Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (SMBs) play a crucial role in Bangladesh’s economy, contributing significantly to its growth. According to the SME Foundation, currently, SMBs account for approximately 25% of the country’s GDP and provide livelihoods for over 7.8 million households nationwide.
While historically operating in traditional markets and channels, the past decade has witnessed a significant shift, with an increasing number of SMBs embracing online platforms in Bangladesh. This transition can be partly attributed to the country’s improved internet penetration, as more people gain access to smartphones and affordable data plans. Additionally, the emergence of digital platforms for business use has opened up new avenues for trade, presenting unprecedented opportunities for economic expansion.
In recent years, Bangladesh has experienced a positive trend in its digital landscape, particularly with the emergence of female-led businesses on platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. Surprisingly, according to Meta, over 70% of these businesses were established during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, showcasing the remarkable resilience and entrepreneurial spirit of women in the country. Moreover, women have played a crucial role in creating 40% of the entrepreneurship-focused Facebook groups, underscoring their significant contributions to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.
Meta reported that, presently, Bangladesh boasts over 300,000 women-owned online businesses, generating more than $1 billion in annual revenue—a substantial increase compared to previous years. Projections indicate that the SMB market through digital platforms is expected to reach $3 billion by the end of 2023, highlighting the tremendous potential for further economic growth.
Despite these achievements, female entrepreneurs in Bangladesh face several challenges in their pursuit of digital literacy and online business ventures. These challenges include limited access to technology, a lack of technical skills and knowledge to navigate digital platforms effectively, and slow adoption rates in semi-urban and rural areas due to a lack of digital literacy. Bridging this digital divide is crucial to ensuring inclusivity in the digital economy.
While efforts have been made to address the gender gap in digital literacy, a significant divide remains between men and women in Bangladesh. According to a study by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), only 42% of women in Bangladesh have access to the internet, compared to 59% of men.
Recognizing the need to address this digital divide, Meta and a LightCastle Partners-led consortium including Access to Information (a2i), Ministry of ICT, and Bangladesh Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BWCCI) partnered up to launch Meta’s global #SheMeansBusiness Program in Bangladesh.
With a mission to unlock the entrepreneurial potential of women and foster a more resilient, inclusive, and equitable society, Meta launched the #SheMeansBusiness Program globally in 2016. This program serves as Meta’s commitment to advancing women’s economic empowerment through comprehensive digital and business skills training, and invaluable networking opportunities. The global campaign of #SheMeansBusiness is now operational in 38 countries; through the program, Meta along with its network of partners, has already trained over a million women worldwide.
In 2021, Meta partnered with LightCastle Partners to introduce the #SheMeansBusiness campaign in Bangladesh, united by their shared vision of facilitating women’s economic empowerment. The initial objective was to pilot the program, evaluating its effectiveness as a precursor to potential expansion across the country.
Recognizing the paramount importance of collaboration in achieving lasting impact, LightCastle strategically partnered with the ICT Division’s a2i and BWCCI – two organizations dedicated to advancing women’s economic empowerment with extensive networks across the nation.
To ensure a substantial and meaningful impact, the subsequent pivotal step was the development of a program adept at addressing the prevailing challenges within the ecosystem. A comprehensive landscape study, orchestrated by LightCastle, yielded valuable insights into the state of female entrepreneurship, the availability of skills development programs, and the policy environment in Bangladesh.
A notable revelation was the considerable disparity between the demand for digital literacy and the availability of relevant programs, not solely for female entrepreneurs but for all entrepreneurs in general. Furthermore, a lack of awareness concerning public policies pertaining to digitally-operating small and medium-sized businesses was evident. These insights formed the bedrock for the program’s strategic focus on two critical intervention areas: skills development and policy advocacy.
In a concerted effort to tackle the imperative aspect of skills development, the pilot program adopted a comprehensive approach, emphasizing both accessibility and the delivery of high-quality training. LightCastle meticulously curated a curriculum by leveraging Meta’s world-class training modules, tailored to empower participants through interactive learning.
Additionally, the curriculum underwent adaptation in terms of translation and contextualization, tailoring it to the specific needs of the Bangladeshi market, thereby optimizing the training’s effectiveness in equipping female entrepreneurs for success in the digital era.
Furthermore, to ensure excellence in training delivery, three trainers from the LightCastle team underwent upskilling through the Boost with Meta program, integrating them into a global cohort of highly qualified instructors.
