The falling cost of technology has generated self-employment opportunities for women in ICT-based enterprises, but great expectations need to be tempered with a realistic assessment of the country's IT infrastructure and the need for women to further enhance their entrepreneurial aptitude.
This emerged from a workshop held on 2 & 3 March, 2006 in Kolkata on the scope of women's ICT-based enterprises in West Bengal and Bangladesh that was organised by Change Initiatives in collaboration with the Institute for Development Policy and Management, University of Manchester. Around 40 prospective women entrepreneurs attended the workshop. In over two days they obtained snapshots of the opportunities and constraints in ICT-based enterprises from development practitioners and researchers from the government, private sector, NGOs and banks. There were three invitees from Bangladesh who spoke on the initiatives in the field of ICT-based enterprises in the country.
The issues highlighted
The opening session of the workshop laid bare the issues that needed to be discussed at. Speaking on behalf of Change Initiatives, its president, Sibaji Roy, and vice-president, Mukul Mukherjee, explained the significance of ICTs in the context of globalisation and the need to make the entry of women easier through support from the government and financial institutions. G.D. Gautam, special secretary, department of IT, government of West Bengal, said in ICTs the main component is the media through which information passes. This puts ICT-based enterprises in forefront of the knowledge revolution. He said ICT impact can be assessed both in terms of improved productivity and increase in the quality of life. Gautam Burman CEO of Webel Technologies Limited stressed the factors behind sustainable ICT development. These factors were taking ICTs to the grassroots, making IT training compulsory in schools; strengthen communication infrastructure and promoting sustainable development by diversifying into more products and services.
The workshop explored a range of technology options that were available to the women entrepreneurs. Enakshee Jha, who runs Kasturi Netcom, an enterprise applications company, said there were innumerable opportunities available for women in the data-entry space. She suggested that workspace could be efficiently utilised to even operate multiple ICT-based enterprises. A single room, she said, could be used for both a DTP enterprise and as well as an STD booth.
Anupam Basu of IIT Kharagpur said for the women entrepreneurs there was DTP, web-page design, computer training, developing academic and study materials and imparting it through computers to make the learning process more interactive, setting up information centre, setting up studios with web cameras and developing education materials for the blind children.
The participants, however, stressed the need for an appropriate survey to assess local demand.
Souri Chatterjee, business manager, ILF&FS Education and Technology Services said information is a commodity, which can be brought and sold in the market. He then gave examples of 'commodities' in the information sector, such as agricultural information, e-Governance information, entertainment and telemedicine, information on job opportunities and value added services like consumer rights, environment and booking of long-distance tickets.
Shantanu Sengupta, general secretary of the NGO Grasso, spoke on mobile telephone as a technology option. Grasso itself runs a mobile telephone franchise in rural West Bengal. By taking mobile telephony in remote rural regions through franchisees, an entrepreneurs, Grasso has strengthened the communication infras-tructure of West Bengal at the grassroots, along with generating self-employment.
According to Sengupta telephone is one of the strongest mode of communication. Telephone network development in rural area will automatically lead to rural employment. He also emphasised on developing communication skill in vernacular language. Women can also take part in marketing and product development.
The technological options on offer need to be buttressed by appropriate support from banks and the government. Swaraj Chatterjee, faculty, staff training college, Bank of India elaborated on different aspects of bank support. For instance, banks give loan from fixed capital equipment such as room, furniture, equipment etc and also for working capital. Making a project proposal and submitting it is essential before getting a loan from banks. This project proposal should consist information on market survey, budget and expected profit.
Looking at ITC-based enterprises from the perspective of a small-scale unit, D. Baidya, Small Industries Services Institute (SISI), Government of India, discussed the procedures to set up an SSI, such as acquiring a trade license, undertaking a market survey and preparing a project survey. He emphasised planned business activity, teamwork and development of a network and skill management. Similar views were echoed by Aloke Banga of the Entrepreneurship Development Cell, Government of West Bengal. Banga emphasised identification of the problems of the locality, area potentiality survey, identification of customers and target group.
The entrepreneurial spirit
Beyond ICTs, the speakers referred to the need for the entrepreneurs to take risks. C.L. Mukhopadhyay of the Department of Technical Training and Education, West Bengal Government, emphasised on development of skill through proper training before establishing a business. He was of the opinion that awareness needs to be created among the women for taking up such training programmes. Banga told the participants to develop their unique qualities. He told them to understand their environment and offer unique solutions. One's idea has to be unique in order to attain self-identity, he said. Baidya regretted the lack of entrepreneurial attitude in West Bengal especially among women. He also stressed on profit motivation.
The Bangladesh experience
Zakir Hossain Sarker of Action-Aid Bangladesh presented a case study on how ICTs has helped the marginalised section in rural Bangladesh, through reflect research methodology. The concept of ICT was incorporated very recently since mid 2005. Availability of information will enable to fight poverty and both protect and increase ones' assets. ICT also empowers women through development of skill and self-confidence.
Arfatul Islam a journalist from Bangladesh presented a case study on how poor Bangladeshi women can change their destiny with the help of mobile phone. Operation of mobile phone was taught to poor women at the end of 1991. Now these women have immensely gained from the use of mobile phone. They have been able to set up a network through which they can collect information and apply them in their small business activities. He also said that this could be successful even in India if the call rate is cheap.
The feedback session was done to get different viewpoints of the participants regarding the workshop and also their area of interests. Around 16 participants have been considered for further follow-up. Most of them possess a sound knowledge in computers and are well acquainted with DTP. It has been observed from their feedback forms that they are mainly interested in setting up DTP based business. However, some of them have also done multimedia, FOXPRO, DOS, FA, etc., and other computer programming courses. Very few of them are even doing MCA. They are interested in setting up own training centres, small scale call centre, BPO jobs and even in KPO activities like financial accounting.
The feedback form also contained provision to find out investment needs and financial capabilities of these aspiring entrepreneurs. It has been mainly observed that investment need ranges from INR 25,000 to INR 1,00,000 (A US Dollar fetches about INR 45). As far as the financial capability of these aspiring entrepreneur, it has been found out that around six of them are capable of investing INR 10,000-15,000 initially. One of them already has own computer training centre and can provide with room and computers. Rest of them is either not well acquainted with investment need or they are not capable of investing any amount and need to take loan from bank.
The workshop is part of the work being undertaken by Change Initiatives and the University of Manchester to facilitate ICT-based enterprises for women in West Bengal and Bangladesh.
The workshop findings will be the basis for a handbook in Bengali for women's ICT-based enterprises. The handbook is aimed at prospective women entrepreneurs in West Bengal and Bangladesh. In addition Change Initiatives has planned a range of media dissemination activities to promote the activity. g
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Report by Jhumpa Ghosh Ray and Jhulan Ghose
Change Initiatives, Kolkata