Nepal’s formal entrepreneurial space is more hostile to women than the fertile streets. This needs to be changed.
--By Shrijana Tha Shrestha
It’s a typical Kathmandu winter evening and Sabita Karki, a woman in her early twenties, is dealing simultaneously with a host of customers of her ‘anonymous’ brand of winter jackets. She is piling up the heap in shape, announcing prices, setting bargains and closely guarding her consignment against any rush-hour trickster. Also, she is periodically looking at the screen of her huge-display handheld, replying with a swoosh and slipping away smile, probably to a flirty message. She is one of the young and enterprising faces of street vendors.
Some leaps down the street, Kanchi Thapa Magar, a woman probably in her mid-forties is busy in dealing with her female customers who are picking up, turning over and examining all the ‘anonymous’ brand of lingerie, laid out on display. Unlike Karki, Magar is more composed in her dealings and her bargains typically strike the deal in one or at the most two strokes. Her body movement is comparatively restricted. But she rarely lets any ‘convertible’ customer slip away. She is one of those old generation female street vendors most of whom got into the business as early as a decade and a half ago.
Such traders of ‘anonymous’ brands are everywhere in all cities of the developing economies across the world. As a society which is still dominated by an overarching male ideology, like in most of the Least Developed Countries, business is still considered a male domain by families, friends and society at large in Nepal too. As shown by the earlier two cases, of which the first represents a modern and educated Nepali woman and the second, a typical Nepali woman without formal education, the street has been an open and fairly fertile ground for the poor and lower-middle class Nepali women entrepreneurs to learn, exhibit, and capitalize their entrepreneurial skills to earn a dignified living for themselves and their families.
Street vendors are business people who sell their wares in the open air rather than in a shop or store. While these are nuisance for the Metropolitan department, the sector itself is a strong financial backbone for the vendors to earn a living and for the urban poor and lower middle class to fulfil their commodity needs at cheaper prices. In the present context where the nation has not been able to create sufficient job opportunities to employ all the educated and uneducated males and females, the street trade provides livelihood means for a large percentage of the people as part of the informal economy. And, there are obvious reasons for this, which if incorporated into the formal sector by concerned authorities, could assist in increasing the presence of women entrepreneurs in it.
Friendly and Hassle Free
The street is a straight expressway for running a business. All one needs in the beginning are products to trade and a place to spread out products or stand with the products. Every passer-by is a potential customer and all one needs is to make a single sale to start nurturing the entrepreneurial embryo. “My husband’s income was not sufficient. When I saw people like me trading products on the street, I thought that I could also do it. I discussed this idea with my husband, though he was reluctant initially he nonetheless conceded. I inquired about the business with many vendors. I gathered two thousand rupees, purchased some products and started selling,” says Kanchi, recollecting how she got into business and how she was assisted by her co-vendors in knowing the ticks of the business. The moment they make a sale, they start building their entrepreneurial confidence, which the street gradually nurtures and matures.
Comparatively, setting up and running a business in the formal sector entails a load of paper work that demands an aspirant entrepreneur to dust out the stairs of many public offices, dashing from pillar to post in search of guidance on the requirements and standing in long queues in front of the windows that are mostly populated by tired, unresponsive and unfriendly officials. Business starts with strong determination. Agreed, but for any person who is trying to get all his/her odds together in a frantic effort to get into business, such unfriendly and unsupportive hassles and procedures can easily shatter that need-germinated entrepreneurial embryo. An aspiring women entrepreneur has to go through a great lot of ordeals and bottlenecks, before she reaches the doors of a public institution for guidance and support. As a state that supports and prioritizes women’s involvement in the business sector, the state should avail a specialized women-friendly business incubation and guidance centre that takes into account all the hassles that women have to go through for bringing their business ideas into practice.
Flexibility and Access
Street products have a range of price and quality. Depending on the investment capital they have, street vendors can procure products as much as they can sell in a day or a week. Though the profitability margin depends on the quality and thereby the cost of the products, the sector is open for business for any investment capital. “We started our business by buying trousers worth five thousand rupees some six years ago. We keep selling and buying products simultaneously,” said Sabina Rai, a vendor who sells women’s clothes in New Baneshwor, adding that all she needs is the capital to buy products to sell for the day, at the least. A 2006 study on the same issue by the Centre for Integrated Urban Development (CUID), summarized that this business had a much more rotating capital (around Rs 2500 on an average) than the formal sector businesses that eventually keeps their businesses afloat without funnelling in additional capital, unless they are upgrading the range of products they trade.
Comparatively, formal sector businesses require high investment capital and availability of loan is scarce for women entrepreneurs. With products stacked up in shelves, capital rotation in the formal sector is much less than that in the informal sector, thereby pressing entrepreneurs to keep investing capital at different stages to keep the business afloat. In the present context, getting loans from banks and financial institutions is hard for women considering the fact that most of the women don’t own property to keep it as collateral. Availing business ideas and models, that are worth investing and availing specialized easily accessible business loans for aspiring women entrepreneurs can definitely ensure much better space for women to make better business plans and take them near their business objectives, which otherwise get truncated.
Safe, Secure and Low Risk
Nepal’s business and social sectors, let’s face it, are not women-friendly despite the tall claims from the stakeholders concerned. Right from the family to the public institutions and banks and financial institutions, all still feel reluctant to take business ideas and business plans, presented by women, seriously. These institutions mostly don’t take their ideas, plans and commitments. Instead, they look for a male-backing. Such attitudes and practices force women to depend on their male members of their families or friends. A women has an idea and determination to work out that idea, and she reaches out to these institutions for assistance, so why not just figure out how those needs can be addressed instead of forcing her to figure out a male who could stand by her?
This happens in the informal sector and therefore women from the rural and urban poor class are being able to do business easily. The community, which includes the wholesale traders, take the women in front of them for her face value, give her chance to try out her skills, support along and eventually make her a valued part of their community. “Our co-street vendors are helpful. We trade as part of a community. So even if you are fresher, it’s very easy to be a part of the community. The only thing you should avoid doing is encroaching upon others’ business spots. I was taught by my co-vendors and I continue sharing our community-owned trade success secrets with new-comers. That’s how we live,” said Magar.
The Nepali society is driven by ancient social customs and values which are serious setbacks for nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit in women. It takes a lot of effort and struggle for any woman to free herself from all these bondages. While social and cultural transformation is a slow and gradual process, which cannot be overcome within and whenever an individual, community or state wants, the state and institutions nonetheless can definitely transform their policies, working mechanism and outlook for supporting women entrepreneurs. Much has improved in the women’s rights front and in safeguarding their individuality and personal needs by formal and non-formal institutions on paper, and to some extent, in actuality too. But this still is not sufficient to pave the way for women to get out of their domestic space into the entrepreneurial space. Nepal’s formal entrepreneurial space is more hostile to women than the fertile streets. This needs to be changed.
The writer is a social researcher and development enthusiast. She is presently associated with Social Welfare and Support Organization Nepal (SWASON) – a Kailali based non-profit- as its vice president and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org