The pilot program manifested itself through three sessions held in Dhaka, Chattogram, and Jashore, attracting 62 participants from diverse backgrounds and industries. The results were overwhelmingly positive, with all participants reporting discernible improvements in both their knowledge and business operations as a direct consequence of the training.
The program yielded immediate enhancements in participants’ business metrics following the implementation of the acquired knowledge. Notably, 89% of participants acknowledged that further enhancing their knowledge of digital tools for businesses would significantly amplify the impact of their enterprises. These outcomes underscored the pressing need for such skills development initiatives within the ecosystem.
Bolstered by the resounding success of the pilot program and equipped with invaluable insights, Meta, LightCastle Partners, a2i, and BWCCI united to launch and expand the #SheMeansBusiness initiative in Bangladesh on March 29, 2022. This momentous event took place through a virtual policy dialogue themed “The Significance of Integrating Digital Tools for SMBs’ Growth and Sustainability in the 21st-Century Global Digital Economy, Particularly for Women Entrepreneurs.”
During this impactful program, pertinent discussions illuminated the disproportionate challenges faced by women entrepreneurs in the present landscape. Aligned in vision, the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of ICT Division, BWCCI, and Meta’s #SheMeansBusiness program are committed to collaboratively working to tackle these obstacles and empower women entrepreneurs across Bangladesh with skills development and policy advocacy. Learn more about the virtual launch of the #SheMeansBusiness Program here.
Building on the success of the pilot program, we embarked on a journey of continuous improvement, fueled by the integration of invaluable participant feedback and implementation insights from the pilot. Through this iterative process, we pinpointed important areas where improvements could be made to optimize the program’s impact for its imminent expansion.
A particularly notable revelation from the pilot was the effectiveness of day-long, interactive training sessions for female entrepreneurs. Recognizing the time constraints faced by these entrepreneurs, we acknowledged the importance of compact yet immersive sessions, enabling them to balance their business commitments and personal lives. It became apparent that protracted engagements would inadvertently impede participation, necessitating a strategic focus on succinct yet engaging training formats.
Yet, the presence of geographical barriers rendered exclusive reliance on in-person workshops an intricate challenge. To address this, we acknowledged the need for a blended approach, one that seamlessly melds online components to improve program accessibility by transcending geographical boundaries. The inclusion of an online component would also tackle the challenges faced due to limited infrastructure in semi-urban and rural areas for physical sessions, ensuring equitable access to the program.
Another crucial realization was the value of ongoing support for entrepreneurs. As we recognized that participants have varying learning paces, it became evident that one-off training was insufficient. To meet the needs of individuals, we sought to establish a system that encourages autonomous self-paced learning, accompanied by perpetual access to the training materials, thereby fostering ongoing growth and development.
Aside from individual needs, the pilot revealed a mismatch between existing policies and the genuine needs of entrepreneurs. Furthermore, we discovered a lack of policy awareness among entrepreneurs, as well as a lack of collaboration between the public and private sectors in policymaking, both of which hampered the development of a conducive environment for digital businesses. To bridge this gap, we aimed to foster a stronger sense of community and partnership by bringing policymakers and entrepreneurs together to foster mutual understanding and drive collective progress through additional policy advocacy.
With these insights and a commitment to progress, we set out to refine the program’s design, ensuring it would have an even greater impact on empowering female entrepreneurs with the digital tools and knowledge needed to thrive in today’s dynamic business landscape. By addressing these areas, we aimed to create a transformative program that catapults female entrepreneurship to new heights, laying the foundation for a prosperous and inclusive future.
The culmination of these insights and reflections led us to meticulously craft a program structure that aligned seamlessly with our mission to empower female entrepreneurs within the ever-evolving digital landscape.
The program structure can be delineated into four cohesive components, each meticulously tailored to accommodate the specific needs and aspirations of our participants: Offline Sessions, Online Sessions, an On-demand Learning Platform, and Policy Advocacy.
Building on the success of the immersive, day-long workshops during the pilot program, the offline sessions became a pillar of the program’s structure. A series of 24 sessions spread out over 13 carefully selected districts in Bangladesh were conducted. These sessions were led by LightCastle in collaboration with partners a2i and BWCCI and drew participation from 810 individuals representing various sectors like retail, hospitality, and handicrafts.
The trainings were delivered by a pool of certified trainers for the program and covered both fundamental and more complex concepts, with an emphasis on how to use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp successfully.
Recognizing the benefits of incorporating virtual elements, the online sessions were thoughtfully integrated into the program’s framework. Comprising 6 distinct sessions, each spanning two hours, these modules honed in on specialized subjects including branding, online marketing, Meta’s business tools, and the strategic deployment of WhatsApp for businesses.
