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An Assessment of Needs and Impacts of Women Entrepreneurs' Access to E-commerce Platforms through Smartphones

Internet technology has opened a vast world for people all over the world. Since its inception, it has created new opportunities for business pursuits. The emergence of electronic-commerce (e-commerce) is a result of the rapid growth of such a phenomenon. This business model allows customers and producers or firms to buy and sell wide varieties of products through internet platform, which, in turn, significantly contributes to the advancement of businesses across the globe. E-commerce also reduces transaction costs and facilitates linkages to the supply chains of different business enterprises. The cottage, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (CMSMEs) are usually considered as the powerhouse of an economy that exerts significant impact in generating employment and reducing poverty. In Bangladesh, these enterprises incorporate the inclusiveness of women entrepreneurs operating in CMSMEs. Successive governments have announced initiatives for ensuring equal rights for women and facilitating them through special incentives along with technical, financial, and training assistance. It is, therefore, an imperative to identify and resolve legal barriers as well as assess their needs in the advancement of business. While women are more likely to be engaged in informal business activities than their male counterparts, e-commerce platform offers them prospects of achieving substantial gains towards empowerment. Smartphone use, internet connectivity, and digital financial services have simplified and expedited the prospects of e-commerce in Bangladesh especially for women entrepreneurs.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst to induce many CMSMEs to adopt e-commerce for their survival, although many of these ventures are primarily urban-based. Further, most rural e-commerce transactions occur regionally or through hyper-local sales, hinting at challenges within the national logistic chain. Therefore, it is essential to know the priority concerns of women entrepreneurs and find feasible ways to overcome and support the sustainable growth of their business during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although smartphone is one of the convenient devices to exploit the e-commerce platform, many rural women entrepreneurs do not have smartphone and internet connectivity. Further, digital literacy of using online platforms to run a business is another crucial concern for them. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Bangladesh, has taken several initiatives to achieve gender parity on several socioeconomic fronts through various income-generating programs. One of the avenues is nurturing targeted women entrepreneurs in the SMEs. To that end, the UNDP Bangladesh set up an online e-commerce platform, popularly known as ‘Anondomela’, to support the women entrepreneurs in the SMEs as an initial response to the ravaging pandemic in 2020. The platform targets women entrepreneurs in SMEs to help them conduct their business during the pandemic. This experimentation unraveled two critical issues. First, many of these entrepreneurs do not have smartphones that would otherwise enable them to exploit the full potential of the platform. Second, even if several of the entrepreneurs that participated in the Anondomela platform have smartphones, they are besieged with several constraints ranging from digital literacy to financial to social to legal barriers to run the enterprises.

Against these backdrops, the UNDP Bangladesh has planned to address the twin hurdles by facilitating women entrepreneurs’ take-off in the SMEs. First, as smartphones are relatively expensive for many women entrepreneurs, the UNDP Bangladesh has planned to provide smartphones to a randomly chosen group of them so that they can participate in e-commerce activities. Second, the UNDP Bangladesh plans to facilitate training programs on relevant skills to address entrepreneurs' e-commerce-related knowledge constraints. It is also equally important to assess the impact of the transfer of smartphones and training.

The major objectives of the study include:

1. To analyze and explore the challenges, needs, and priorities of women entrepreneurs in the CMSMEs who are members of the Anondomela and other targeted women entrepreneurs during their online business operations, and

2. To assess the impact of transfer of smartphones and associated training on business practices and empowerment among the women entrepreneurs.

Research Team: Mohammad Yunus, Md. Abdur Rahman Forhad and Rizwana Islam

Sponsor: United Nations Development Programme, Bangladesh

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