Women hold their own niche in Pakistan male-dominated entrepreneurship ecosystem

Only 1% entrepreneurs in the country are women, but they are creating an impact with sustainable and long-term goals for future

A representational image of women analysing graphs and data. — Pexels
A representational image of women analysing graphs and data. — Pexels

“Starting a business was a culmination of passion, determination, and a deep-seated belief in making a positive impact,” said Nayab Raza, the founder and chief executive officer of ALGAVERSE, a company that manufactures microalgae-based biofertiliser products. With several awards and achievements to her name, the entrepreneur remains a unique addition to the country’s largely male-dominated agriculture sector.

Nayab’s entrepreneurship journey began with the realisation that there was a gap as well as an opportunity in Pakistan’s agriculture market, which is the highest contributor to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), as it was aligned with her skills and interests.

“The main aim and desire to innovate something meaningful and contribute to the economy of Pakistan as well as towards sustainable environment served as a driving force,” the young businesswoman said in an interview to Geo.tv. Her business is aimed at resolving problems such as food insecurity, energy crisis and climate change, all while creating support for farmers’ income.

Nayab briefs a farmer about her product. — Photo via Nayab
Nayab briefs a farmer about her product. — Photo via Nayab

Nayab’s green business produced BHAAN, biofertiliser, which remains her company’s innovative product that ensures net zero emission and empowers women in the agriculture sector as well. “I firmly believe that this initiative helped achieve all the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations in practice by promoting peace, gender inclusion and equity in every field, green actions, socio-economic prosperity and strengthen the institutions working in versatile arenas.”

Only 1% entrepreneurs in Pakistan are women, according to a report by the World Bank’s Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, also referred to as We-Fi.

“Women business owners face a myriad of challenges, ranging from legal barriers that prevent them from establishing a business, to lack of access to loans and financial know-how,” stated the We-Fi Annual Report 2022: Catalysing Impact at Scale.

‘Entrepreneurship journey, no less than a rollercoaster’

Currently, Pakistan is taking baby steps towards the inclusion of women in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. While progress is slow, the state may not yet be hopeless as several women like Nayab are taking the initiative to carve their identity and sustain their businesses in a space where men are more likely to thrive. All it takes is for one to be confident and equipped with the skillset to solidify their position in their respective industries.

Mehreen Raza, the founder of She-Guard — a start-up that produces biodegradable, herbal-treated sanitary products — began her business after being inspired by her mother’s advice to “at least try”. She hails from a modest and self-made family, while the values of consistency, diligence and resilience are reflected in her journey, despite the limited means she possesses.

“The inspiration behind She-Guard stems from a deep commitment to women’s health and environmental sustainability. Witnessing the alarming gap in menstrual hygiene awareness and the environmental toll of conventional sanitary products, I embarked on a mission to create change,” she told Geo.tv in an interview.

Mehreen is seen testing one of She-Guards products. — Photo via Mehreen
Mehreen is seen testing one of She-Guard’s products. — Photo via Mehreen

Mehreen’s start-up not only manufactures eco-friendly sanitary napkins but also advocates for menstrual hygiene management. She said it is not just a venture, but a movement for healthier women and a greener planet.

“The entire journey of She-Guard is no less than a rollercoaster, and every day is a new challenge for me, but I have to embrace and deal with it with patience, while consistency is key,” the young entrepreneur said.

For Mehreen, the journey of navigating the Fem-tech landscape has been both challenging and rewarding. “There is a long way to capture a huge market where there is already a hegemony of other existing commercial brands. Despite existing gender biases, the commitment to manufacturing eco-friendly sanitary pads and advocating for menstrual hygiene management has propelled the business.”

The award-winning entrepreneur, who has accolades to her name, said sustaining in the market requires resilience, innovation and a deep understanding of women’s diverse needs.

“While challenges persist, the dedication to fostering a sustainable and socially impactful business model has not only carved a niche but has also contributed to empowering women and addressing pressing environmental concerns,” she said.

Excelling in hospitality industry

Asma Shah — the co-founder of Go Flour, a Lahore-based social enterprise training underprivileged women to bake, learn microfinancing and other business savvy skills — also shared her journey of operating her venture in Pakistan’s hospitality industry with the aim to see more women in the workplace and play a vital role in the local economy.

