Women Thrive in Local Business

In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, poor rural women are transforming themselves into successful entrepreneurs.

Rangamati, Bangladhesh - Suhana Chakma takes an order for 4 kilograms of mushrooms for delivery by tomorrow and no sooner hangs up when her mobile phone rings again, another customer after her homegrown produce. Her mushrooms are in high demand in this southeastern area of Bangladesh.

"They're a delicacy, especially to the local people," explains the mother of two, whose husband is a schoolteacher. Four years ago, Suhana had only a small roadside tea stall a few steps from her oneroom mud-and-straw hut in Rangapani, a village outside the district capital of Rangamati. Her meager monthly income of about 3,000 taka ($42) meant she had a tough time making ends meet as her family relied mostly on her earnings.

Today, Suhana's busy days are taken up with mushroom cultivation, running a convenience store, raising livestock and taking care of her family. Her strong work ethic is the driving force behind her transformation into a prosperous entrepreneur, with the help of microcredit loans.

Humble Beginnings

In 2004 she met Anurekha Chakma, a development worker from Padakhep, a nongovernment organization that provides assistance to poor rural women in the form of loans and business training, with the goal of getting them to establish their own businesses.

Anurekha helped Suhana bring together a group of 15 like-minded women. With small loans from the Chittagong Hill Tracts Rural Development Project—jointly financed by ADB and the government-owned microcredit organization Palli Karma Sahayak Foundation— Suhana mobilized the women and launched an association named after ribekful, a hilly flower loved especially by the Chakma people. Group members saved 10–15 taka ($0.15–$0.22) each a week and 11 weeks later qualified for their first loans.

Suhana took her loan of 20,000 taka ($290) and replaced her tea stall with a convenience shop. Most other members of her group opted for loans up to 5,000 taka ($72) to invest in handlooms, as weaving is a common skill in the region.

Success Breeds Success

Suhana quickly doubled her income thanks to the shop, a real achievement in a country where nearly half the population of 150 million live on only US$1 a day. Encouraged, she took out another loan of 80,000 taka ($1,557), which she now repays at 2,000 taka ($29) a week. With about 24,000 taka ($347) in income a month she is now the proud owner of a three-room, brick-and-cement building, a mushroom farm, a few cows and a biogas stove that she uses for home cooking.

To her neighbors Suhana is a model of success, but she values her sense of empowerment more than the money she earns. "If you have money you feel confident," said Suhana. "You feel you have the world in your hands."

Suhana is one of the nearly 340,000 people in the region, many from indigenous communities such as the Chakma, who are expected to benefit from project programs. The project aims to raise the income of the poor, especially women. Income generation is important in a region where large numbers of rural dwellers do not have registered titles to the land they use.

Microcredit loans have transformed the lives of Suhana and about 10,000 other women like her in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, said Khandaker Sharif Ahmed from Padakhep.

Hope for Bright Futures

Debrani Chakma, 35, who operates a handloom in Rangapani, joined the group 3 years ago. She borrowed 10,000 taka ($145) in two installments to expand her business and now earns enough to take care of her husband, a day laborer earning 150 taka ($2.20) a day, and two children aged 4 and 5.

"I'm no longer dependent only on my husband's income," said Debrani, taking a break from weaving a multicolored tribal dress. "There will come a day when my children will go to university to become doctors."

Such words of hope are now spoken often in these hills, a region that has remained poor despite being rich in natural resources. The conclusion of a 20-year insurgency in 1997 finally started to bring investors and development to the area, making life better for ordinary people like Suhana.

With the added assistance of small loans, Suhana's life has dramatically improved.