Business accelerator model empowers women-led small enterprises

    Business accelerator and impact investments courtesy of LightCastle’s SmartCap model spark new market connections across several agricultural value chains. It also holds the key to unleashing the untapped potential of women. By combining business pedagogy with creating market linkages, providing agri-technology and facilitating patient capital, our initiative hopes to prepare a new generation of confident and competent SME leaders – including women –across Bangladesh.

    Social barriers and lack of support apply brakes on the growth of women-led agribusinesses

    A handful of female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh can start, thrive and grow their agribusiness. Social norms, paucity of business knowledge and, much less, inadequate access to capital inhibit many rural women from approaching influential market actors and financial institutions. With barriers this high, their small businesses often stall.

    Recognizing an untapped opportunity to empower small women agri-entrepreneurs for ACDI/VOCA

    With the goal to improve and strengthen the role of women entrepreneurs and SMEs in Southern Bangladesh, LightCastle and ACDI/VOCA (Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops (RDC) Activity, funded by the United States Agency for International Development) have come up with a ground-breaking business accelerator model. The RDC Activity aims to elevate the competitiveness of women-owned agricultural enterprises by promoting sustainable solutions, support systems, and services. The nine-month long project will work with 45 female agri-entrepreneurs in three batches.

    Launching and running the first women business accelerator

    Together with the RDC Activity, we selected 14 female agri-entrepreneurs — spanning portfolio in mung bean, rice, livestock — in the Barguna District to initiate the first cohort. As part of the project, we started off with conducting a two-day roadshow, reaching neighboring villages like Keoraboniya, Kodomtola, Payra ghat bazar among others. The roadshow was successful to attract a bevy of community dwellers and ~90 participants signed up for the accelerator program. From 90, we shortlisted 14 candidates in a day-long boot camp and officially started off the accelerator program soon afterwards.

    In the accelerator program, participants learned about valuable business fundamentals including marketing, financials, supply chain among others. They attended both large class sessions and small group activities. Facilitators supported them beyond the classroom trainings by doing field visits, mentoring over phone and importantly followed up on their progress to monitor how they applied the learnings.

    Almost all the participants lacked requisite knowledge to chart a clear business plan, which would help them become scalable and investable businesses. Moreover, they had never used digital tools such as computers to make presentations. Following capacity building, in just weeks, they were working alongside facilitators to create digital presentations of their business plans.

    Equipped with the newly acquired skills, on the demo day of the accelerator program, they presented their business ideas to a group of stakeholders ranging from financial institutions to traders to product suppliers et al.

    Early results are showing positive signs

    The accelerator program not only provided impetus to develop capacity of these entrepreneurs, but also focused on connecting them with relevant stakeholders so that they could increase business transactions and/or raise capital to grow and thrive. With new knowledge and confidence, 10 of the 14 women have already opened bank accounts, three obtained trade licenses, and three signed contracts with forward market actors.

    What’s next?

    SmartCap model has the potential to mobilize more investment and forward market connections for these women entrepreneurs in the follow-up stage. To that end, our local partner, SACO Enterprise, is playing a collaborative role in helping bridge the connections. Bolstered by the success of the first cohort and also drawing lessons from the challenges, we are looking forward to improve on our model as we prepare to embark on the journey with the subsequent batches.