Women entrepreneurs in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are breaking glass ceilings
ilma Trips is the first woman-led tourism company in Mardan, the heart of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Founded in 2020 by Aqsa Khan, it takes girls, students and families on tours to the northern areas of Pakistan. Her aim is to promote tourism in KP and connect people from all over the country to its culture.
When Khan started this venture, her mother would tell her to let go of such ideas. Some people in her area would ridicule her for her lofty aspirations. Today, her mother says she is proud of her daughter, whose example has been followed by the people who had once ridiculed her two years ago.
Given the social context of KP in particular, and Pakistan in general, Aqsa’s success has not come easy. Pakistan ranked 148 out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index in 2018. The female labour force participation is merely 22 percent. Within this 22 percent, according to ILO’s Global Wage Report 2018-19, women earn 34 percent less than men on average and constitute 90 percent of the bottom 1 percent of wage earners in the country.
IMF studies estimate that closing the gender gap could boost the GDP by 30 percent. An effective way to work towards this goal would be to support women entrepreneurship, especially for home-based businesses. The cultural and social barriers are, undoubtedly, amongst the top reasons why women in Pakistan cannot work. Home-based businesses are one way around this.
Currently, Pakistan has one of the lowest rates of women entrepreneurs in the world — only 8 percent of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are owned by women. However, stories like those of Milma Trips indicate the massive potential of the women of KP and Pakistan.
While the process of socio-cultural change is slow and complex, two other key problems need to be tackled immediately to nurture this entrepreneurial potential. These are the digital and financial inclusion of women. According to McKinsey, Pakistan has the highest gender divide on digital inclusion in Asia Pacific. Only 13 percent of Pakistani women (and just 7 percent rural women) use the internet, according to the latest PSLM survey.
When it comes to credit, women’s access to loans for SMEs is just 3 percent. Studies also suggest that 50–70 percent of loans given to women clients are used by their male relatives. This is quite plausible, as only 18 percent of adult women in Pakistan have bank accounts.
Some positive steps have been taken by the governments in recent years to improve the entrepreneurial climate for women. For instance, for start-ups established after June 2021, the Finance Act 2021 reduced the tax payable by women enterprises on profit and gains derived from business by 25 percent. The sixth round of the world’s biggest female-centric tech start-up competition SHE LOVES TECH was also held in Pakistan this year.
IMF studies estimate that closing the gender gap could boost the GDP in Pakistan by 30 percent. One effective way to work towards this goal would be to support women entrepreneurship, especially for home-based businesses. The cultural and social barriers are amongst the top reasons why women in Pakistan cannot work.
In KP, the government has hinted at the establishment of a women’s business park to promote women entrepreneurship. In 2020, it also launched the Women Entrepreneurs Shining through Constraints programme to boost women entrepreneurship in the erstwhile FATA region, focusing on a community-based approach.
The National Incubation Centre, Peshawar, has also been playing a pivotal role in promoting start-ups, including the recent KP Investors’ Summit and Startup Pitching League. BizB, a sustainable fashion brand incubated at NIC Peshawar by Sehrish Raza, was amongst the winners of the 2021 Pitching League.
Starting in 2020 with merely 900 items for sale, the brand has grown to 25,000 items listed on its website this year. 8,700 women have earned over $200,000 by selling their pre-loved items via BizB. Notably, around 75 percent of these sellers did not have bank accounts when they joined the platform but created these after joining the BizB community.
Prior experience in digital marketing was what helped Sehrish take her business to new heights. In November 2022, supported by the FCDO-funded Sustainable Energy and Economic Development programme, BizB raised a seed funding of $250,000. Sehrish said, “The women in KP are extremely motivated because they have to work harder than people in bigger cities to get what they aim. Despite some amazing ideas, they lack confidence, which comes with greater exposure. Secondly, as a solo founder and as a solo woman business owner, making contacts and networking is crucial for success.”
To work on the issues highlighted here by Sehrish, Atomcamp and SEED organised business and digital skills training for home-based women entrepreneurs in Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan, Charsadda, Abbottabad, and Kohat. “This training has been invaluable for women in the KP, especially areas like Mardan, where these entrepreneurs are otherwise confined to their homes and do not get much exposure,” said Aqsa.
The top performers, including Aqsa, also participated in a three-day advanced training and the Wecamp festival earlier this month where they were joined by home-based women entrepreneurs from all over the country, showcasing their products at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts. A similar exhibition was held by the Women Chamber of Commerce and Industry Pakistan for women Afghan migrant entrepreneurs in Peshawar. Such festivals help new businesses gain market access to a wider customer base and tap into a national network of entrepreneurs.
Such steps in the right direction are the need of the hour as Pakistan’s economic and gender crises are deepening by the day. The success story of Bangladesh, underpinned by a focus on including women in the national economy is a good example for other South Asia countries. Bangladesh, which was behind Pakistan 30 years ago, now scores higher than Pakistan on the Human Development Index and has the lowest gender gap among South Asian countries.
Women’s labour force participation there is 14 percentage points higher than Pakistan. It is, therefore, time for Pakistan also to commit to a holistic and inclusive approach to development and capitalise on the massive potential of its women entrepreneurs.
The writer is a public policy enthusiast and development consultant based in Peshawar. She can be reached @Witcheeha=