COVID-19 propels South Asian women entrepreneurs into the digital economy

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Photo: Sonia Dhankhar / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Sonia Dhankhar / Shutterstock.com

When COVID-19 shut primary schools throughout Pakistan early in 2020, entrepreneur Maheen Adamjee knew she had to act quickly to save her business.

Dot & Line provided in-home tutoring to Pakistani schoolchildren with a network of women micro-franchisees who used their homes as teaching centers.

A national lockdown to contain the disease halted all in-person tutoring sessions. So in just two weeks, Dot & Line rewrote its business plan, created digital tools, and launched training classes to help its teachers shift to online tutoring sessions. The firm transformed itself into a digital company nearly overnight.

One year later, Dot & Line has expanded into several countries and is growing briskly, driven by demand from the Pakistan diaspora. The company’s new challenge: adding enough teachers to keep up with all the new students.

Adamjee is a great example of a start-up businesswoman responding to COVID-19 with agility, creativity, and resilience. There’s no question that the pandemic dealt a major blow to businesses. Some women-owned firms have rebounded by adopting new business models and using digital platforms to take advantage of emerging regional opportunities.  Adamjee and two other women entrepreneurs described their experiences and offered practical tips at a recent #OneSouthAsia Conversation, a series of online events on regional issues.

Even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions

Women entrepreneurs often pioneer new products and services that expand opportunities for others. But even before the pandemic, barely 18% of South Asian businesses were principally owned by women – the lowest rate among global regions. Legal, cultural, and financial barriers discourage women from starting a business.

Another hurdle: tariffs and trade barriers throughout South Asia. Both make it slow and costly for small firms to trade. 

“Within South Asia, trading is very difficult because of nontrade barriers and rules that change overnight. People prefer to trade outside the region than in it,” said Ayanthi Gurusinghe, a woman entrepreneur in Sri Lanka.

She founded a company, Cord360.com, a B2B platform that connects small buyers and sellers for products ranging from dried fruits to pharmaceuticals. Cord360.com offers training to help women entrepreneurs learn about international markets. It has been especially active in encouraging women to trade products across borders in Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.

The pandemic has propelled women entrepreneurs into the digital economy which has allowed them to reach across national boundaries to establish partnerships and target new customers, overcoming travel and trade restrictions. 

“In terms of the demographics, a lot of the culture and habits are the same when you look at India, or Bangladesh, or Afghanistan,” Adamjee said. “The internet blurs those borders and allows for professional relationships that could not take place previously.”


Watch the panel discussion: Celebrating the Champions for Change in South Asia: Gender Equality in Leadership: 


Sairee Chahal,  founded her company, SHEROES, in 2014 as an online community for women. It now has 22 million members in India, Bangladesh, and other countries – up from nearly 16 million before the pandemic. The site offers career tips, job leads, training, legal advice, and a free counseling helpline. It also is an online platform helping microentrepreneurs sell their goods.

In India alone, Chahal said an estimated 20 million women will become microentrepreneurs over the next three years . Many will use digital platforms or e-commerce. “That would not be possible if 300 million [Indian] women hadn’t adopted the internet in the past three or four years,” she said.

However, government policymakers have not yet recognized the enormous economic potential of women who create innovative products and services that ripple through the economy . More women entrepreneurs could “have a huge impact on GDP” but they aren’t getting the kind of policy support needed, Chahal said.

The pandemic has propelled women entrepreneurs into the digital economy, allowing them to reach across national boundaries to establish partnerships and target new customers

Our discussion identified several actions to support women-led businesses:

Authors

Cecile Fruman

Director, Regional Integration and Engagement, South Asia

Join the Conversation

Thilak Mallawaarachchi
April 26, 2021

Thanks Cecile. Inspiring. We are planning to commence a project on food loss mitigation through smart business practices — a focus with rural and regional integration for resilient communities, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The role of women entrepreneurs is a strong aspect. Looking forward to working closely with your team.

Thilak Mallawaarachchi
March 11, 2021

Thanks Cecile. Inspiring. We are planning to commence a project on food loss mitigation through smart business practices — a focus with rural and regional integration for resilient communities, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The role of women entrepreneurs is a strong aspect. Looking forward to working closely with your team.

Hart
April 26, 2021

This is a great blog and shows how digital can make a perceived barrier and opportunity, thank you so much for pointing to these success stories.