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Sri Lankan women entrepreneurs: Strengthening regional and global market access

By Sheron Hewawaduge

Are women participating at a satisfactory level in the development process in Sri Lanka? Despite the highest female literacy rate on par with that of males, the Labour Force Survey 2020 shows only 32% of women are in the workforce compared to 71.9% of males. Urgent interventions are needed to address this imbalance – promoting female entrepreneurship is one of the most efficient interventions.

The research done by Norberto Pignatti (1), has found that increased female entrepreneurship can lead to higher female labour force participation directly and indirectly, both short and long term. The research further shows that support for female entrepreneurship is especially effective in countries with a culture that offers limited employment opportunities as well as that perpetuates traditional gender roles.

The role of entrepreneurs in achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is paramount. Within the SDG framework, Goals 4 and 8 have specific targets to promote entrepreneurship. SDG Target 4.4 aims to substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship by 2025 and Target 8.3 aims to promote development-oriented policies that support entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalisation and growth of Micro, Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (MSMEs).

Even if women become entrepreneurs, they will be discouraged if they do not receive the expected support to sustain their business. Businesses operating through the online market space were shown to be more resilient during the Covid-19 pandemic. This signifies the importance of technology as a tool to ensure business resilience during difficult times.

Women make up only 25% of Sri Lanka’s Small- and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs) and it is important to look at how many of them have entered the regional and global market space. Lack of awareness among women entrepreneurs to tap regional and global markets is a common phenomenon in the developing world.

According to the Empowerment of Women project of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), women-led MSMEs in Sri Lanka can greatly benefit from having access to quality certifications, digital marketing tools, computer-based knowledge, marketing opportunities and intellectual property systems. This article aims at sharing information on the various opportunities for women entrepreneurs to engage with international buyers.

The Sri Lanka Export Development Board (EDB), through various entrepreneur support programmes, helps women entrepreneurs in agriculture and manufacturing-based export sectors. EDB has been conducting communication campaigns focusing on business, industry, and marketing practices and encouraging women-led MSMEs to register with EDB Sri Lanka and SheTrades programme.

SheTrades ( was established by the International Trade Centre with the aim of contributing to SDGs addressing the barriers faced by women when accessing economic opportunities. SheTrades connects women entrepreneurs around the world and offers a platform to access international markets.

Another initiative of EDB is eMARKETPLACE (, which is an online platform developed to connect local exporters and foreign buyers. There are also various private sector initiatives to elevate Sri Lankan women entrepreneurs to a global level, such as Cord360 ( ) and Xpress Lanka (, etc.

At the regional level, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) and the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) have launched Wesellonline ( training platform to build the capacity of women entrepreneurs in South Asia to take advantage of the potential of ecommerce to expand their business. Women entrepreneurs in the region can follow their ecommerce training and display their products on the platform to generate queries from potential customers, for possible business opportunities.

Sri Lankan women entrepreneurs are yet to take full advantage of such opportunities due to the lack of a systematic programme to direct them towards these opportunities. Government agencies, chambers of commerce, civil society organisations, the private sector and organisations working towards women empowerment have an important role to play in assisting women entrepreneurs to enter the international market.

From the Government side, more policies are needed to support women entrepreneurs, especially in providing them with infrastructure, training, payment channels, and financial access. Non-State organisations also have an important role to play in raising awareness and providing technical support to access eselling platforms. Registration on these platforms can also be done as a small women’s group or as a women’s organisation in cases where it is difficult to maintain individual accounts due to lack of infrastructure or technical skills.

The support given to women entrepreneurs to enter the global market will not only strengthen their income and business resilience, but will also greatly increase the country’s export earnings in the long run.

(The writer is the Assistant Director of the Sustainable Development Council of Sri Lanka)


Pignatti, N. Encouraging women’s labor force participation in transition countries. IZA World of Labor 2020: 264 doi: 10.15185/izawol.264.v2

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