Women in digital business space: Challenges and way forward

Women-owned businesses with limited capacity to operate digitally are at a greater disadvantage with the rapid integration of digital enterprises.

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Shreya Subedi

  • Read Time 6 min.

The year 2020 brought a great change in our lives. People were forced to shift from a buzzing outdoor life to a life of isolation due to the pandemic. The pandemic brought a great number of changes in people’s livelihood, businesses and economies. Among various areas that the pandemic altered, people’s consumption patterns and business marketing operations were the two areas that seemed to have made the largest impact on women business owners in Nepal.

The pandemic became a catalyst for digital transformation as people were compelled to use digital platforms for shopping and communication. This led to a surge in e-commerce and delivery services. While e-commerce was slowly getting a rise in Nepal with the development of apps like Daraz, Sasto deal, and Thulo.com, the pandemic accelerated its growth and advanced e-commerce to a new level. With the change in the consumption pattern of consumers, businesses were forced to turn to digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and various other e-commerce marketplaces for marketing and sales. This change in scenario proved to be difficult for women-owned businesses, especially women’s businesses that were being operated by women who were technologically challenged.

Women in digital space

Women entrepreneurs who were impacted by the first lockdown have realized the importance and advantages offered by e-commerce sites. Reduction in the delivery charge, introduction to new set of customers, easy marketing, lack of physical competition, and fewer margins in comparison to physical stores and supermarkets were some advantages that women entrepreneurs noted. Despite the advantages and the will to use these platforms, entrepreneurial women of the older generation found it hard to understand and navigate e-commerce sites which can be credited to the gaps in digital skills. A women entrepreneur who has been operating her business for almost twenty years noted that digitalization is an area that requires specific skills and capacity building. She initially had a very hard time tapping into these skills and has come to an understanding that maintaining an online presence in business is extremely time-consuming. For small-scale women entrepreneurs who have the responsibility of managing their whole business have limited opportunities to engage in new gadgets, learn new skills and tap into digital opportunities. A larger gap was created for older generational women in the case of digital skills. 

While there is still a lot to be done to address the issue of digitalization at both the policy level and practical level, collaboration among women entrepreneurs can be the first step to addressing practical issues faced by them.

According to the Digital Nepal Framework 2019, there are approximately 250 new internet users every hour, resulting in six thousand new people interacting on the internet on a daily basis. The Digital Nepal Framework states that social media has become the dominant reason behind the increase of individuals logging on to the internet and there is a large audience of people online. The customer base of data services provided by Nepal Telecom has increased by thirty-five percent reaching 20.3 million people. Despite the increasing presence of users online there exists a gender gap in digitalization and the use of digital gadgets. According to the policy priority report published by the Federation of Women Entrepreneurs in Nepal (FWEAN) women are twenty percent less likely to use the internet than men. Lack of access to information, patriarchal socio-cultural system, lack of skilled manpower, and poverty are some gender-related issues mentioned in the report that have decreased the chances of women entrepreneurs to embrace the digital economy. This implies that women-owned businesses with limited capacity to operate digitally are at a greater disadvantage with the rapid integration of digital enterprises when compared to doing business physically. 

How to change the situation?  

There are numerous issues surrounding digitalization and its smooth implementation for women entrepreneurs. Policy level barriers and considerable practical issues make access to digitalization and online marketing difficult for entrepreneurs. While things do look difficult in hindsight of all the problems, there are some measures that can be taken by three sectors—civil society, the private sector and the government—to help these women in the digital space and enhance their capacity. Here follows the elaboration of how each of these sectors can contribute. 

1. Digital Education (Civil Society)

Social enterprises that work on women rights and issues of women entrepreneurship have become a beacon of hope for women entrepreneurs to receive training, gain digital skills and establish connections with e-commerce sites. Federation of Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal (FWEAN) had conducted a training session during the pandemic to impart digital skills and help connect women entrepreneurs with e-commerce sites. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) in partnership with South Asian Women Development Forum (SAWDF) is also organizing a training program for women entrepreneurs on expanding business through e-commerce and digital marketing. Other various trainings were conducted by social enterprises that have helped women entrepreneurs learn new digital skills. Women entrepreneurs have noted that hiring professional marketing and digital experts is expensive for them. So they usually have to hire young interns in order to manage digital presence. Due to lack of digital skills and the responsibility to manage all other aspects of business these entrepreneurs do not have significant time to discuss or guide interns or professionals. Thus it is more feasible for women entrepreneurs to gain digital skills and understand digital trends themselves. While there are training programs being conducted by social enterprises, more training sessions and short-term courses on online marketing, business digitalization, and information technology that cover various aspects of digital marketing should be created and provided to women. Practical assistance should be provided for technologically-challenged women entrepreneurs for efficient learning.

2. Mutual Collaboration (Private Sector)

Each generational women entrepreneurs face their own state of issues in relation to digitalization. However, these problems faced by generational women entrepreneurs can be addressed through mutual collaboration. Two generational women entrepreneurs can come together to interact and help solve each other’s issues. While the younger generation can provide technical know-how to the older generation, the older generation can impart their knowledge, skills, connections and contacts to new generation entrepreneurs to foster entrepreneurship, growth and connectivity. While there is still a lot to be done to address the issue of digitalization at both the policy level and practical level, collaboration among women entrepreneurs can be the first step to addressing internal practical issues faced by them. 

3. Conducive Policy Environment (Government)

While older generational women faced problems with digital skills, tapping into digital opportunities younger generational entrepreneurs on the other hand usually face problems related to policies or logistics. With the rapid development in online marketing on digital platforms and an increasing presence of people on social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, even TikTok has become a hub for business and marketing. There are numerous pages on these social media platforms that sell products to customers. However there are lack of proper policies in place to register and regulate these businesses.  Section 4 of the proposed e-commerce bill states that “all e-commerce businesses, to ensure that consumers, buyers, and customers can make informed decisions, shall establish a prescribed website or electronic platform connected to computer networks.” This provision makes it hard for small to medium level businesses operating through the medium of internet platforms to use preexisting digital platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Small-scale businesses might not have the capacity to create and operate a separate website. Some of the businesses on online platforms are unregistered businesses. While interacting with these entrepreneurs, the majority stated that they were in the process of registering their business. Due to a lack of legal know-how, the process of registration was a bit difficult for them and legal consultants were not viable as they charged large amounts of money. Due to difficulty in the registration of business, these entrepreneurs find various ways to import their goods and services. Despite not being in the formal sector these young entrepreneurs are contributing to operating the economy. The registered business also stated problems in delivery while operating from social media platforms.

Address the policy issues

As stated above there are policy level issues that need to be addressed in order to foster digitalization as a whole in Nepal. The government took a step towards regulating e-commerce by formulating an e-commerce bill. The Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Supplies presented a draft of this bill for public discussion in December 2020. However, not much has been done after that to take this bill forward. There are still some issues surrounding proper definition of e-commerce, registration of online business, consumer protection in digital ecommerce, data protection and e-payments which have hindered the digital environment. 

The government needs to conduct research and studies about these problems and take steps towards addressing policy level issues to create a feasible business environment that can enhance the digital market and economy.

Shreya Subedi is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation, an economic policy think tank based in Kathmandu. Views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the organization.

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