How a Women’s Business Accelerator in Bangladesh Helped Entrepreneurs Adapt in the Face of Shock
This post was written by Nathalie Me-Nsope, director of Gender and Agriculture at ACDI/VOCA, with inputs from Bidowra Khan, regional gender and social inclusion advisor at ACDI/VOCA.
Business accelerators can help female entrepreneurs not only grow their businesses but also grow their capacities to innovate and adapt in times of uncertainty. In 2018, research conducted by the Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops (RDC) Activity, funded by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, reinforced that rationale. The RDC Activity’s Gender Accelerator Program (GAP) focused solely on female entrepreneurs in agricultural markets and collaborated with LightCastle Partners, a Dhaka-based business consulting firm.
Together, ACDI/VOCA and LightCastle Partners designed this business accelerator program to foster business development and entrepreneurial skills among women who owned micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) in southwestern Bangladesh. Between 2018 and 2019, 60 female entrepreneurs split between two cohorts and across two Feed the Future zones graduated from the GAP.
The RDC Activity led a learning study to understand if these graduates applied what they learned to grow their businesses, shared their knowledge with other women and spearheaded innovations in entrepreneurship, especially when faced with shocks like COVID-19. The study involved 26 graduates, including 13 from Jessore and 13 from Khulna, most of whom were agro-entrepreneurs. The research traveled to remote areas to interview them in person, despite COVID-19 challenges that further restricted the mobility of women in Bangladesh.
Lessons Learned from the GAP
1. Skills acquired by participants during the accelerator led to business expansion and better performance.
Because of the GAP, 80% of the surveyed respondents reported improvements in financial planning and business management skills. Respondents learned to calculate profits and losses, manage their inventories and separate business finances from household finances. Some reported having more than 100 new customers, adding new products, entering new markets and improving business performance. With these positive changes, the business revenue increased for 60% of the respondents, while the remaining 40% attributed revenue losses to COVID-19, Cyclone Amphan or family circumstances.
The study also revealed that certain businesses were less affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than others. For example, female entrepreneurs with vermicompost and fertilizer businesses reported revenue increases because of the increased interest in commercial and recreational farming and vermicompost being exempted from lockdown restrictions imposed by the government.
According to respondents, the technical skills and increased self-confidence acquired from the GAP contributed to their ability to take advantage of new opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic. This, coupled with support from their social networks and families, enhanced their ability to expand their businesses and take advantage of the growing demand for vermicompost, which encouraged other women to join them.
2. The accelerator spurred creativity and innovation amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The business environment is constantly changing, and the ability to adapt and innovate in the face of changing circumstances is an important skill for successful entrepreneurship. The COVID-19 pandemic brought significant challenges to the business environment. However, respondents noted that the GAP prepared them to look beyond the challenges imposed by the current crisis and equipped them with the skills to grab emerging opportunities. Thirteen out of the 26 respondents mentioned expanding their business to include new products and ventures into new markets.
Washima Mondol, a graduate of the GAP, produced and personally delivered cow milk to her customers prior to the pandemic. Like many businesses, her business suffered when the pandemic-induced lockdown created logistical barriers that resulted in reduced demand, falling income, wasted product and increased anxiety. Because the lockdown restricted movement during the day, Washima woke up at 3:00 a.m. to harvest fresh milk from her cows, which she immediately delivered to her customers before dawn. Because of the highly perishable nature of fresh milk, she also identified an alternative use for leftover milk — one with an even higher market value than fresh milk. Washima began processing leftover fresh milk to make sweets. Shortly after, she took out a loan and invested in a refrigerator to prevent spoilage. She processed about 100 to 150 kilograms of the leftover milk into sweets. The gains in income from her new venture enabled her to repay the loan within 15 days and to procure 10,000 square feet of land. Washima’s story is one of grit and resilience.
Tonni Golder, a GAP graduate, earned her diploma in agriculture and received support from the assistant secretary of the Department of Agricultural Extension. At age 22, she began manufacturing vermicompost, a product around which several businesses have popped up in her area of Khulna. Despite the initial challenges and negativity, Tonni proved the quality of her product and its effectiveness by using it on her own crops and farming activities. The success observed on her farm attracted interest from several other farmers, driving the demand for vermicompost. According to Tonni, GAP teachings improved her business management skills, which not only increased her profits but also launched her into managing a network of 150 vermicompost suppliers, called Vermi Village, made up of all women. She now sells directly to farmers and local stores and manages her own Facebook page, where she sells her products. Tonni soon hopes to produce her own brand and packaging of vermicompost. With her increased profits, she decided to diversify her business and began producing and marketing processed goods, such as puffed rice and pickles. Her story is one of learning, innovation and leadership.
3. The accelerator increased the pool of female role models who transferred their skills to other women in their villages.
A common question around accelerator programs is if and how the knowledge acquired during such a program will trickle down to others and promote female entrepreneurship on a larger scale. The findings of this learning study show potential multiplier effects from such programs. The success of businesses managed by female graduates of the GAP spurred an interest in entrepreneurship among other women in the graduates’ communities. This means benefits of the GAP did not end with the graduates themselves. More than 150 new female entrepreneurs took advantage of opportunities in the vermicompost business because of the growth observed among graduates’ businesses and the informal trainings on financial and agricultural management and the mentorship they received from graduates. According to the graduates, the GAP grew their awareness of opportunities for female entrepreneurs and motivated them to bring other women in their villages along!
4. Accelerator participants gained leadership skills.
The learning study also revealed a strong correlation between skill-based empowerment programs, such as the Unnoty GAP program, and other dimensions/domains of women’s empowerment, such as leadership participation. The graduates reported an increased capacity to take the lead in making business decisions, increased recognition of their leadership potential and their involvement in community leadership roles/activities.
What This Means for Market Systems Development Programs
This learning study shows the benefits of an accelerator program are not limited to its participants; it is possible for them to achieve scale. This will require selecting women with strong potential to succeed and transfer knowledge. It will also require the informal transfer of knowledge and coaching between the graduates and other women to strengthen existing networks of female entrepreneurs.
The study also revealed that gains from such a program within the context of a market systems development (MSD) program can be increased by: (1) strengthening linkages between graduates and support markets, such as finance providers; (2) promoting gender-responsive approaches to expanding access to finance for female entrepreneurs; and (3) facilitating linkages with other market actors for gender-inclusive supply chain, distribution models and practices. For example, MSD programs can encourage private input supply companies to leverage networks of female entrepreneurs in their input distribution models, thereby increasing the availability and accessibility of agricultural inputs for female farmers and increasing income for the entrepreneurs. For example, vermicompost entrepreneurs can be brought under the supply chain network of commercial fertilizer manufacturers that are promoted by the MSD program to expand their market and increase their incomes.
The GAP proved to be a skills-based approach toward the attitude about women’s empowerment. By increasing their knowledge and technical and business know-how, the GAP gave women the ability to translate knowledge gained into action or resources.
Read the first blog in this series, “Struggles and Successes of Testing a Business Accelerator Model for Women in Bangladesh’s Agricultural Market,” and stay tuned for the next blog in this series on how the GAP catalyzed changes in traditional gender roles and relations in southwestern Bangladesh.