Orchestrated by LightCastle Partners, these sessions embraced the advantages of digital learning, providing participants with focused and specialized insights while accommodating their demanding schedules. Notably, over 310 participants from a diverse array of industries and demographics enthusiastically engaged in these enriching online sessions.
Addressing the constraints of time and the diverse pace of learning, an On-demand Learning Platform was conceived as a response to the modern era of convenience and accessibility. Entrepreneurs can benefit from a library of succinct and educational videos, hosted on “Entrepreneurs of Bangladesh,” a special platform created by LightCastle. This platform provided participants with a wealth of concise but powerful video content on the content of the program.
The videos covered topics that would allow them to set up, manage, and improve their online marketing practices through Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. The videos also covered best practices in branding and marketing that would allow the participants to elevate the quality of their content.
A total of 15+ byte-sized videos will be created and published on the platform to promote self-paced learning in today’s faced paced environment. By encapsulating these dynamic resources, we ensured that learning remained a continuous journey, easily accessible, and tailored to individual needs.
Acknowledging the need for an environment conducive to growth, the Policy Advocacy component emerged as a dynamic initiative, transcending conventional program structures. A series of thoughtfully organized events were planned with the aim of converging stakeholders from both the public and private sectors. These dialogues would seek to synergize efforts to enhance policies that foster female entrepreneurship and bolster digital businesses.
By establishing a shared platform, we endeavored to bridge gaps in understanding, fostering collaboration between policymakers and entrepreneurs to propel collective progress.
The inaugural year of the #SheMeansBusiness program has yielded a resounding transformation for its participants, as evidenced by a multitude of compelling outcomes. Through the program, 25,000 female entrepreneurs have been able to embrace transformative growth and positive outcomes.
The program’s influence has been particularly noticeable in three key areas: enhancing entrepreneurs’ knowledge, bolstering their businesses, and encouraging positive changes within the communities they are an important part of.
The program has had a significant influence on the knowledge and skills of the participants. The astounding 92.5% of SMBs reporting a significant improvement in their marketing knowledge and skills is evidence of the effectiveness of our enlightening and empowering training sessions. Our blend of offline and online sessions, complemented by the on-demand learning platform, has equipped participants with a comprehensive understanding of both traditional and contemporary marketing strategies.
With their newly acquired abilities, they are better equipped to confidently negotiate the complexities of marketing in the digital era. Additionally, a significant 90% of SMBs attribute notable time savings and increased operational efficiency to the practical skills developed through the interventions.
Furthermore, our interventions have notably elevated the business performance of SMBs. Participants have expanded their horizons by broadening their business reach, with an impressive 90% of SMBs noting substantial increases in their business reach. Through this increased engagement, they have been able to reach a larger audience and explore new growth opportunities.
The results are tangible and unmistakable: an impressive 87.5% of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) reported significant increases in revenue after the training, reiterating the direct link between skill investment and significant financial gains.
The program’s impact transcends numerical metrics and extends to catalyzing positive change in communities. A remarkable 82.5% of SMBs have emerged as agents of positive transformation as they successfully impart their newfound knowledge to other women in their communities. This cascading effect is an example of the significant societal impact our interventions have, not only in terms of personal success but also in the broader context of advancing the entire community.
The program’s success can also be seen in the overwhelmingly positive participant feedback, which highlights the program’s significant influence on participants’ entrepreneurial trajectories. Lopa Mirza, Owner of Tasty Spoon, emphasizes, “The program provided me with the tools to enhance my content’s quality and reach a wider audience. As a result, I am now receiving orders from all over Bangladesh.”
Similarly, Afsana Akhter, Founder of Gutipoka, attests, “Thanks to the #SheMeansBusiness program, Gutipoka has seen a real improvement in sales. But it’s more than that. We now have a genuine fanbase who appreciate our products for their artistic value.”
As the first year of the #SheMeansBusiness program culminates with resounding success, Meta and LightCastle Partners, in collaboration with a2i and BWCCI, are poised to chart a path of continued growth and empowerment. Building upon the achievements thus far, the program’s trajectory is directed toward fostering sustained transformation.
By continuing the training initiatives and advocating for impactful policy changes, the #SheMeansBusiness program seeks to cultivate lasting change within the ecosystem. With unwavering dedication, the program aspires to propel female entrepreneurs in the country to unprecedented heights, realizing their fullest potential and contributing to a thriving economic landscape. Together, united in purpose, we stand committed to creating a future characterized by empowerment, innovation, and prosperity.