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Women get down to business in Aceh

After the tsunami, female entrepreneurs learn the ropes of the free market.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 12, 2005



BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

In Ibu Yuniarti's class, 20 middle-aged women prepare themselves for the rough-and-tumble world of the free market.

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Dividing themselves into small groups, they plow through a Harvard Business School-style case study on a proposed motel project in an Indonesian village. They study every detail - the finances, the marketing, the pluses and minuses - and write their recommendations in neat columns on sheets of butcher paper and present them to the class.

One group says the project is wonderful, because it will provide employment to local villagers. Another group declares the project unworkable: No one has surveyed the location and whether it would be attractive to customers.

It's just another day at one of the more innovative projects in Banda Aceh, Start or Improve Your Business, a United Nations-funded effort to get people back on their feet through self- employment. With so many people left homeless by the Dec. 26 tsunami, such a class might seem premature, but UN officials say the key to recovery in this region is to get the economy going again, and giving business people the tools and the financing to generate income for themselves and employment for others.

"This program is about equipping entrepreneurs to prepare themselves for starting businesses," says Peter Piawu, a master trainer for the International Labor Organization, the UN agency that is funding the class. "Of course, running a business is always risky. But when you give them all the information, then you can take reasonable risks in starting a business."

Women take the lead

For those outsiders who are unused to Indonesia's relatively moderate Islamic culture, it may be surprising that half of the participants in this program are women. (A separate program for men and women is being run by the Islamic Students Association.) But women have always been active in the business community of Banda Aceh. Some have also been active in politics. One of the last and most successful sultans of Banda, before the arrival of the Dutch East India Company, was a woman.

Most of the women in this classroom, for instance, were accomplished businesswomen before the tsunami. Cut Humry ran a catering business; now she wants to open a cafe. Sri Anitha owned a phone-booth and faxing business that was wiped out by the waves. Many owned fashion businesses and embroidery shops, but one woman, Emi Yuliani, owned a gas station that she wants to rebuild.

For most of these women, the biggest plus is their business experience. Most are natural optimists who have confronted their worst nightmare, and survived.

Usually, their biggest obstacle is not male chauvinism or cultural restrictions, but lack of basic machinery. Most lost all their equipment to the surging waters that pulverized Banda's business district. Many also lost some of their top employees. Starting over is a dream they can believe in. But without money and equipment, it is still only a dream.

"I can't say if it is because of my high skill level, but I have made clothes for President Megawati," says Agustina, owner of a garment and embroidery business that was destroyed. She is wearing one of her own creations, a gorgeous white tunic with pink floral embroidery. "I still have orders coming in," she adds with a wry smile, including orders from the current Indonesian president's wife. "But I can't do the work for them because I don't have the machines."

Disaster cachet

Banda Aceh certainly has a level of name recognition that even good Madison Avenue money can't buy. A scarf made in Banda Aceh would fly off the shelf at Barney's, just as Afghan scarves and dresses did a few years ago. Yet business owners like Agustina say that they have to be realistic and focus on the needs of the local market. Right now that market is too uncertain to hire new employees, or to take out expensive loans to buy new sewing machines.

"I'm thinking that it's difficult to make people wear beautiful dresses these days because people aren't thinking about beautiful things or parties. They just want basic clothes, and they are putting their money into important things."

In short, the market has changed, and Agustina knows she has to change with it. "I know that I can make clothes, but I'm not sure if I can sell them. If you're not sure of the market, you can't take a risk with it."

Wider benefits for economy

Nur Asmah, vice president of the Indonesian Women's Business Association, which is running classes with funding from the International Labor Organization, says that businesswomen can have a significant effect in the local economy.

"Nowadays, a lot of husbands are getting help from their wives. And mothers who have businesses can help their families pull themselves up," says Mrs. Asmah, who owns an interior-design business that was destroyed in the tsunami. "We hope that if more women start businesses, their children will be able to stay in school instead of having to go to work, and in the long term, this can have a good effect on society."

Asriyani, who ran a catering business before the tsunami, dreams of opening a doughnut shop. But to make enough doughnuts to see a reasonable profit, she needs to mechanize her operation. Until now, she's made all her cakes and sweets by hand.

It's a risky decision, but Asriyani says the opportunities are too great to ignore. "A good mix machine in Medan costs 5 million rupiah [about $550], but if I buy that, maybe my income will go just to pay off the machine," she says. "But I'm confident, and motivated, and I have ambition."

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