- Not just another e-commerce platform
Women build economies – this is not to say that men do not play a part, but on the micro-scale and in the rural landscape especially, women have a major part to play in the economic upliftment of the communities around them through the industries they engage with and the businesses they build.
Take, for example, a woman entrepreneur in Monaragala who, with a group of women around her, runs a business making cane products –- each of the women who works under her are empowered economically, and through being empowered themselves, they empower those around them, from providing an additional source of income for their families (or being breadwinners themselves) to fuelling home industries, and in many cases, keeping age-old skills and crafts alive.
It is no secret that economically, Sri Lanka is in crisis, and at times like these, these small and micro businesses are even more vital – they go a long way towards keeping people, keeping families fed.
But being a woman and running any business, from micro to small to medium to large, is no small feat, because there are many nuanced challenges women, especially those who run micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) face. Leaving aside the issue of such women facing violence and abuse within the home (which is far from insignificant), even outside the home, women running MSMEs can find themselves exploited and open to abuse, from being taken advantage of by established retailers to facing challenges accessing resources, and not to mention the risk of falling prey to sexual bribery – also a very real and under-addressed issue the Sri Lankan context.
Made By Her
And so, it falls on women to build a platform that can help other women thrive, and this is what has led to the creation of Made By Her – an e-commerce platform spearheaded by the Sri Lankan organisation Chrysalis, which creates a platform for majority women-led businesses to be able to grow their businesses safely.
Made By Her saw its official launch take place yesterday (13), and to mark the occasion, Brunch chatted with Chrysalis Manager – Communications and New Markets and Made By Her Business Lead Dasaman Wijesinghe and Chrysalis Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ashika Gunasena on what Made By Her represents and how they see it playing a role in a more inclusive future.
Chrysalis is a Sri Lankan organisation founded in 2016 that works to empower women and youth by fostering inclusive growth. Chrysalis holds the core belief that women and youth are key stakeholders in how Sri Lanka can grow economically and need to be supported to be able to contribute to their maximum potential. Today, Chrysalis works with close to 300 MSMEs that are led by women or employ a majority of women working with them to create inclusive businesses, promote inclusive governance, address gender-based violence, and prepare communities to face emergencies and for disaster risk reduction.
In their work with women from all around Sri Lanka, one thing many entrepreneurs conveyed to Wijesinghe and Gunasena about the struggles they faced as small businesses was challenges accessing the marketplace directly, as opposed to working through middlemen who often exploit these businesses financially by getting the lowest price possible for products and then turning around and selling them at inflated prices in the Colombo and international markets.
This need for direct marketplace access in a way that allowed these women, and the stories of their businesses, to take centre stage was what led to the decision to create the platform that would become Made By Her.
The first phase of a larger vision
The Made By Her platform, which was officially launched yesterday, will go live in early May, and is, effectively a pilot project to allow Chrysalis evaluate how best the platform can reach its maximum potential.
“The intent behind Made By Her is not just to become an e-commerce platform to market products,” Gunasena shared, adding: “But also to become a place where these businesses can access other services to add value to their products. These services can be to do with branding or finding global buyers or other different types of services. It is our hope the platform will create solidarity for women entrepreneurs. When women try to advocate change on their own it can be very difficult, but if we bring them together on a platform based on their common problems, the platform can highlight these issues and fix them.”
Gunasena also explained that Made By Her is starting small so it can be given its best chance to become a completely viable platform, both practically and financially, within two years, and that for the first two years, Chrysalis and their partners will support the platform functioning as a subsidy of sorts to take the platform to the point where it can be governed by these small businesses themselves and used as an amplification tool to take their businesses to the next stage. “We’re starting small with 25 businesses Chrysalis is already working with, but the platform will be open to anyone who has the same vision that we’re trying to build with Made By Her – to connect, network, and advocate, both for women and the small and micro businesses led by women, managed by women, or who employ a majority of women in their operations.”
She added: “We’re really thrilled to be launching Made By Her. It has been in the works for some time now, and through our many years of work with micro and small enterprises across the country, we have really begun to understand the very nuanced challenges that women have in this sector like getting access to markets that are inclusive. We often hear of places where women engage in the marketplace with very good faith but along the way they get a very unfair deal, and this is one of the reasons we have set up Made By Her – to be a platform that is inclusive and offers a very fair deal to women.”
Going beyond being just a website
Wijesinghe, who is the Business Lead of Made By Her, expanded on the bigger vision Chrysalis holds for Made By Her, noting: “The idea is to be able to train these women and give them input on different areas of their businesses like marketing and branding. The whole idea of the first phase is to get feedback. The stories of these businesses are going to be our key marketing tool, to show consumers that it’s more than just a nice brand and when they buy that product they’re helping not just the person behind the brand but a community. We will be reaching out to customers for constructive feedback. The first phase of Made By Her will be a journey together, helping the businesses on improving their products, their marketing, and their communication skills, and training them with the back-end processes of being part of the Made By Her platform (the platform is trilingual).”
We also asked what some of the biggest challenges were in bringing the women-led businesses around to the idea of going digital and in making the platform itself come to life. Pitching the idea of digital growth to these women was not the most challenging part, Gunasena and Wijesignhe shared, because the pandemic has made businesses of all sizes all around Sri Lanka understand the power of digital connectivity, with many of these businesses already having taken that first step to go digital through Facebook and Instagram pages in a bid to keep their businesses afloat. In fact, Made By Her was led by the demands of these businesses for a sustainable digital platform that could allow them to grow digitally without being exploited.
What was challenging about bringing the Made By Her platform to life was navigating the unknown territory that comes with actually setting up an e-commerce platform, and of course, doing this amid the pandemic. Financially, Made By Her was made possible by a grant by the Canadian High Commission and through a strategic partnership with Code 94 Labs, a young boutique internet company focused on creating compelling digital experiences – a partnership that fell perfectly within Chrysalis’ mandate of engaging with and fostering with businesses founded by women and youth.
“For Chrysalis, the biggest challenge of creating Made By Her was that we are also very new at creating a platform,” Gunasena explained, adding: “We are very good at creating communities and connecting them with service providers, but setting up an e-commerce platform was a new step – understanding how the platform will work, the financial aspects, the back-end, the marketing strategies for e-commerce was a new process for us.”
The long-term challenges of building a new model of business
Going forward, Gunasena explained that one of Made By Her’s key challenges will be keeping the businesses it takes onboard fully engaged, especially with the troubles of Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis, which will see many of these businesses opt for shorter-term returns that can be predatory in the long run, like middlemen offering to purchase their entire stock for a reduced rate but in doing so, providing them with guaranteed cash flow.
Being successful from an e-commerce point of view is something of a long game while the economic returns will be immediate, and this is what Gunasena envisions being a key challenge for Made By Her to overcome to become socially, environmentally, and financially viable.
To learn more about Made By Her and to get involved, please visit Made By Her’s social media pages:
Facebook: Made by Her