Women entrepreneurs in remote parts of Bangladesh

Women power in Bangladesh

In the most remote parts of Bangladesh, women entrepreneurs are flourishing and developing the lives of others by introducing solar power.

Text: David Bergman Photo: Pinu Rahman

Kamala Begum was 13 years of age, just married, and barely making ends meet, when in 2001 she was one of the 35 women chosen to be a member of a cooperative that was being set up in Char Montaz, a small island off the southern coast of Bangladesh where she lived.

Now, at 28, Kamala is a successful small-business woman. She says becoming a member of the cooperative changed her life - as well as that of many other members of the organisation.

“I am very much respected now,” says Kamala. “I am no longer poor. I have become middle class, perhaps rich,” she adds with a smile.

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The cooperative which calls itself the Coastal Electrification and Women's Development Cooperative (the acronym is UBOMUS) was started in 1999 through funding by the World Bank. 

“The cooperative started by manufacturing solar lamps,” says Nasir Uddin, the executive director of UBOMUS. “The women were trained and an assembly line was created. They then sold the lamps to the local community, with the women sharing in part of the profit,” he explains.

Kamala remembers how she was trained in PSB boards, diodes and transistors and then finally in ‘how to put them together to make the lamps.’ After all, the choice of manufacturing solar lamps made good business sense then.

“At that time, in Char Montaz, people only used kerosene lamps for light. Solar lamps therefore became a popular purchase,’ Uddin says.

Solar lamps became a popular purchase in Bangladesh


Empowering women entrepreneurs

Char Montaz is a very remote island – it takes about 16 hours by car, and then another six hours by boat to get there from the capital city of Dhaka – outside the country’s electricity grid.

The population of this remote island is amongst the 35 percent of the country’s 150 million population, which according to the World Bank, has no access to electricity.

While the Bangladeshi government made considerable strides in increasing electricity production (more than doubling its daily production capacity from 4942 MW in 2009 to 12,870 MW until lately), - lack of gas and maintenance problems result in significant power cuts to those who have access to electricity. 

lack of gas and maintenance problems result in significant power cuts to those who have access to electricity.

   
And for those off the grid, like in Char Montaz, the wait for electricity could have been much longer. But initiatives like UBOMUS have addressed the problem head-on and devised solutions both to provide power to households and empower the women in the households. It encouraged women to set up small businesses, by the side, turning them into entrepreneurs.

“I used the income from the solar lamp business to buy a sewing machine. I began stitching clothes for men and women - including pants, shirts, and blouses,’ Kamala says.

After practicing her sewing for a year, she opened up a small tailor shop which she still runs and manages. “I mostly do all the work myself, but before the festival of Eid, I employ two or three women to help me,” she says.

Kamala also began a poultry business. “My husband and I had tried to farm poultry, but the chicken kept on dying from diseases,” she recalls. “The cooperative gave me training in how to manage chickens and ducks, what to feed them and things like that. And now we farm 150 chickens and 100 ducks, and sell them and their eggs at the market,’ she says beaming with pride.

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Changing attitudes

Kamala is not alone. Many women in the island have similar stories to tell with varying levels of support from home. Take for example 35-year-old Kajol Reka.

“It was only expected that my husband would be sceptical about me working,” Kajol says. “This is a rural area. But when he saw the money coming in, my husband slowly understood the advantages of my work.”

Uddin says when the cooperative first started it was common for the male members of the families to show some displeasure about the women working outside the home.

“Now, however, the scenario has changed,” he notes. “The men are happy as women bring in income. The bad days have gone. There is no prejudice anymore.”

Kajol too went on to set up a tailoring business, and her life, she says, is looking up.

“Now that I earn, I can buy anything I need,” she says, “I can go to the market and buy for myself and my husband can’t say don’t buy this or don’t buy that for children,” she adds.

She has also been able to give her son a good education and he now is studying for a commerce degree in Dhaka.

That is interesting in the context of a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, which stated that women in Bangladesh have been undertaking a quiet revolution and made the country a frontrunner among least-developing countries in addressing gender disparity.

Both Kamala and Kajol ran their small businesses alongside their work, which in eight or so years manufactured and sold about 6000 solar lamps.

Both Kamala and Kajol ran their small businesses alongside their work.

  
Time to innovate

But then came a point when the cooperative had to stop manufacturing solar lamps. Cheaper products had started trickling into the market. Profit margins began thinning and it was no longer possible to sell solar lamps any cheaper. It was time to broaden the scope and get innovative.

They now focus on selling solar panels and solar powered devices / systems in the island. The systems can run lights, fans and televisions, and provide significant social and economic benefits to the island.

“People have more hours to work and to study. The lighting is better and safer. And it has reduced indoor pollution from the use of kerosene lights,” says Uddin.

Initially it only worked in Char Montaz and three neighbouring islands, but now the organization covers most of the Southern part of Bangladesh. “It has helped install 73,000 solar health systems. Every year our work is expanding,’ Uddin says.

Initiatives like these spell good news for residents in remote areas of Bangladesh, and help strengthen the country’s thrust on renewable energy. Above all, it means more power to women. 

You may be also interested in: Bangladesh: Ringing in the good times

Initiatives like these spell good news for residents in remote areas of Bangladesh, and help strengthen the country’s thrust on renewable energy. Above all, it means more power to women.

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