Seven years ago, Sazia Hasan Izu, a second-year student of home economics from the University of Dhaka, could not have imagined that she was going to shape her profession as a businesswoman by selling her grandmother’s homemade oil for hair fall solution. But when it was a hit amongst her friends, she opened a Facebook page, upon everyone’s request, named “Rapunzel’s Secret” and started her business journey online.
“When I started this business in 2012, selling hair oil on Facebook was a comparatively new idea. People weren’t as familiar with online shopping through social media. In my first month, I only sold three bottles of oil, but now, by the grace of Almighty, I can sell around a thousand bottles every month. And after deducting all my costs, my monthly profit is around Tk 1 to 1.5 lakh,” she says. She now even has a physical shop, which she runs in partnership with another business page of Facebook, at Rapa Plaza in Dhanmondi 27.
Although Sazia has a five-member team, including part-time employees, she is the one who single-handedly prepares the hair fall solution, made of 10 herbs mixed with six natural oils. She believes that this is the only way she can control the quality of her oil. “Many banks and financial institutions are showing an interest in giving us a loan to expand the business, but I turn them away because I am afraid that the expansion might affect my quality,” she says.
Women like Sazia are opening up Facebook businesses and creating a revolution online. According to the E-Commerce Association of Bangladesh (E-CAB), there are currently around 20,000 pages on Facebook selling products and of them, 12,000 are operated by female entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs are coming up with numerous innovative and unique ideas for doing business and delivering the desired products to the doorsteps of customers.
When freelance development worker and journalist, Sabiha Akond Rupa, launched Menka in 2015, she already had two years of market research under her belt. Menka is a Facebook shop that sells handloom cotton sarees and heralds itself as a sustainable fashion brand.
“It was possible for me to opt for the power-loom, and produce a hundred sarees a day, but I believe in slow fashion, and wanted my business to be socially impactful, so I produce my sarees using the handloom. It takes around 90 days to weave just 10 sarees,” says Rupa.
By selling traditional handloom sarees to the customers, Rupa also wants to help the handloom weavers. The use of handlooms is being replaced by power looms, as this process is more labourious and time-consuming than the other processes.
She pairs her sarees with a visual story, which is a unique branding and marketing move by Menka. “The stories are about women’s struggles, dilemmas, mental health and survival. Menka is my brainchild, my daughter. And those who buy Menka sarees, buy those after being emotionally attached with these stories,” says Rupa.
Facebook business is not easy
Although many think that launching a Facebook business is easy and a source of making ‘quick money’, according to the female entrepreneurs, it is anything but. During the beginning, most of them singlehandedly manage the entire business. As they expand, it becomes harder and more challenging to cope with the competitive virtual space.
This is all an online businesswoman has to do by herself to stay afloat in the market: they have to promote their Facebook page, collect raw materials, go into production, create a brand value, do product shoots, edit and post photos online, reply to customer queries, keep track of transactions and maintain the delivery process. This persistence, hard work, sweat and tears shape them as successful enterpreneurs on Facebook.
The work is even more challenging for those who offer something different from what customers expect. Take the example of Hebaang, a Facebook page that started its journey in 2015 by delivering authentic Chakma cuisine. “In Dhaka’s restaurant culture, everyone expects foreign cuisine, such as Thai, Korean and Chinese food. A large number of people couldn’t think of a different culture inside the country—they thought that the Chakmas eat frogs and snakes! But we found people who appreciated our food, and we recently expanded into a restaurant,” says Priyanka Chakma, the founder of Hebaang.
“It was also quite difficult to bring the raw materials from the hills tracts as many ingredients would get spoiled while being transported to Dhaka,” she adds.
But the one difficulty that all Facebook sellers mention is the struggle of delivering their parcels to customers. Since it is impossible to deliver every order themselves, these Facebook sellers are dependent on local delivery companies. Due to the mushrooming of Facebook shops, the number of delivery companies is also increasing day by day—and not all of them are legit. There are allegations that these companies run away with the money they collect from customers for “cash on delivery” orders.
