May 30, 2013

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In 2006, Rasheda Sahab’s husband passed away from kidney failure, leaving her with four children and no money. Today’s she’s a thriving sanitation entrepreneur. Here’s her story.

Rasheda Shahab with one of her hired masons. (Photo: IRC/Dick de Jong 2013)

Rasheda Shahab with one of her hired masons. (Photo: IRC/Dick de Jong 2013)

This post first appeared on The Huffington Post.

You may have heard of multinational corporations, such as Unilever, seeking to target the so-called ‘bottom of the pyramid’, providing goods and services to the $5 trillion market comprising the poorest 4 billion people in the world. But there are also small business owners from that segment of society targeting that market.

This is the story of one of them, a woman whose determination, confidence and two $130 loans brought real and tangible changes to her life and the lives of many others.

In 2006, Rasheda Sahab’s husband passed away from kidney failure. At 31 she was left with no money due to his medical expenses, four children including a ten-month-old son and her husband’s small hardware shop selling latrine parts in their village of Hobirbari, about 47 miles north of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka.

Although she had only occasionally helped out in the shop, Rasheda’s only option at that point was to take over the business.

At that same point, BRAC, the Bangladeshi anti-poverty organization formerly known as Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, happened to be searching for sanitation entrepreneurs in Rasheda’s area. BRAC had just started its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program, seeking to combine entrepreneurship and community organization as a means to end the cycle of contamination and diseases associated with unsanitary latrines, contaminated water, and unsafe hygiene practices in 248 sub-districts of Bangladesh.

As part of the program, Rasheda is one of over 2,000 entrepreneurs who have received training on issues relating to sanitation entrepreneurship. Through a partnership with BRAC’s microcredit program, she also took out two interest-free loans of 10,000 Bangladeshi taka (about $130) to keep her business afloat while she learned the ropes. She has since repaid both.

Rasheda does not advertise her shop; instead she says the business has grown through word of mouth since receiving support from BRAC. Among its activities to increase the availability and usage of better sanitation facilities, BRAC creates demand for sanitation products in the community by empowering Village WASH Committees to conduct activities raising awareness on sanitation and hygiene issues.

Rasheda has since expanded to selling a number of other products, such as clay water pots for domestic and farming use, reinforced cement concrete pillars, and ceramic ventilators. Furthermore, she employs four masons at her shop.

Sanitation entrepreneurs with whom BRAC partners in Bangladesh, like Rasheda, will be upgrading their inventories this year with sanitary latrine pans donated through American Standard’s Flush for Good campaign. Designed in Bangladesh, for the Bangladeshi slum and rural village market, these pans are a low-tech solution to reduce disease transmission by keeping flying insects out of otherwise open latrine pits.

Rasheda sells an estimated 30 sets of latrine parts each month, which helps bring in about 35,000 Taka per month (about $450). But beyond the bottom line, Rasheda’s way of evaluating the state of her business is through the fact that she is able to send all her children to school, including her eldest daughter who is going to college.

Now that her business is going well, Rasheda has been thinking of further expanding her business, and she is confident that even if she starts ten more businesses, she will still be able to handle it.

When Dirk de Jong, a journalist visiting BRAC’s WASH program, met Rasheda earlier this year, he was impressed with her confidence. When asked whether she was worried about competition from other sanitation centres, she was quite undeterred. “Yes, there is another sanitation production centre two kilometres away from here,” she said. “But no one can challenge me. I am the best.”

Such drive and self-confidence is remarkable, and even more so when you realize it’s coming from a woman in rural Bangladesh who, not very long ago, was left penniless and helpless with four children and a business she had no idea how to run.

Nameerah Khan is a documentation officer for BRAC’s WASH program, based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Learn more about BRAC’s WASH program in this video.

Support women like Rasheda through BRAC’s Raise for Women Challenge page today.

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