A seminar on “E-Commerce and Women Empowerment in Developing Countries” was held at UNCTAD E-Commerce Week 2018, the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on Wednesday, April 18, 2018. The session was jointly organized by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS). The session was graced with presence of honorable panelists Ms. Hanne Melin, Director Global Public Policy, eBay, Ms. Lorena Diaz Quijano, Co-Founder, PUNTOTALENT and Managing Director of the Argentine E-commerce Chamber (CACE), Mr. Prosper Bizimungu, Founder, bizisol.com, Ms. Claire Pillsbury, Deputy Director, Global Innovation Forum (GIF), Mr. Syed Md Kamal, Country Manager, Master Card, Bangladesh and H.E. Mr. Daniel Blockert, Ambassador of Sweden to the WTO. Mr. Mostafizur Rahaman Sohel, Convener, BASIS E-commerce Alliance, Bangladesh was the moderator of this fruitful session.

E-commerce is emerging as a powerful tool for women's empowerment in developing countries. For women entrepreneurs, especially those with small e-commerce businesses, access to ICT can bring additional information resources and can open new communication channels, particularly for marginalized communities. This session considered the role that e-commerce plays in empowering women in developing countries. Nowadays, women in business can act as essential players for development. The role of women as entrepreneurs or business women has become more significant. In this context, it is important to analyze the opportunities and constrains to women’s business development in order to enhance their contribution to economic development.

The panelists discussed the issue considering their own experience both in their own country and the globe. Mr. Sohel also shared his experience and explored the ecommerce industry of Bangladesh where women leadership is encouraging to mention. He stated that the world is changing under the shared principle of ‘leaving no one behind’. Applied to the trade sector, this also means ‘leaving no entrepreneur behind’, in particular, women. He explained to the audience that the role that women have in Bangladesh’s economy is crucial: they are changing the society and helping the national economy as they empower themselves and their families. This is also to thank to the use of digital technology and social media. In Bangladesh, around 15 000 ‘informal commerce companies’ have now been funded, which women operate simply from their homes through social media.

Mr Daniel Blockert, ambassador of Sweden to the World Trade Organization (WTO), presented the Swedish perspective to the discussion. He explained that when Sweden started to look at the gender issue in the field of trade a few years ago, other countries expressed significant skepticism as trade was considered to be gender-neutral. He believed that although the discourse has shifted considerably over the last few years, ‘a lot stills needs to be done as the hard work starts now’. He then focused on e-commerce which he confessed to be a challenge both for developing and developed countries. He maintained that if we look at the data, women are still underrepresented among entrepreneurs. He stated that such issues need to be discussed at the WTO level, and developing countries should also take part in the discussion. He mentioned that the lack of disaggregated data hinders the possibility of developing a precise strategy aiming at empowering women in developing countries. ‘There are still hundreds of women around the world who are invisible to statistics. This is because how can we define what a women-owned business is?’, he added. He concluded by pointing out that the Swedish embassy in Bangladesh has launched a pilot program, namely a digital business platform for rural women, aiming at enabling entrepreneur women to use technology.

Ms Hanne Melin, Director for global public policy at eBay, affirmed that the number of women starting and running new businesses is growing. She also specified that women’s role in the business sector is higher in countries with a lower level of development because there is also an important margin of opportunity. She explained that the internet has revolutionized the retail industry for small businesses because it allows producers to reach out to customers that are outside their near community without forcibly investing in local facilities and infrastructures. She showed that the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Latin America and the Caribbean region are serving on average 20-25 different markets. She considered that this is precisely the potential of the digital economy for women entrepreneurs: expanding the traditional retail business. She concluded her presentation by stating that women doing business face a two-fold problem. On the one hand, there are infrastructural limitations namely the need for low-cost connectivity, access to global online payment systems, and cheaper parcel delivery solutions. On the other hand, women have to fight the stereotypes either from their own societies (lack of support) or from the western world. ‘We need to fight the idea that a product made in Africa should be cheap’, she claimed.

Mr Prosper Bizimungu, founder of bizisol.com, illustrated the Burundishop platform which aims at setting up a platform delivering e-commerce services to the East African market. He believed that women do play a crucial role in commerce as in Burundi they often travel abroad and import goods, operating with a very limited budget. He also stressed the importance of technology and energy for the development of e-commerce. In particular, he stated that the need for connectivity in Burundi is high. He mentioned the efforts of Swedish NGOs in Africa trying to provide energy and connectivity through innovative solutions or through support to existing local initiatives such as the women’s initiative for delivering clean energy in Africa.

Ms Claire Pillsbury, Deputy Director at the Global Innovation Forum (GIF), explained that GIF is an organization connecting start-ups, businesses, non-profits and stakeholders with government officials in order to highlight opportunities and articulate the challenges of participating in the global market place. She presented three enterprises, namely Rags2riches in the Philippines, Ma Te Sai in Laos and the Batik Boutique in Malaysia as examples of successful businesses created by women, developed thanks to the use of digital technology.

Mr. Syed Md Kamal, country manager at Master Card in Bangladesh, stated that Bangladesh is one of the countries with the strongest presence of women in the government and in the parliament. He illustrated MasterCard’s 5-year program providing financial literacy courses to women entrepreneurs in Bangladesh. He maintained that out of the 250000 women helped so far, most of them have become successful and are currently leading businesses on their own.

Besides moderating this session, Mr. Mostafizur Rahaman Sohel, also took part as panelist in another session titled ‘New Data and best practice policy ideas for inclusive online commerce’. It was quite a good interactive session, where Mr. Sohel highlighted major development in Bangladesh around eCommerce. Besides, Mostafizur Rahman Sohel, Syed Mohammad Kamal, Country Manger, MasterCard Bangladesh and Ashish Chakraborty, Chief Operating Officer, SSL Wireless also represented Bangladesh in this global mega event in different session. The UNCTAD E-Commerce Week 2018 is to be put to an end tomorrow, April 20, 2018 started on April 16.   

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