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Helping Bhutan’s SMEs is Critical for Women Empowerment - Ingrid van Wees

Op-Ed / Opinion | 30 September 2019

Every time I pass by the busy streets of developing Asian cities, Thimphu’s included, I couldn’t help but notice the bustling small businesses lining up the side streets. I could feel the raw energy among the entrepreneurs eager to expand their business, against all odds.

Aside from generating income for their family by selling their products and services, these entrepreneurs are playing important roles in their country’s economic development.  The dynamism of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and entrepreneurship is key for employment, economic diversification, and inclusive growth across the globe, not just in developing countries. SMEs that grow—in terms of employees, profitability or market share—can have a considerable impact on productivity and the competitiveness of national and sub-national economies. SMEs that grow also contribute to raising wage and income levels. As a result, establishing a strong SME sector sits prominently on the economic development agendas, especially in Asia where sustainable and inclusive growth is being actively sought.

In Bhutan, vibrant SMEs are expected to play a vital role in providing employment opportunities to the growing number of young and educated Bhutanese. They are also expected to contribute towards laying a strong foundation for reducing economic vulnerability, increasing diversity, and paving the way for Bhutan’s successful transition to middle-income country status.

Strengthening Bhutan’s SMEs is critical in helping women empowerment in the country. In 2016, 36% of the registered micro, small and medium enterprises were owned and managed by women. With a female-to-male labor force ratio of 59%, Bhutan’s economic future is tied to the ability of women to seize and expand opportunities in the marketplace. 

The Royal Government of Bhutan have sought to remove the structural barriers for the creation of new businesses and growth of existing ones, such as developing an institutional framework for SME program formulation and implementation, streamlining registration and licensing procedures, and building SME infrastructure and business development capacity.

Despite these efforts, further expansion in the SME sector is often curtailed by limited access to financing. Evidence indicates that SMEs continue to be undersupplied with financial products and services that are critical to their growth. 

While SMEs make up 95% of registered businesses in Bhutan, their contribution to GDP remains miniscule at about 4% and they provide only about 11% of total employment. Access to finance is a key constraint for further growth. Only 25% of small businesses and 9% of micro enterprises access bank financing, while most rely on internal funding or retained earnings. 

Expanding access to finance for SMEs is key for these enterprises to thrive and grow. The impact of the Priority Sector Lending policy launched by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan mandating soft loans by commercial banks to SMEs, has yet to be materialized.  

Credit underwriting often does not focus enough on the small businesses’ cash flows. Only 35% of small and micro enterprises in Bhutan prepare externally audited financial statements. In 90% of cases in Bhutan, banks require collateral to guarantee a loan, and only fixed assets are allowed as collateral. This is far higher than the median of OECD countries where only 40% of SME bank loans require collateral. Collateral requirements for SMEs in Bhutan average at 178%. Moreover, prevailing practices only allow for the collateralization of fixed assets. Most small enterprises simply do not have enough property titles to satisfy the collateral requirements to get financing from banks.

I am pleased that ADB is assisting the government and is working with key stakeholders, including regulators, banks and private sector entrepreneurs to tackle these issues, developing an understanding of the particular needs and preferences of SMEs, and inventing tailored approaches to overcome high credit risk and cost to serve SMEs, in order to unleash the potential of the private sector for the development in Bhutan. 

In 2012, ADB completed a $15-million grant for Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Sector Development Program to support growth and development of Bhutan’s MSMEs through policy reforms, credit extensions, and business development support. Through this grant, MSME loan portfolios increased to 35% and 1,900 SME loan accounts opened.  

In 2018, ADB completed the second phase of Strengthening Economic Management Program that covers extensive policy actions to improve revenue collection and tax service delivery,  develop capital markets and enhance financial stability through macro-prudential management, improve regulatory and supervisory framework of capital market and financial sector, strengthen access to finance, financial inclusion, and financial literacy, and improve the service and coverage of the Credit Information Bureau. 

This week, ADB’s experts are in Paro to deliver a training program for credit officers and managers of local banks on risk management for SME lending. As part of the workshop, our experts will introduce best practices in movable asset-based lending. Widening product offerings and lending to SMEs against moveable collateral—such as equipment, stored crops, crop transactions and other inventory or livestock—could help micro enterprises and, in particular, agribusinesses, who employ 70% of the private-sector work force, but represented only 5% of aggregate credit, grow their business and give an important impetus to improved livelihoods of local farmers. 

In addition, ADB is looking to continue its support to the government’s financial market development program. ADB’s financial assistance will seek to build upon the momentum of past ADB support and aims to assist the country in removing policy distortions related to financial intermediation and access to finance for sustainable economic growth by developing nonbank financial institutions, strengthening the stability and integrity of the financial system, and promoting financial inclusion. The program will support the government with institutional reforms to encourage private sector investment.

Bhutan’s Cottage, Small and Medium Industry Strategy 2012-2020 states that more emphasis would be given to women-owned SMEs, and this is reflected in ADB’s Country Partnership Strategy 2019-2023 with gender-related focus on market access and entrepreneurship.