Dressed in a colorful sari, clutching boxes of herbal tea in one hand and a battered old Nokia mobile phone in the other, Monowara Talukder doesn’t look like the average business executive.
But in just six years, Talukder has built an international herbal tea empire in Bangladesh that employs 1,500 female farmers, wins orders from major Western health food chains and has a turnover of 44 million taka (US$625,000).
She was among the first people to sign up for a mobile phone when they arrived in the country in 1997. The costs were high, but the 48-year-old mother of four says she has never regretted the investment.
“My mobile phone has helped so much with the business — it is absolutely crucial for distribution and marketing,” Talukder told reporters over a cup of her signature Tulsi, or Holy Basil, tea in the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka. “I don’t have an office or showroom, so people just ring me on the mobile to place orders. I now have my products in all 64 districts of Bangladesh and get orders from buyers in Australia, Kuwait and Nepal.”
She proudly shows off text messages from an Australian company that has just placed a major order for tea bags.
“I went to a green trade fair in September and put up posters with my mobile phone number on. Now I am getting all these orders from overseas,” she said.
However, not all women are as lucky as Talukder. The telecoms industry body GSMA says a woman living in South Asia is 37 percent less likely than a man to own a mobile phone — the world’s worst telecoms “gender gap.”
Traditional attitudes, which mean the first phone in a -household will often go to the husband with the second going to the eldest son, were identified as one part of the problem.
In a bid to tackle the inequality, Mwomen — a new project backed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Cherie Blair, wife of former British prime minister Tony Blair — was launched in October.
Mwomen aims to get mobile phones to some 150 million women globally within three years through public-private partnerships.
The project has attracted backing from at least 20 major mobile phone companies, including giants Nokia and Vodafone.
“Closing the mobile phone gender gap in South Asia represents a US$3.6 billion market opportunity for the mobile industry,” Trina DasGupta of the GSMA told reporters. “And a 10-percent increase in mobile phone penetration rates is linked to an increase in GDP of 1.2 percent in low to middle income countries.”