Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Bazaar as a Template for Promoting Female Entrepreneurship

This week, the U.S. State Department convened a conference on female entrepreneurship in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan called Strategies for Success: Central Asia and Afghanistan Women's Economic Symposium. I cannot stress enough the importance of this conference. Empowering female entrepreneurs is one of my passions. As many of you know, I am part of a start-up called AdviseHer, an online personal mentorship platform for high-school girls. You can follow us on Twitter @AdviseHer and please visit our Indiegogo page. After reading Ambassador at Large for Women's Issues Melanne Verveer's speech, living in Almaty for five weeks, and working on AdviseHer, I want to share some comments on female participation in the Kazakh economy. 

Women represent a major component of the Kazakh work force. On every street corner, there is a babushka selling fresh fruit or a young lady serving ice cream for 70 Tenge a cone (~$0.50) or managing a kebab stand. In the morning, suited women walk to work alongside their male counterparts. Women are definitely breadwinners.  They are also the primary decision makers in terms of household finances. With that said, female participation in the Kazakh economy is most prominent in the informal, cash-based sector. Women own and manage most of the businesses in the Green Market and Baraholka. Yet, the shop owners lack business skills. In a single stand, you can buy everything from teapots to make up and in nearly every store in the bazaar has more and more of the same junk. It's as if the shop owners all approach a single wholesaler and purchase everything in sight. They do not select their merchandise and attempt to develop a niche market and signature image. The shop owners lack expertise about the goods, most of which are imported for pennies from China. Nearly all transactions are done in cash, making it difficult for authorities to track market activity for statistical purposes. If these female shop owners gained the business and technical skills to diversify their products and improve their business models, they would be able to exert greater control over the direction of their businesses and promote free-market competition.

To be honest, I find it difficult to believe that these bazaar stands are actually profitable. As a legacy of the Soviet era, Kazakhs do not consume a lot. They do not purchase goods in surplus, no Costco style, like Americans. But they buy everything –from bread to toilet paper – in small amounts for a specific amount of time. The apartments are so small and Kazakh families are traditionally very large so there is usually just enough space for everyone to fit. Family members do not own a lot and share everything with each other. Moreover, after speaking with friends, I learned that most Kazakhs do not save their money in banks but live from check to check. "Saving" is done in the old Soviet under-the-mattress style. Given that Kazakhs do not consume a lot, have limited savings and a finite amount of living space, it is difficult to see how female shop owners managing over-stocked shops making a profit.

How can the U.S. Department of State and other organizations promote female entrepreneurship in Kazakhstan? Take a trip to the bazaar. Talk to the female business owners. Then develop entrepreneurship workshops and mentorship networks, similar to Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Women Initiative. There is a genuine lack of knowledge of business and entrepreneurial skills. Effective government institutions to incorporate existing structures into the formal economy are desperately needed. Technical assistance programs that provide women with the access to credit, technical skills and business and marketing skills would benefit the Kazakh economy as women gain increased control over the direction of their businesses. Encourage women to see themselves not as shop owners, but as self-sufficient entrepreneurs.  Through education, mentorship and technical assistance at the grassroots level – the bazaar level— will empower female entrepreneurs to compete in an institutionalized economic structure while generating wealth to the entire Kazakh economy.

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