Elam is an Informal Sector Enterprise Development Generation Programme of Helvetas Nepal, which focuses on employment generation based on the promotion of local resource value chains and their value addition, particularly for the disadvantaged women and men in Nepal.
Nirmala Kumari Mahoto is excited to show me around her home-based shoe enterprise in Hariwan, Sarlahi. She leads me to the shoe workshop where the workers are busy preparing the shoes. She grabs a dozen of pairs of sandals and shoes, some glittery, some plain, some with heels, some flats, some open and some closed types to showcase the variety of designs they do. Nirmala and her husband Umesh Kumar Mahoto started this business only a year ago. The business idea was conceived after Nirmala attended a ‘Shoe Manufacturing Training’, supported by Elam/Helvetas Nepal and later the opportunity to learn skills in the shoe factory through the ‘business to business linkage support’ initiative of ELAM gave her further confidence to start her own business. Elam is an Informal Sector Enterprise Development Generation Programme of Helvetas Nepal, which focuses on employment generation based on the promotion of local resource value chains and their value addition, particularly for the disadvantaged women and men in Nepal.
Nirmala’s success is not a straightforward story. For Nirmala, entrepreneurship came largely out of necessity, in the absence of other viable alternatives. For a young (26 years old) and educated (high school graduate) woman like herself, it was not acceptable that she worked all day in the fields of her in-laws, do the domestic chores, care for her child and still not have money to spent for her children. She adds, “I used to work all day in the field with other laborers, cooked for them, and washed their plates - but at the end of the day, they would receive their wages, but I would not.” Being away from her husband, who was in Malaysia for a year, further added to Nirmala’s frustration. He was also unable to send any money. When Nirmala heard about the shoe manufacturing training and the prospects of the enterprise, she joined the training, despite disapproval from her in-laws, neighbors and her relatives. The resistance came largely from an intersection of gendered and caste-based expectations of what a woman belonging to Mahoto caste group, who traditionally work as farmers, should be doing.
It was not only that Nirmala was looking for work beyond the fields, but she was on the way to adopting a business that was the traditional occupation of Sarkis, often looked down upon and considered dirty and unfit for the caste group to which she belongs. Determined to continue, she convinced her husband to return and together they started the only shoe factory in the village, with an initial investment of NRs 150,000 (just over USD 1,300) secured as a loan from the in-laws, with a promise of repayment within a year. There has been no looking back for Nirmala since then; within a year they have been able to repay the loan and build assets worth NRs 600,000 (about USD 5,230). Nirmala credits the Elam project for supporting the market linkage and accessing the raw materials besides business orientation and trainings.
The increasing income of the Mahoto couple is also attracting women and men from the neighborhood. Currently they employ 10 people (7 men, 3 women) belonging to different caste groups, breaking the gender and caste-based stereotypes simultaneously.
Nirmala Kumari Mahato, Hariwan, Sarlahi, Nepal
Balancing Care Responsibilities
For women entrepreneurs like Nirmala, it has never been easy to balance work and home life. The dual roles of managing the household (care work) and the business is a difficult balance and often results in a lack of time devoted to the development of the enterprise. This is a vivid concern for Nirmala, who thinks that she has not been able to allocate as much time for her business as she wants to. Operating from her own home makes it relatively convenient for her to satisfy the competing demands of time caused by her disproportionate share of care work, but often the balance is difficult. This has resulted in her husband taking charge of the finances, networking, and market related activities mostly, thereby limiting her involvement in the business development and related skills.
Women entrepreneurs face multiple constraints, and for women led business to prosper, these factors need to be borne in mind. This may also require working with the husbands and other family members for them to recognize and share the child care and other household responsibilities.