Sajida on a busy day at the shop in her home Image Credit: Sana Jamal/Gulf News

Islamabad: Every morning after preparing meals for her family and sending kids to school, Sajida Jaffer opens the bright blue gates of a small grocery store at her home in Renala district in Punjab province of Pakistan.

Life was tough before these blue gates “opened a door of hope and possibilities” for Sajida, 42, who has been working from home, even before the pandemic, while taking care of her family of six.

Five years ago, she recalls, her husband as the sole breadwinner pushed a fresh food cart through Ahmed Colony of Renala Khurd. The family was deeply shocked when the household head was “diagnosed with a heart condition and couldn’t continue pushing the cart”. All of a sudden, they “did not know how to put food on the table or who to ask for help?” And the family dependent on a daily wage was forced to skip meals.

After relying on support from extended family for a month, Sajida soon discovered that she had to challenge stereotypes and start working for the sake of her children - two boys and two girls. She quickly embraced the idea of setting up a small store that could pay for food and even school fees.

Small steps for small business

“We already had the cart, so I spent all my savings to fill it with foodstuffs such as biscuits, toffees, and juices. And it worked!” Sajida Jaffer told Gulf News. This was the beginning of her journey as a micro-entrepreneur in rural Pakistan. As she was looking to expand her work, she says she was fortunate enough to get in touch with a local coordinator for Nestlé Pakistan who helped her get a loan from Akhuwat to launch a small business.

To set up her small home-based grocery store and buy new products, Sajida took Rs30,000 ($130) loan in 2017 from Akhuwat, the world’s largest interest-free microfinance institution. “I was hesitant at the beginning but now I feel it was the best decision. I was looking for support, not charity and this is exactly what the loan and programme offered” she shared.

The loan helped expand her business gradually. “I have already paid off my loan and the business is getting better every day Alhamdulillah (Thank God)” she said with relief washed over her face.

Sajida is now earning a decent income for the whole family and is also sending her children to good schools. Image Credit: Supplied

“There are almost all basic food items, rice, flour, sugar, pulses, vegetables, at the shop”.

Among the fastest-selling food items are sachets of milk tea powder, juices and baby formula milk and food as well as cigarettes. The milk sachets are “more popular and affordable” for the daily wager families in this impoverished rural region. Sajida says she is now focusing on “acquiring better sales skills and attracting new customers” with affordable yet quality products in the rural market.

In five years, she has evolved as the sole breadwinner of her family, selling products worth Rs7000 ($30) per day, compared to her husband’s daily earnings of about $3-5. The sales are even better in summer at about Rs12,000 ($52) with juice drinks delivering the biggest increase. The family is making more than Rs20,000 profit a month now.

Empowering women with entrepreneurial skills

Sajida is one of 400 women members in different villages of Renala who enrolled in the programme supported by Nestlé Pakistan and the government of Pakistan’s Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) to empower rural women who are beneficiaries of the social safety net initiative BISP which provides its recipients with a quarterly stipend of Rs7,000.

The public-private partnership provides training, wholesale products and Akhuwat-managed interest-free microloans to women for their businesses, improves their access to finance and offers impoverished families a route out of poverty.

These small shops in neighbourhoods of Renala have made a big difference in the daily lives of hundreds of people,” says Abida Tabassum (above), working as a territory executive for Nestlé Pakistan who is considered the go-to person for rural women planning to start a small business. Image Credit: Sana Jamal

“We have supported over 2,200 women to start or scale businesses across 25 districts of Pakistan since 2017,” says Rahat Hussain, Nestlé Pakistan spokesperson. Under the programme, “rural women are trained on fundamentals of sales and pricing. After training, they either become retailers who own and sell at their own shops or sales agents who sell to shops as micro-distributors, engage in door-to-door sales and sell products from their homes,” he explained while talking to Gulf News.

Under the Nestlé-BISP Rural Women Sales Programme, women entrepreneurs have been extended Rs2 million as revolving credit through Akhuwat Foundation with an average of Rs15,000 per beneficiary. The goal is “to provide livelihood opportunities for rural women, helping them become financially independent” and putting them on the gradual path to prosperity since there is “no magic bullet to women empowerment”, says Hussain.

Razia Bibi, another woman family earner in Renala, who runs a small grocery store, says that the loan helped her stock products that weren’t available in her village. With the extra earnings, she is now able to educate her children and provide them with healthy food, which she considers her “greatest achievement.”

The programme is empowering rural women in Pakistan where women make up almost half the country’s population but their workforce participation rate of 20 per cent remains one of the lowest in South Asia. But the best path to long-term change is often slow.

As leaders and mothers, these rural women entrepreneurs are successfully managing business and family responsibilities, and household chores to build a better future for their children. “I want all my children to get a good education and all the opportunities that I have missed in life,” said Sajida Jaffer, who is now earning a decent income for the whole family, sending her children to good schools and is also able to afford the critical medicines for her husband.

Investing in children’s education

Studies show that investing in women’s economic empowerment and educating girls improves the quality of life of families and communities and promotes inclusive national economic growth. “These small shops in neighbourhoods of Renala have made a big difference in the daily lives of hundreds of people,” says Abida Tabassum, working as a territory executive for Nestlé Pakistan who is considered the go-to person for rural women planning to start a small business.

Abida, who has been coordinating with rural communities and businesses since 2006, says that training and entrepreneurship have helped improve education levels at homes. “Women who earn more are investing in the education of their children both girls and boys.” With growing financial independence, “women can make important personal and household decisions that help improve health, nutrition and education of the whole family” Abida said.

These empowered women have also become “active change leaders in their communities,” inspiring more women to learn basic business skills and increase family earnings. Sajida Jaffer who aims to expand her business says: “Women are strong enough to manage a business. We don’t want charity. We need support through education, awareness, business and income generation skills to give our children a poverty-free future”.