Next Big Thing in Bangladesh: Women & E-Commerce
Currently, there are 63, 915, 000 internet subscribers in Bangladesh according to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission [BTRC], and a staggering 60, 037, 000 of them are mobile internet subscribers! During the late 2000s, the internet in Bangladesh saw a boom and the number of internet subscribers has been increasing progressively ever since. To set some context, in October 2015, internet subscribers in Bangladesh were 54.7 million according to BTRC and by October 2016, the number has jumped to a striking 64 million! With help from the state and young entrepreneurs, the tech ecosystem in Bangladesh is on the rise.
In Bangladesh, internet penetration caused a shift in industry dynamics. The emerging digital industry allowed young entrepreneurs to burst into the scene with innovative startup ideas over the last decade.
Female users in digital platforms:
As of September 2016, there are currently 23M Facebook users in Bangladesh according to Facebook. Interestingly, only 21.7% of the total Facebook users in Bangladesh are female. Facebook is the biggest social media platform in Bangladesh and the numbers above reflect the male-female ratio of users in digital platforms here.
It’s perceived to be due to the conservative social circumstances in Bangladesh which persist on this side of the world. Access to computers and the internet for girls across Bangladesh is far from being achieved, as access to education for all children is yet to be attained nationwide. Due to social circumstances, restricted access and discriminatory social norms, women in Bangladesh are making slow progress towards moving digital.
Effective use of the digital network in Bangladesh:
As we zoom in on the active women on digital platforms, there is an interesting pattern: with access to a network of 23 M+ native people just a click away, they started making the best out of it! Facebook-based small businesses, now referred to as “f-commerce”, mushroomed. Small boutiques, makeup and cosmetics shops, tee-shirt stores, and online libraries selling books/stationery emerged. They set up a Facebook page, upload photos of products, place the prices, and take orders online through their page. Relatively more advanced entrepreneurs are collaborating with international platforms such as Shopify and integrating their services into the business.
Why most women are choosing online business over traditional jobs:
In conversation with a few female f-commerce business owners, it surfaced that most of them started this initiative to contribute to household expenses and to take care of their family. However, as they moved forward, it became more about their own independence and self-confidence; about building something on their own. The flexibility of working hours and being able to work from home are definitely strong add-ons to this list. The Internet has definitely become a powerful new tool for women’s empowerment in developing countries like Bangladesh.
Payment integration – A big challenge for online businesses:
Besides the simplified version off-commerce, several bigger initiatives are also taking place. Brands that are ready to invest more, move out of Facebook, and create their own websites. In this entire process, the major obstacle becomes the payment gateway. Until 2008, credit cards were not very widely popular across the nation and most people were not comfortable making payments online. E-Commerce Association Bangladesh [e-cab] states, “According to Bangladesh Bank, payments and transactions by credit cards were nearly Tk11 billion in June 2008; one of the lowest in the world. From 2008, things started to look bright as Bangladesh Bank took various initiatives in this regard including implementation of e-Payment Gateway.”
In 2011, BRAC Bank Limited launched bKash – now supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. bKash enabled users to exchange money via mobile devices in a secure and sophisticated method. Given, above 70% of our population live in rural Bangladesh, bKash made a breakthrough in connecting the rural market with the rest of Bangladesh, making payment processes easier. However, most consumers in Bangladesh are comfortable making payments upfront. A female university student says, “I’m most comfortable paying cash when the delivery arrives. It’s mostly because I am then certain I have received the right goods and there are no mistakes.” This suggests, that while banking services and bKash facilities exist, cash-on-delivery [COD] is still the most effective method of payment in Bangladesh as of now. “Above 80% of our consumers pay COD for purchases through our platform even when we have cash-back offers, discounts or other incentives for them to make payment through mobile or online methods; it’s been quite a challenge.” – Fahim Mashroor, Co-founder & CEO, AjkerDeal.com. In context to women’s role in e-commerce, Mr. Fahim also states, “Approximately 25% of our vendors are female who looks into logistics and distribution besides selling products through our platform.”
New payment gateway integration opened the prospects of a new horizon for many new startups. During 2008-2014, numerous new independent e-commerce platforms opened up. These e-commerce sites started identifying and winning their exclusive niche markets while few international chains started moving in their operation to Bangladesh such as Alibaba.com, FoodPanda, and Daraz. Besides new startups and international chains, many local giants are also going digital. Aarong for example, one of the most loved and celebrated clothing and crafts brands in Bangladesh recently launched its own e-commerce platform while Yellow, a concern of Beximco group has done the same. More and more brands are taking this route and a big chunk of their target group includes the relatively scarce female audience online.
Emerging companies might have already found a way to leverage this opportunity. E-commerce platforms like Bagdoom offer a wide range of products to their consumers, from fashion to electronics, while platforms like Chaldal focus on identifying and championing one niche with the fastest grocery delivery service. Currently, there are 308 e-commerce platforms registered with e-cab, and a majority of these platforms are targeted towards women.
Internet in Bangladesh has brought in a pragmatic change in the economy. Along with effective access to information at our fingertips, it is empowering our women to take charge and leverage this technology for new initiatives and run their own businesses. For a greater population, it means a more convenient lifestyle through e-commerce.