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Saturday May 25th, 2024

“In business there should be no difference between women and men”

ECONOMYNEXT – An entrepreneur is an entrepreneur, irrespective of whether it’s a man or woman, so why the need to differentiate, ask Anuja Narain and Dekyi Yangsto Chawla. The two, who were joined by Afsana Rahimi, were panellists in an online discussion organised by the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom, (FNF) South Asia office in its “Restart Asian Economies series: Ideas and Actions for the Women Entrepreneurs, on December 14.”

Anuja Narain is the Co-founder of Rupalee, Fair Trade with Style, while Dekyi Yangsto Chawla is the Co-Founder of a husband and wife partnership, Rewards 360 Global Services, both Indian based business enterprises. Afghanistan based Afsana Rahimi is the CEO of Shayar Media Services.

Narain is most emphatic when she points out that there is no such term as ‘men entrepreneurs.’ Women entrepreneurs are as educated, liberated and high achievers as men, yet, society continues to see them differently. What needs to change, she points out is to eradicate how the two genders are perceived in terms of the supports available in the business world.

Women are taken seriously in the business arena only if she is successful, says Narain, who described herself as the ‘influencer and catalyst’ between producer and buyer of her company’s customised handicrafts. ‘It takes baby steps to train rural women to handcraft the items, giant steps to attract buyers, and creativity and innovation to locate global markets.’ Her career path involved persuading women from rural communities to strike out of their traditional role of homemaker to take up a job. It also meant facing their hostile spouses. However, over time they have come to accept the additional income brought in by the women.

There was a woman, who, armed with a PhD wanted to venture into the business world, only to be told by her husband, that she would drive him to bankruptcy says Narain, who added that the woman was undeterred, and is today, not only the owner of multiple businesses but is also a co-partner in her husband’s Real Estate company.

Another woman, who had the support of her family, had launched her own life-style exhibition 20 years ago. Today she has shows in the UK and other South-East Asian countries. When the COVID 19 pandemic put paid to holding exhibitions, she moved into offering vocational training for women entrepreneurs at the grassroots while also inviting artisans from across India to exhibit their products at two of her cultural centres.

It is not only the social, cultural, technological and marketing barriers that women in business must steer through. The biggest stumbling block is the lack of financial support available to women in business.

Chawla adds that questions regarding work-life balance are always directed at her and never her husband, although she is the Co-Founder of their company. Society fails to recognise that as entrepreneurs, both women and men are self-starters who have similar passions and goals, she says. The reason that men far outnumber women in the business world is not that the latter is less capable or innovative, but simply because males are over-confident about themselves and sure of achieving what they set out to get. On the other hand, conditioned from childhood to have less self-worth resulting in lower self-assurance and the stereotypical expectation of women being responsible for the family, are the root causes that prevent most women from venturing into the world of business. “Women are better multi-taskers, display empathy, and lean towards more participatory and consultative leadership, while men tend to have autocratic management practices. Yet, most investors consider funding women as high-risk, unless the business has a male co-founder,” says Chawla.

Women, she points out are not inferior to men in their approach to creativity or capability, though most may opt to run smaller ventures or not to expand their companies simply because they feel compelled to ensure a work-life balance. Research shows, she says that women are not outperformed by men when it comes to profitability. “So stop treating us like a different kind of species!”

Armed with nearly a decade of experience working as a Marketing Director for a media Institution, Rahimi launched her company in a country where getting into and holding her own in the business world is certainly not easy for a woman. “It is a new idea that a woman can be in business.’ Currently, the Chair of the SAARC Chamber of Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC), Rahimi explains that because all opportunities are geared towards the men, the number of women in business is very few.

The challenges are many; with no capital to invest in or collateral to use against a loan, society’s attitude and little or no access to technology or marketing, so naturally, venturing into and keeping a business afloat does not come easy for Afghani women. Echoing Narain and Chawla that women in business should not be treated differently to men, Rahimi states that she spends time at local universities to share her story and encourage young women to become entrepreneurs. It is important she says to nurture their self-confidence so they could prove to themselves, their families and society that they have the potential to be successful in business.

Would a quota system which ensures a guaranteed number of places for women be the answer, an idea currently being discussed in European circles? While Chawla and Rahimi consider having a quota as beneficial, Narain whose handicrafts company employs nearly 99percent women does not feel such a scheme would make a difference for outfits such as hers.

With the drawbacks Afghani women face, Rahimi believes that a quota system would open up more opportunities for women to be actively involved in the country’s economic activities. Chawla meanwhile states that if the quota is introduced not because women entrepreneurs are seen as a different species, but to ensure equality, especially if it is to encourage them to take on more leadership roles, it could work. More women in leadership roles she believes would help the younger generation to challenge age-old concepts that hold women back from starting their own businesses, and also climb the corporate ladder. More women in business would also mean more women mentors for those starting out their careers.

The COVID pandemic brought further challenges, explains Rahimi, which had compounded the problems businesses had faced with the recent elections held in her country. The challenges Afghanistan faces, she says are different to other countries, adding that a recent survey of 110 companies had indicated that a good number were on the verge of closure. There has been no help forthcoming from the government, she added.

Chawla noted that many companies reacted quickly to the COVID related challenges and found innovative methods to manage the situation. It had provided a window of opportunity for banks for instance to reach out to their clients through various rewards programmes.

Narain’s company is faced with a totally different challenge. COVID resulted in huge labour migration and artisans stopping work. As well, buyer activity had fallen with a loss in demand for customised products. However, digital marketing has helped rake in more retail sales than the usual bulk orders.

The three panellists agreed that the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom, (FNF) has a role to play in supporting enterprises run by women. Chawla would like to see FNF working with governments to offer women-specific growth funds and encouraging investors to fund all-women run start-ups, supports that will ensure businesses are not shut down, connect women entrepreneurs to mentors and help with job creation. In a world where investors consider even backing well-known businesswomen as high risk, what would it be like for those less known, she asks.

There are three C’s says Chawla “circumstances, capital and confidence which women must learn to develop. FNF could work with the government or the various Chambers of Commerce to identify collaborative projects especially those that would secure supportive and conducive environments where women could thrive. Digital networking sessions for instance could connect women and other stakeholders across borders.

Unlike Rahimi and Chawla who have both been employed by other companies before venturing out on their own, Narain had plunged headlong into the business world, soon after becoming a lawyer. While her legal background has come in handy, she is of the opinion that if she too had some formal grounding in how to do business it would have helped. “Rural women need hand-holding but are unable to attend training institutes to learn the basics of running a business,” so workshops on such matters should be available within their own settings.

Afghani women, on the other hand, both in urban and rural areas need a great deal of capacity building training to sell their products and would benefit from cross-border interactions and learning experiences. Narain points out that cross-border activity such as trade shows held in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India etc. have helped enormously. Trade shows not only help sell their products, they also open up opportunities for women to connect with and to do business with each other.

The session was moderated by Country Representative FNF Bangladesh, Dr Najmul Hossain, and assisted by Subodh Kumar Agarwal, Programme –In-Charge, On-line Business Dialogues. (Colombo, December 22, 2020)

By Kshama Ranawana

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.


Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.


“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.


From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.


In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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