“The hospitality industry in particular is male-dominated and there are very few women, especially from lower income backgrounds working and making careers for themselves. I wanted to give them the opportunity to develop skills that would allow them to run bakery and restaurant kitchens with the idea that they could either run their own small businesses or gain positions that paid well and allowed for career advancement,” she told Geo.tv.

Asma added the journey has been exceptional, as her venture has trained over 70 women with some great success stories. “The more ambitious and confident ones have set up their small online businesses supplying cakes to their local communities.”

Workers at Lahores Go Flour bakery work together. — Go Flour
Workers at Lahore’s Go Flour bakery work together. — Go Flour

But she also laments the challenges that small businesses face in the country’s current economic state, which Asma believes has made it very difficult for them to sustain themselves profitably.

“Rising utility prices, inflation of raw materials and ingredients, and environmental problems all contribute to a sense of unease and lack of confidence in the government’s ability to create an economic arena where small businesses can flourish and grow. Yet we still carry on especially a business like ours which aims to benefit lower income groups as we are more than just the bottom line,” she said, hoping to impact as many lives as possible as well as create great female role models in the lower socio-economic groups.

Addressing gender economic opportunity gap in Pakistan

Commenting on the state of women entrepreneurship in Pakistan, Shumaila Rifaqat, the head of the Innovation Challenge Fund (ICF) at Karandaaz Pakistan, a not-for-profit company promoting access to finance for SMEs and financial inclusion for individuals, said that there is a significant knowledge gap in information concerning women-led businesses (WLBs) in Pakistan.

“Women-led businesses in Pakistan encounter a myriad of challenges that impede their growth and success. A critical obstacle is the limited access to finance, hindering their ability to secure loans and venture capital. Cultural and societal norms also play a significant role, subjecting women entrepreneurs to biases that affect decision-making and market access. Professional networking opportunities are often restricted, limiting access to mentors and collaborators,” she said, responding to Geo.tv.

Shumaila also termed the lack of tailored training and business development support programmes as the reason that further exacerbates the hurdles women face.

“The underrepresentation of women in leadership roles and the difficulty in accessing markets contribute to the overall challenges encountered by women-led businesses. The gender economic opportunity gap in Pakistan is significant, to bridge this gap special incentive schemes are required,” she said.

According to a survey conducted by Karandaaz in May this year, “39% women said their business was registered, while for businesses with more than 10 employees, the proportion of registered businesses increased to 44%.”

It added that out of the 266 unregistered businesses, most cited not having enough information on registration. Approximately 10% said they either tried to register or were demotivated with due to several documentary requirements, while businesses with more than 10 employees, mentioned the fear of taxes as a reason for not registering their business.

Nayab conducts an experiment at a lab. — Photo via Nayab
Nayab conducts an experiment at a lab. — Photo via Nayab

Talking about importance of conducting the report on women-led businesses in Pakistan Shumaila said that Karandaaz recognised a significant knowledge gap in information concerning women-led businesses (WLBs) in Pakistan.

“Motivated by the need to address this gap, Karandaaz conducted a systematic review and assessment through the Women-led Business Survey. This survey represents a deliberate effort to document and profile the WLB segment, aiming to provide insights into the size, formality, and maturity of women-led businesses, as well as utilisation of financial services and digital technology platforms by them,” she added.

Shumaila highlighted that the survey also sought to identify barriers to growth and produce actionable, forward-looking insights with a focus on small and medium-sized enterprises.

‘Women are enterprising, resilient, resourceful’

Women are often confronted with layers of challenges that hinder their success and achievement of goals, no matter which industry they are a part of. For women entrepreneurs, too, the challenges remain aplenty when it comes to starting or flourishing their businesses in the country, particularly with regard to sustaining them for a longer period of time. However, despite these hurdles, industry experts believe that women have projected more enterprising qualities in comparison to their male counterparts.

As someone who has been working in helping women entrepreneurs claim space in an otherwise male-dominating ecosystem, Sadaffe Abid — the founder of Circle, a social enterprise working on women’s empowerment and inclusion with the help of technology, leadership development and entrepreneurship — said she believes the same.

