has taken to working alongside her daughter-in-law, says that most elderly women in the chars are becoming supportive of their daughter-in-laws’ work. Family members now work beside younger women and treat them with respect. Their opinions are sought on important domestic matters. Their stature also contributes to social balance, as rising incomes result in fewer quarrels and fights.

Naturally, these small changes culminate in larger social transformations. During the first quarter of 2019, a female group-member had a falling out with her in-laws and was eventually ousted from the household. Before it could take a more serious turn, an elderly group-member convened a woman-only arbitration process and amicably resolved the issue. The event, to many char-dwellers, represents a change in the way things had been previously done.

By changing their own lives for the better, women like Asma are in fact constantly impacting the lives of women around them. Apart from creating favorable situations in their respective households, these women are now also serving as potent role models for sustainable, inclusive development.

Making Markets Work for the Chars (M4C) aimed to reduce poverty and vulnerability of northern char households, by facilitating market systems for enhancing opportunities of income generation.

M4C promoted 20 business models and supported 1 500+ service providers e.g. agro-input companies, distributors, retailers, traders, microfinance institutions, etc. to promote 60 services e.g. distribution and promotion of quality agro-inputs, post-harvest/processing information and services, seasonal loans for crops and livestock, etc. 20 of these services targeted women. M4C addressed cross-cutting themes like women's economic empowerment (WEE).

M4C is mandated by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives and the Government of Bangladesh.