From homemade pithas and cookies to hand-crafted jewelleries and even wooden furniture, WE is propelling deshi female entrepreneurship online
From a simple housewife, Monika Ahmed wanted to change her identity to that of an entrepreneur. She began working with salwar suits and opened a showroom in Mirpur DOHS in the city.
Unfortunately, her business faced massive losses, and Monika had to close the showroom.
"I thought everything was finished for me. I felt helpless. It was an incredibly hard time for me," she said.
Just when she was ready to give up all hope, she came across a public group on Facebook called "Women and e-Commerce Forum (WE)" and joined it in June 2019.
This group, which started in 2017, has been drawing both attention and controversies during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It is an online platform for women entrepreneurs across the country who can post about their products which have to be strictly local (deshi).
At the moment, it has over eight lakh members, of which nearly one lakh are entrepreneurs. Most of them are females.
During the pandemic, WE experienced a boom in its number of members and became a topic of discussion among netizens. Some have raised questions about the quality of the products and accused a few entrepreneurs of exaggerating their claims on sales worth lakhs.
The products showcased here by members include homemade pithas, cakes, cookies, hand-crafted jewelleries, and even wooden furniture, locally sourced fish, honey, brown rice, and powdered spices.
It is similar to a marketplace where entrepreneurs (udyokta) and customers (kreta) can come together and check out products. Selling takes place outside the group.
At the same time, entrepreneurs are provided with basic lessons in entrepreneurship such as how to create a domain, how to communicate with consumers, how to write Facebook posts in Bangla etc.
Members cannot directly endorse their products. They cannot post any live videos or mention the price either.
They can only post information about their businesses along with their personal profiles in a story-telling way. Pictures of their products have to be included in the post.
One of the group's suggestions for members is to post 100 comments every day for 100 days if they want to get acquainted with each other. This apparently helps entrepreneurs get noticed by getting more friend requests and likes on their pages.
Some people have said that this may cause members to spend a lot of time on social media, thus hampering their usual activities.
When asked about this, Monika replied, "I am not just an entrepreneur. I also have two children to look after. I have to juggle many things and still focus on my business. The 100-comment thing is a mere suggestion. One can choose to not follow it. Similarly, nobody has to spend hours of their day on WE."
She switched to selling block, batik, and screen-printed taant sharis through her online page "Konnyasundori". She said that she learned a lot about being an entrepreneur from WE.
"When I had my business page only, I was not getting noticed. I began to write on WE about my products, gradually a personal brand took shape. Till now, I have sold more than 600 products only through WE. The story-telling posts seem to work more to get customers' attention," she explained.
Hilsha or ilish is a much-coveted fish in Bangladesh but rarely do we see it being sold online. But that is what Zarin Hannan, an entrepreneur based in Chandpur, does. She sells these silver-scaled delicacies, which are freshly caught from the River Padma, through her page "Machh er Haatbazar".
She began to be active on WE from the middle of June this year and till August, she got nearly 300 clients, most of them from WE.
Zarin said, "I learned from WE that fishes can make great gifts! I get many orders from clients living abroad who want their family members in Bangladesh to receive fresh padmar ilish (hilsha from the Padma)."
"Only yesterday, I received orders for 120 kilogrammes of fish. At times, I get many more orders. This platform (WE) has given me lakhs, and that too without any commission or investment."
Another WE member, Fauzia Sultana Daizy from Khulna, is the owner of "Onndor – a designer studio". She has a showroom in KDA New Market in Khulna city.
She specialises in hand-painted handloom salwar kameez, shari, panjabi, and children's dress. She has completed an 80-hour course in digital marketing through WE and attended two Masterclasses.
"Someone added me to WE in 2018 and then I saw some of the posts by Razib Sir. I started focusing on the group from 2019 since it promotes local products, something I have always been working with," said Daizy.
"Although it is developed, Khulna is a small city, and nobody here knew me that well. But now, thanks to WE, I have made a name for myself. My father passed away a few days ago, but I am still doing courses through WE. It gives me the strength to go on."
Owner of online boutique Farah's world, Samia Farah has been selling designer clothes since 2011. After attending a get-together in 2017, she became interested in becoming a part of WE.
