Mira Akter, an honours first year student of AHZ College in Jamalpur, made her foray into entrepreneurship when she was just a ninth grader. She, along with four like-minded women, launched a small multipurpose shop in a rented room.
They launched their venture in 2017 with a capital of only Tk3,000 each. Fast forward to today, and Mira is now providing tele-medicine services to her village with the support of doctors. The shop has picked up a good reputation, and many pay a visit in-person to buy medicines and get first aid.
Like Mira, more than one lakh marginalised women from Jamalpur, Bagerhat and Khulna became successful entrepreneurs after receiving training in Women Business Centres (WBCs), run by the non-government development organisation United Purpose, and backed by the Coca-Cola Company.
Reflecting on her road to success, Mira told The Business Standard, "My family used to struggle financially, and I was searching for a way out of poverty. The United Purpose and Coca-Cola gave us a ray of hope in 2017.
"By providing us with much needed training, they helped me and four other women in setting up a shop. We began providing IT services, groceries and female healthcare products in the area."
She added, "Despite a rocky start, our venture benefited the villagers, and encouraged many others to become entrepreneurs too. The shop allows me to earn my own allowance, and I can also support my family financially."
The Coca-Cola Company worked with United Purpose to train women entrepreneurs in the three districts, and each of them has a unique success story.
Bringing about positive change
The Coca-Cola Company established ten WBCs in Jamalpur, Bagerhat and Khulna back in 2015 as part of its "Five by Twenty" campaign, and began training 10,000 women.
The company built these centres to identify problems and hurdles usually faced by women entrepreneurs in this region, and to take the necessary steps for resolving them.
Since then, this innovative project has continued to aid marginalised women in their journey to become self-reliant. The number of such centres has now increased to 70.There are also 200 sub-centres and 350 main entrepreneurs.
As of 2020, the Coca-Cola Company achieved a milestone by training more than 1 lakh marginalised women across the three districts. It celebrated the occasion with stakeholders on 16 March this year.
WBCs provide training for a number of sectors, such as cottage industries, information technology, small businesses, raising poultry, cultivating paddy, preparing seeds and farming different fruits and vegetables.
These centres also help trainees secure loans from different banks and financial institutions. As part of the training, team leaders hold yard meetings to discuss various hurdles and how to resolve them.
Women entrepreneurs can also seek support from the WBCs on matters like business skills development training, market information, agriculture training, mobile banking, guidance and networking.
Bilkis Parvin, who serves as a team leader for a WBC in Madarganj, Jamalpur, told The Business Standard, "After receiving training from United Purpose, I began my venture in 2020 with 20 freshly hatched chickens.
"I now own a poultry farm and train other women.I also operate a sewing business and provide training to those who need them. Nearly 200 women from my village have become self-reliant with my help."
According to WBC sources, their initiatives not only ensured financial freedom for 1 lakh women, but also indirectly benefited 4 lakh people. At the beginning of this project, each woman entrepreneur had a capital of Tk50,000, but it grew to Tk1.3 lakh as of 2021.
90% in control of their finances
Thirty WBC centres recently carried out a survey on 500 beneficiaries, and the results show that 90% of the women entrepreneurs are in full control of their finances. Moreover, 100% of the entrepreneurs and community members said the WBC centres could be self-sufficient without external financial support.
Sixty percent of the women said they did not have access to IT services before the WBCs came along, and 100% said they had received healthcare at these centres. Seventy percent of the women bought agricultural products from WBCs, and 43% sold goods at these centres.
One hundred percent of the female participants said the local community had been viewing their financial freedom in a positive light. Seventy percent of the women entrepreneurs said they took decisions on important family matters jointly, while 30% did it by themselves.
Speaking to The Business Standard, United Purpose Country Director Sriramappa Gonchikara said, "Our experience has shown that WBCs are sustainable and scalable beyond initial support. Through our project, the financial condition of women has improved and they are more confident now.
"Our special thanks to Coca-Cola for coming up with this ambitious goal and making it a reality."
Coca-Cola's Country Manager, Public Affairs and Communication, Farah Sharmeen Aolad said, "Women represent the greatest untapped source of economic opportunity in the world. As we look back, we celebrate these women and the changes they brought to their communities and our business in Bangladesh.
"We thank United Purpose and the many collaborators who helped change the lives of more than 100,000 women as part of our purpose to reconfigure the world and make a difference each day."