“I believe women are more enterprising, more resilient and more resourceful because they face many challenges and barriers from a young age. When setting up a micro or small business and taking it forward, they continue to face these barriers whether it is from their family following a lack of encouragement and support to do something new, different or taking risks,” she said.

Sadaffe Abid and her team train women as part of their Digital Literacy Programme. — Circle
Sadaffe Abid and her team train women as part of their Digital Literacy Programme. — Circle

Sadaffe added that women are encouraged to play safe, and small, not get more visibility and not be ambitious. “That is a real disservice because if we look at our country, not only do we have very few women entrepreneurs, [but] we also have one of the lowest number of women in the workforce. We have just 21% women in the formal economy, while Bangladesh has 41% and Vietnam has 70%.”

The Circle founder said no country in the world has progressed without women’s participation and Pakistan, too, cannot move forward unless it unlocks the potential of our women and creates an eco-system that supports and nurtures them and enables them to flourish rise.

“This should be a national priority,” she said.

Sadaffe believes that it is critical for Pakistan to increase women’s participation in the entrepreneurship ecosystem. However, also talked about Pakistan having one of the largest digital gender and financial inclusion divides.

“This means even if women have access to the internet, they are not digitally literate and unable to use the internet and digital tools. It also means women don’t have access to bank accounts and are unable to do financial transactions with ease,” she said.

To address this gap, her organisation trained women on how to use digital tools giving them access to data bundles, so they could be trained from the ease of their homes.

“They learnt how to use tools like WhatsApp for business, Facebook Marketplace, and Instagram, we opened mobile wallets for them, we spoke about digital safety, and password protection and moved it on to understanding financial literacy and then the basics of business. We saw really positive results like women earning more additional income,” Sadaffe told Geo.tv.

Sadaffe Abid and her team pose with digital literacy programme trainees in Gilgit Baltistan. — Circle
Sadaffe Abid and her team pose with digital literacy programme trainees in Gilgit Baltistan. — Circle

Meanwhile, Karandaaz Pakistan, according to Shumaila, has been addressing the unique needs of women entrepreneurs since 2017.

“Women Ventures (WV) is our flagship gender finance initiative which provides access to finance to women-led businesses along with business development support services. It provides the full spectrum of support required by a WLB to meet its growth ambition,” she said, adding that the program fills the gap for women entrepreneurs in the missing middle category, not served by micro-lending institutions or commercial banks.

Future of women entrepreneurs

Sadaffe remains positive about the future of women entrepreneurs in Pakistan with the need to address issues creating obstacles on their path.

“If I were a policymaker, I would be building an ecosystem to support women entrepreneurs, to support their access to finance because this is going to unlock tremendous value. I see a lot of resilience, creativity and resourcefulness among the hundreds and thousands of women whom I’ve worked with. I believe that this has to be nurtured by organizations,” she added.

The Circle founder emphasises that women are realising that for them to be taken seriously as well as have a voice and agency, they must be economically active and strong. “This is a very positive step, but we need to accelerate this change in mindset.”

Speaking about her future as a female entrepreneur in Pakistan, Mehreen envisions a future where Fem-tech innovations play a pivotal role in transforming menstrual hygiene.

Mehreen poses with girls after a training session on menstruation. — Photo via Mehreen
Mehreen poses with girls after a training session on menstruation. — Photo via Mehreen 

“Our vision extends beyond profit and embracing social impact. One simple concept that can drastically benefit our economy is to innovate value-added products like we are doing using agro-waste. A broader vision and strength are what all needed to support women’s maximum inclusion and give them opportunities at all significant levels,” she said.

Nayab, too, is hopeful about the future of her business, as it holds tremendous promise and positive prospects.

“Over the past few years, there has been a notable shift in attitudes and a growing recognition of the vital role women play in economic development. This positive future for women in entrepreneurship in Pakistan is marked by increased opportunities, a supportive ecosystem and a growing community of women who are breaking barriers and making significant contributions to the country’s economic landscape,” she said, hoping that the commitment to gender equality and empowerment will ensure that all women continue to thrive and lead in Pakistan’s dynamic entrepreneurship space.

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