Struggles and Successes of Testing a Business Accelerator Model for Women in Bangladesh’s Agricultural Market
This post was authored by Bidowra Khan, regional gender and social inclusion advisor at ACDI/VOCA, and Nathalie Me-Nsope, director of gender and agriculture at ACDI/VOCA.
Bangladesh’s agricultural industry is highly mature and characterized by strong market dynamism involving millions of value chain actors. While most large- and medium-scale entrepreneurs thrive in creating distribution and trading networks across the country, small and micro entrepreneurs are often disconnected from the wider market system.
On the demand side, it is not unusual to find larger players, such as input and output companies and traders, excluding small enterprises from their distribution networks, since the latter are mostly located in remote areas beyond the radar of the larger companies. The risk of exclusion is higher for women-led agricultural enterprises. Generally, Bangladesh’s private sector perceives doing business with women as expensive because women often lack business management skills, adequate working capital and fixed assets to grow their businesses.
On the supply side, it is not unusual to find female entrepreneurs struggling to take their small agricultural businesses to the next level. Despite the important role women’s income plays in diversifying household income, social norms rooted in patriarchy prevent many rural women in southern Bangladesh from having sustainable growth, applying innovation and becoming creditworthy and resilient in the face of unforeseen shocks.
The reasons for this include restrictions on women’s mobility and access to market information, business knowledge and planning skills, as well as their limited ownership of assets and the need to present a male family member as a guarantor when applying for credit. These barriers hinder the growth of small, women-led businesses, rendering them unattractive to larger market players and financial institutions. This results in a strategic loss due to the market’s inability to cater to the needs of female entrepreneurs.
Engaging Rural Women in Bangladesh
To increase the competitiveness of women-owned agricultural enterprises, the Gender Accelerator Program (GAP) provided Bangladeshi female entrepreneurs with skills and access to business support services and market-led opportunities. From 2018 to 2019, the Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops (RDC) Activity, funded by USAID and implemented by ACDI/VOCA, led GAP in partnership with LightCastle Partners, a Dhaka-based business consulting firm.
Their vision was to foster a small- and medium-sized enterprises development ecosystem, specifically among women in remote regions where literacy rates and technology usage were low or nonexistent. The RDC Activity used a market systems development approach to promote sustainable solutions to supply and demand challenges identified through a market analysis, specifically by promoting gender-inclusive access to support market products and services.
To kick off the process, these partners used the snowball sampling method to geolocate clusters where women were involved as agribusiness entrepreneurs and service providers.
They then applied a framework for developing and implementing the GAP, shown below.
Between 2018 and 2019, 60 female entrepreneurs graduated from the accelerator program.
The GAP process was not always smooth. Mobility issues and a lack of family support made many women unable to join the two-week mentorship programs. LightCastle Partners, aware of these gender constraints, addressed them by gathering consent from women and their families to complete the mentorship program; providing transportation for women to the mentorship training centers; holding the trainings at safe, residential locations; and, in some instances, even offering childcare during training sessions. For many women, this was their first opportunity to receive formal education on entrepreneurship targeted to female entrepreneurs.
Capturing Learning for Systemic Changes
A 2021 learning study surveyed 26 graduates — 13 from Jessore District and 13 from Khulna District — one year after the GAP and in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In-depth interviews with these graduates, who were mostly agro-entrepreneurs, aimed to discover (1) how knowledge gained from the GAP affected business performance, growth and profits; (2) how the GAP contributed to innovation in entrepreneurship, especially during COVID-19; and (3) if graduates have transferred knowledge and skills to other women in their communities.
The GAP proved to be crucial to advancing inclusion with market systems development partners. Through the program, some graduates connected with the RDC Activity’s private partners and their distribution networks. For example, a GAP graduate who owned an input retail business expanded to become a micro merchant after being introduced to one of the RDC Activity’s banking partners. These results and others highlight the business case for investing in women-led businesses.
Scaling up the Accelerator Program’s Impact
The GAP indisputably generated gains that are sustainable and contribute to the empowerment of female entrepreneurs in the Feed the Future Zones of Bangladesh. However, what remains to be seen is how this model will successfully scale up. One avenue may be creating a consortium of consulting firms who can organize linkage activities to host business matching events, as well as organize trade exhibitions and e-commerce through already established platforms. This would allow companies to realize the commercial gains of onboarding women-led businesses in their distribution networks, thereby enhancing women-led businesses’ capacity to serve and benefit more people.
For more on the GAP in Bangladesh, stay tuned for upcoming blogs exploring its effects on women-led businesses, gender roles and women’s empowerment.