Shamima Khatun interviewd by Mahfuz Sadique
New York had a visitor from Biralakkhi last November. Shamima Khatun wasn’t visiting the financial capital of the ‘free’ world to try out her luck; she’d made it already. She was after all the owner of the most innovative business in the world. Shamima was there as a guest of honour at the closing ceremony of the International Year of Microcredit, where she was awarded for the ‘Most Innovative Business of the Year’, one of four winners of the Global Microentrepreneurship Awards. It might have been her first journey from one of the southern-most villages of Satkhira district to New York, or to even Dhaka, for that matter, but Shamima is no stranger to long journeys. Her journey from a landless housewife to an ambassador of Bangladesh’s success story with micro credit was long. More than a decade long, in fact.
‘My father did what he could, a day-lobourer, basically,’ says Shamima, who was born to a family of five sisters and a brother. ‘We were as poor as everybody else. Most of us didn’t go to school. I got lucky. I studied till grade four,’ Shamima recounts. ‘After my school was stopped, I didn’t have much to do. So, I started dropping nets in the river by our house, and fishing for small fries, which I sold in the market sometimes.’
‘Around this time, Nowabenki Gonomukhi Foundation started a small office in our village,’ Shamima recalls. She was 15. And, like most girls in rural areas, she got married.
‘My husband Moniruzzaman’s family also very poor. They had ten siblings. Together we were so lost. We kept wondering what to do.’
‘Ours is a highly saline area. We can’t grow vegetables, or any crop, here. Most of us either cultivate prawns, or work in other people’s cultivations. Most of the vegetables we eat come from outside,’ Shamima lays down the first crystallisations of her business mind.
Shamima and her husband started selling vegetables in their local market. But as credit was scarce, they would never manage to make enough to buy more vegetables. ‘That is when I thought of joining the Ganamukhi Foundation. I reme-mber clearly, it was winter time, like now. My husband and I had a long discussion the night before we joined,’ the 26-year old entrepreneur explains.
One January morning in 1994, Shamima joined the Foundation. And soon, after another long discussion six months later, she took her first loan of Tk 4, 000 from the micro-finance institution.
‘I gave a long think to how we could best use our money. With Tk 1,000, I bought a bicycle for my husband. He would carry the vegetables from nearby Moutala to our haat. The remaining Tk 3,000, I invested in our products,’ Shamima explains.
In weekly instalments, Shamima started repaying the loan. Though it was hard work, at the end of each day, after putting away money for repayment and expenses, Shamima started putting away meagre, but crucial, savings of Tk 100-150.
A year had passed. Shamima had successfully repaid her loan. Come 1995 and those small daily savings coupled with another loan from Gonomukhi was no longer a small figure for a retail vegetable vending business: Tk 20, 000.
Things were never going to be same for Shamima. Two years of retailing, and in 1997 she had enough money to go wholesale.
She started renting trucks to bring large quantities of potato from other neighbouring districts. Unlike any miracle story of instant success, Shamima had to endure six years of day-to-day running of her business, which invariably took her outside her area. ‘It’s never easy. I woke up at the crack of dawn. I said my prayers. And though I ran a business, I did have a family to look after. My daughter was a child then. Taking care of her, and then doing household chores. My husband has been my anchor all through these years. He has stood by me, and worked with me in my business. We did all this together,’ the mother of two bubbly children and wife of an understanding husband remembers those years of perseverance and hard work.
‘Allah has been good to us. Every year, for the past eleven years, I have taken loans, every time more than the time before. And every time, I was able to repay the loan and even save more. So about three years ago, I had enough money to look into some other businesses,’ Shamima recounts.
‘As I have said, our area is very poor. They usually use open latrines. Even those who wanted concrete slabs had to get it from Shyamnagar, which is almost half-way to Sathkira town. The cost became high. So they refrained from getting any. As I had more money then, some of my villagers requested my to start a business that would make those slabs,’ explains Shamina.
So, with another loan, she hired eight workers, five masons among them. They started making concrete toilet slabs for her. While the locals started buying from her, the actual boost came, when she had convinced three Union Parishads to buy slabs from her as part of their sanitation programme.
After such a big breakthrough, Shamima had enough working capital to run her businesses properly. But her journey had not ended. ‘I thought, since if I had become a wholesaler, if I tried with some more capital, I would be finally able to bring a more stable state to my vegetable business. I wanted to go up. By then, I had a dream of owning a big business,’ Shamima points out.
In one giant leap, in 2003, she took a loan of Tk 200,000 from Gonomukhi. With all the savings she had from previous years, and the new loan, she was able to buy a truck. ‘Now I had no worry about transportation. I could bring in large quantities of vegetables and store them. I would sell to wholesalers in bulk. I could also rent out the truck.’
Shamima life’s has changed a lot. Now she doesn’t have to sit at her store always. She hires managers. ‘It’s still hard work. Maybe not as hard as before. My children are growing up. My little boy needs attention.’
‘Honesty has been my best strategy in business. And without the help of Gonomukhi Foundation, none of this would have been possible either.’
Does she like the recognition? ‘The people at Citibank, who sent me to New York, Mamum shaheb, and also Parveen apa of Palli Karmna-Shahayak Foundation. They all took so much care of me. At that program, I took pictures with a lot of people. The Indian lady, who was translating what I said, later told me that one of them was the daughter of America’s former president, Clinton. She was nice too.’
Before the image of Shamima holding hands with Chelsea Clinton in New York, on November 8, 2005, caught the attention of newspaper readers around the globe, few knew the name of a 15-year old shy girl from Biralakkhi, and her decade-long journey from despair to hope.
Published: Heroes/ The New Age/ January, 2006