A banker-turned-entrepreneur, she is currently the director of the group's working committee.
Samia said, "When I joined WE, it had around 1,000 members. Now that the number has crossed 8 lakh, it is only natural that people would be talking about it. WE serves as a marketplace for our countless local products. I would say it is a one-stop service centre for women entrepreneurs."
WE regularly arranges Audio Adda, an online session on Zoom, where members are given advice on entrepreneurship and sometimes their problems are discussed, too. The members have to pay a Tk300 registration fee in order to participate in the sessions.
It becomes tough to listen to hundreds of participants at the same time. So, the Audio Adda is sometimes segregated by area. For example, one session may be only for entrepreneurs in Mirpur, another for those living in Mohammadpur, and so on.
Moreover, newly joined participants are requested to listen to a few sessions first and then join the conversations.
Shirin Sultana, owner of SS Agro Product in Rangamati, sells locally cultivated coffee and cashew nuts. She buys them raw from farmers and then processes them in her factory.
Her boutique shop, SS Handicrafts and Fashion, was closed in March when the pandemic hit Bangladesh. After a while, staying home without any work became unbearable to her.
Her husband then suggested she join WE, thinking she would be able to pass her time.
Shirin said, "After seeing all the WE posts, I started to feel that I should do something. I thought of promoting our local coffee and cashew nut, and then Razib Sir advised me to go ahead with it."
"What I can say is that clients who have tasted my brand's cashew nuts said that these are better than the imported ones! I have sold eight kilogrammes of cashew nuts till now today, and on some days, I sell 10 or 20 kilogrammes. My wholesale numbers are much bigger."
The Business Standard reached out to the group's founder Nasima Akter Nisha and advisor Razib Ahmed. According to them, the controversies surrounding WE is nothing but a blowback to the group's popularity.
But they also said that with so many members, it is not an easy task to keep track of who are genuine entrepreneurs and who are fabricating their stories.
Nasima is the managing director of Reverie Corporation Limited, a software company in Malibagh. She is also the joint secretary of e-CAB (e-Commerce Association of Bangladesh).
She said, "When I began working as a woman entrepreneur, I faced many issues. Many a time, I could not get the right information. It was then I thought of creating a platform for women entrepreneurs so that they would know which doors to knock on."
"And it was going to be only about local products. I met Razib Sir through e-CAB and he also inspired me to go ahead with my plan. Women and e-Commerce Forum was officially registered in 2018."
WE holds fairs, trainings, and workshops for its members to develop and strengthen entrepreneurial skills. Nearly 80 members have participated in the e-commerce training arranged by the Bangladesh Hi-Tech Park Authority of the ICT Division. Around 150 members participated in two short courses supported by the hi-tech park authority.
LICT (Leveraging ICT for Employment and Growth of the IT-ITES Industry, a project of Bangladesh Computer Council) is also supporting WE in arranging one Masterclass per month. In the class, an international speaker/instructor speaks and the lecture is broadcast live on the group.
"Only last month, we conducted training in cooking, which was headed by Chef Tommy Miah. Before the pandemic, our trainings and workshops were all based in Dhaka. Now that everything is taking place online, members from all districts are participating," Nasima said.
She added, "When we bring in facilitators and international trainers for our workshops, we have to give them some remuneration. That is why we charge a minimal registration fee for Audio Adda."
WE advisor Razib said, "The main focus of WE is not sales, which is why we do not allow live videos or sales posts. This group was not as lively as it is these days. It became popular gradually. The pandemic created unemployment and pay cuts. So, people from all professions are leaning towards business now."
"Entrepreneurs can join this group and learn the dos and don'ts of business and eventually boost their pages without spending money. As they get familiar with other members, they automatically get more customers. WE does not sell anything on its own."
Both Razib and Nasima said that they always ask entrepreneurs to keep their sales receipts, including courier and bKash receipts, so that nobody can make false claims of sales.
Once the pandemic situation improves, they plan on sitting with an audit firm to verify the sales. Soon they will be working on quality assurance and exploring export opportunities of local handmade products.