Specific policy on female entrepreneurship vital to enhance women’s contribution towards SAARC economies

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Melange’s exclusive conversation with President SCWEC Rifa Mustapha

A dynamic female entrepreneur and a successful corporate leader, Rifa Mustapha wears many hats. She is an attorney at law and a leading businesswoman in Sri Lanka. She is currently serving as the Chairperson of SAARC Chambers of Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC) whereas Mustapha also heads Fairway Aviation Academy and F-Air as the executive director. Besides the above mentioned roles she is also the member of the board of directors of Fairway Holdings and Fairway City Hotels. Rifa Mustapha recently completed her tenure as the President of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka (WCIC).

Mustapha received her Law degree from Bishops College, Colombo. She is a business leader in a country whose economy is majorly powered by women. Personally, in her career as a lawyer, Mustapha faced myriad challenges within a male-dominated profession, with her promotion from junior counsel to senior counsel delayed for over a decade. Over those ten years, she was able to gain enough experience to start her own consultancy. Now through SCWEC, she channelizes her knowledge and experiences with other women to overcome the social, economic, and legal impediments that bar them from yielding their full potential.

Melange: Kindly inform our readers about your key achievements as a successful entrepreneur.

Rifa Mustapha: Sri Lanka, although a male dominated society, is a vibrant country with numerous business opportunities for women. A majority of women stand alongside males in contributing towards the country’s economic growth. I believe that quality education is the foundation for a person’s success therefore I firstly obtained my degree of Law. I had to strive very hard to develop my insight into the best business strategies in Sri Lanka which helped me in developing my own brand. My hard work has paid me back in good and today, I am running various companies in multiple fields of business.

The key positions I held were aimed at strengthening the women for carrying on their own business initiatives. I am currently appointed as the Chairperson of Chairperson of SAARC Chambers of Women Entrepreneurs Council (SCWEC) as well as the Executive Director of Fairway Aviation Academy and Sri Lanka’s private flying company F-Air. Moreover, I chaired Sri Lanka’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry for 2 years till 2017. One of my initiatives is Green Life Adventure which specializes in adventure based trainings, corporate wellness programmes as well as adventure tourism.

Melange: Please brief our readers regarding your vision regarding SAARC in general and SCWEC in particular.

Rifa Mustapha: SAARC’s share of economic integration as a region is low when compared with corresponding figures from other regions; but the positive trend is clear. Increasing women’s trade participation would swell the numbers positively. For this, policymakers and business communities in South Asia have to push the economic integration in South Asia and the potential benefits that may come along with   it and our membership will definitely be key players in the agenda.

Being the Chairperson of SCWEC, my focus will be to make South Asian borders obsolete. I hope to push the full potential of digital media, e-commerce platforms, webinars fully utilize and ride on the digital bandwagon to help women entrepreneurs cross borders. Training and skills upgradation is needed to fully realize this potential, and I hope to spend the first year in conducting awareness and training of trainers in this space. SCWEC should definitely complement SCCI’s agenda of economic integration.

Melange: How would you analyse gender disparity and the resulting digital divide among the citizens of SAARC countries and what measures would you pursue in resolving these issues through SCWEC?

Rifa Mustapha: I am conscious about the issues of women in the SAARC region and I believe that they must foster their efforts in becoming equipped with digital technologies. There exists a huge gap in awareness of the scope that a digitally enabled world could offer better economic opportunities for running businesses. It is in the best interest of corporate women to quickly learn and grasp the cost-effective opportunities.

Through SCWEC, I will ensure that in my tenure we materialize the digital agenda for the use of digital mediums and platforms for promotion of trade, marketing as well as training and learning. Training on social entrepreneurship is an equally important area that we will concentrate upon. Spreading mass awareness on social entrepreneurship through easily accessible mediums is a key mandate as it will immediately impact a wider spectrum of women and will put them on the path of economic escalation.

Melange: Kindly enlighten us regarding the various initiatives you have undertaken while serving as SCWEC Chairperson?

Rifa Mustapha: Being a businesswoman myself, I strongly believe that women of SAARC countries are playing an active role towards the country’s economic development through various business initiatives related to every field of today’s corporate world. However, they are confronted with many challenges in executing their roles in respective fields. Therefore, my key priority as the Chairperson of SCWEC is to empower the SAARC women entrepreneurs through effective education and trainings focused on gender equality, digitalization of businesses, social entrepreneurship, latest business softwares and international trade procedures.

I have launched an exhaustive and result oriented training program for the SAARC women, under which numerous trainings, workshops, round table conferences, seminars and mentorship sessions have been organised by SCWEC in all SAARC countries. My keen focus is to equip our women with up to date information regarding the digital modes of doing business which enables them to work remotely from homes or while travelling anywhere.

Some noteworthy initiatives undertaken by SCWEC are: Training of Trainers on Export and Import Procedures promoting gender equality in trade in Islamabad, Pakistan;  Workshop on Marketing through the Internet in Dhaka Bangladesh; Launch of SAARC CCI SME Council in Chennai, India; Training of Trainers on Marketing and Packaging of Products- Promoting Gender Equality in Trade in Lahore & Karachi, Pakistan; Round Table Conference on Social Entrepreneurship across borders in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Unlocking Climate Investment Opportunities for SAARC Water Management and Scalable Business Solutions in Kathmandu, Nepal and Training on Entrepreneurship Skills and Women’s role towards regional integration.

Melange:What are your views regarding women participation in businesses in SAARC region particularly Sri Lanka and what are your key accomplishments in this regard?

Rifa Mustapha: Women contribute upto 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange revenue, given that they dominate the farming and apparel sectors, despite female labour force participation standing at just 34 percent of the economically active population. Sri Lanka produced the world’s first woman prime minister and the first woman president in Asia. Still we witness that women’s foothold in the society and their political representation is not equal to that of men.

Through SCWEC and previously WCIC, I strongly urged the government to give more emphasis to female entrepreneurship in its policy interventions to enhance female labour force participation in the economy. I have pushed for the passage of a gender-sensitive policy on small and medium-sized enterprises, and the country’s new government has not only welcomed this recommendation, but has reserved a seat for us at the Ministry of Industry to help shape Sri Lanka’s SME policy.

We presented a policy brief on fostering women’s entrepreneurship, recommending better access to finance and easing of regulatory burdens. Through my organisation’s policy recommendations the government aims to introduce legislation to ensure at least 25 percent women’s representation in Provincial Councils and Local Government bodies.