“The delivery companies hand the money over to us once or twice a month because they deal with a large number of sellers at a time. But the fraudulent ones simply do not hand us the money, and nobody can trace the deliverymen. Since many of the online sellers do not have trade licenses, they cannot even take any legal action in this regard. I have lost over one lakh taka to incidents like this,” says Sazia.
Rupa, on the other hand, used to deliver her sarees through Sundarban courier services, but during last Eid, they lost packages worth Tk 10,000 and they didn’t even compensate her for her loss. This also hampers the reputation of the sellers as delivering a product in a timely manner is directly connected with the reputation of an online business.
Sellers also mention that the lack of copyright law enforcement is hampering their businesses. Although there have been copyright laws in Bangladesh since 2000, other online shops routinely steal designs and recreate them with low-quality products, and then undersell the original designer. Since it’s a virtual shopping place, the customers cannot differentiate between the product quality, and this impedes the business of the actual designers.
“My designs are continuously stolen and recreated in a power loom in Tangail. But I cannot claim copyright because I am a small female entrepreneur,” says Rupa.
But above all, the recent budget announcement imposing a 7.5 percent VAT on online shopping has hit these Facebook sellers hard. “It is just a slap for the online sellers and will affect both the sellers and the consumers. We hope there will be a final decision on this soon,” says Sazia.
Paltry state of training and skill development
It is true that women who never had a formal job in their life are creating a livelihood on their own through Facebook. But it is equally true that many of them lack minimum knowledge of digital marketing techniques to build loyal customers. This is why a large number of these sellers cannot sustain their businesses for long, or create a strong brand image in the virtual space.
“Many consider it a good way to earn quick money. They don’t care about market research, presentation or basic sense of selling products. This affects their brand image as well as reputation. At the end of the day, only those who work with authentic products will sustain,” says Rupa.
The same opinion was shared by my colleague Zyma, who is a dedicated online shopper. According to her, the regular customers notice the reviews of a page and the style of presenting products. “I’m not going to buy any product from a page that does not have enough positive reviews. Also, visualisation is important because if a product is not presented nicely, it will never attract me. For example, there are many Facebook sellers who sell the products in live videos. These live videos create a nuisance for many as the presentation is not attractive at all, and people might not want to see a video where a woman is selling something sitting in her bedroom. I don’t even bother to find out what they are selling—or whether their product is good or bad. Some nice photos and captions, go a long way,” says Zyma.
Although there are a good number of digital marketing agencies, online platforms and Facebook groups that take workshops online and offline regarding increasing sales and other problems of the entrepreneurs. One such platform is ShopUp, mentioned by these entrepreneurs which is offering shop management skills, delivery services, training, Facebook boosting support and e-loans to these throngs of Facebook sellers. “They have great potential. Our first merchant started his/her business with only Tk 500. But now, they are selling products worth Tk 45, 00,000 a month,” says Siffat Sarwar, founder and COO of ShopUp.
But, according to the Facebook shop owners, there is a huge gap between these digital marketing organisations and the sellers. Many entrepreneus think that they can do everything on their own, while for others, these training and workshops are quite expensive. Some say these trainings cannot develop their skills substantially. As Priyanka Chakma, of Hebaang, says, “The workshops and trainings offered, in most cases, are not effective—they don’t emphasise practical training to develop the venture’s unique selling point (USP) that differentiate their product from the competitors. Rather they focus on inviting successful entrepreneurs as motivational speakers, which can be helpful but only to an extent. This is why not everyone wants to attend such sessions.”
Women with an entrepreneurial spirit are stepping out of their cocoons and paving the way to lead a life of dignity and financial independence through their Facebook shops. If they are given proper training and logistical support in the near future, undoubtedly, a good number of them can come up with their own brands in the competitive virtual market. The government can play the best role here by giving them a platform to flourish their businesses, instead of slapping them hard with the proposed 7.5 percent VAT.