Online women entrepreneurs: Scrambling for survival | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 07, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 09:36 AM, April 07, 2020

Online women entrepreneurs: Scrambling for survival

Earnings plummet amid virus scare

When Sumaiya Akter got a divorce around four years ago, she had nowhere to go with her baby boy. Her own parents had died when she was a child.    

Rising to the challenge, she took a beautification training from a parlour and opened a Facebook page named "Shafif Glamour World", through which she started providing at-home beauty salon services in Dhaka.

"I built a circle of customers as I promoted my page and my contact number through leaflets. I earned around Tk 3,000 daily," she said, which she supported herself and her son with.

Since March, however, her income has dwindled to "zero" as the country inched to a shutdown. "I called some of my regular customers but they all said they are not letting anyone enter their house due to the virus," said Sumaiya.

"I am currently living on my savings but it is going to finish soon. I don't know how I will get by then and when this situation will come to an end." 

In recent times, with the rise of Facebook as a platform to market goods and increased online shopping in the country, some started small online businesses.

Many of these were run by women, some who started working from home alongside raising their children and household work.

These businesses ranged from selling clothes, makeup, toiletries, and fashion accessories to providing beauty services and homemade meals.

Often, these were the women's only source of income and are run with their own funds or small loans, and the businesses see a small but steady income these women have come to depend on.

The current coronavirus outbreak, however, means people are shopping less, if at all, for anything other than essentials and deliveries for non-essentials have been reduced. Supply has dried up for those who depend on goods shipped or brought back from countries such as China and India.

Tamanna Jahan, who has been financially independent since her university years, secretly started a jewellery business on Facebook in 2014 without informing her in-laws, who were against her working outside the home.

She only told them about her business after six months when she was able to make some profit, and received permission to continue.

Recently, one of her shipments, worth Tk 80,000, for her imported Indian jewellery page "Anjonika" is stuck with the carrier in Kolkata.

"Since my business is pre-order based, the customers pay me Tk 500-1,000 in advance on ordering a piece of jewellery worth Tk 3,000-5,000. But I have to make full payment for the shipment," said Tamanna.

"While some are understanding about the situation, other customers are messaging me for their products but I don't have an answer for them," she said.

"I can't take this anxiety anymore. If this situation continues, I will not be able to support myself, as I completed my studies seven years ago and have never had a formal job."

Like her, other online business owners, especially those who depended on importing goods from China and India, said they are seeing no business until the situation improves.

Shely Hasan, the owner of a Facebook page "Unique Fashion", sells imported bags and shoes from China with the help of a Bangladeshi student living there.

"The man who would help me with the shipments had to return to Bangladesh in mid-January. Since then, my business is completely closed. I would usually bring a shipment worth Tk 70, 000 every month, and double that during occasions like Eid, Baishakh or Puja." Shely would make a profit of around Tk 20,000 from every shipment.

Though Shely has some stock, she is finding it difficult to sell as there is little demand for fashion products and most delivery companies aren't working amid the countrywide shutdown.

Although some imported clothing entrepreneurs were able to stock up for Pahela Baishakh and Eid, the peak season for selling clothes, they say the same.

Dareen Rahman, owner of the Pakistani clothing Facebook page "Rainbow", said she earlier sold at least three outfits a day and received around 25 enquiries. These days, she has no buyers.

"I got an order after ten days and have only been getting three to four messages inquiring about availability."

"There are a lot of hate comments on the posts. People are asking how we can think of selling clothes in such a situation," she added.

For Dareen, this is the first loss of steady income in seven years of running her own business. She has loans to repay, which will become increasingly burdensome if the situation continues to deteriorate.

"I couldn't repay my regular loan instalment of Tk 15,000 at the beginning of this month, as I borrowed Tk 100,000 for the business. I also have another monthly loan instalment of Tk 8,000, two credit card bills, and some loans from friends to pay back."

Some successful online businesses who developed loyal customers also took up one or more physical outlets as they expanded. They are also suffering, especially those who already dropped a large investment on clothes for the upcoming Pahela Baishakh.

"I spent around Tk 15 lakhs for my shop and online page," said Jenifa Chowdhury, owner of Shamu Lifestyle, a clothing brand. Recently having taken up a physical outlet, she now has the salaries of her staff to think about at a time when she has zero sales.

"It is also a matter of timing, these outfits will not sell the rest of the year, even if the crisis is over soon."

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