Business Accelerator Model Ignites Market Connections and Breaks Social Barriers for Women

Few female entrepreneurs in southern Bangladesh take their agricultural businesses to the next level. Social norms and a lack of business knowledge and capital prevent many rural women from approaching companies or banks. Because their operations align with seasonal crop cycles, most cannot pay back loans for six to nine months. Without collateral to offer instead, many women must rely on male family members to act as guarantors on loans. With barriers this high, their small businesses often stall.

That may soon change for a group of female entrepreneurs involved in LightCastle Partners’ business accelerator program. LightCastle is one of the fastest-growing consulting firms in Bangladesh working to create a more data-driven economy.

Few firms like LightCastle work with women-owned micro- and small-sized enterprises agricultural enterprises in remote regions, where literacy rates and technology usage are low to nonexistent. But the role of agriculture in Bangladesh’s economic future is undeniable. That’s why LightCastle teamed up with the Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops (RDC) Activity, funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

For the first time, the firm is shifting its attention toward these types of enterprises in the south. In southern Bangladesh, frequent climate shocks are forcing households to diversify their incomes, and women may play a large role in that. The RDC Activity aims to elevate the competitiveness of women-owned agricultural enterprises by promoting sustainable solutions, support systems, and services.

Launching the First Cohort

LightCastle is offering a business accelerator program for three cohorts of female agri-entrepreneurs. Together with the RDC Activity, LightCastle selected 14 female business owners — spanning portfolios in mung bean, rice, livestock, and more — and led a low-cost bootcamp in the Barguna District to initiate the first cohort.

Sheuli Akhter (center), a mung bean trader in Barguna, participates in the business accelerator program.

LightCastle’s accelerator program followed. For weeks, participants not only learned about marketing, product cycles, and record keeping, but also received visits from facilitators to their fields to see how they applied the learnings.

Many of the women had never used a computer before. Despite having three to five years of experience running an enterprise, most lacked a clear business plan and financial literacy. In just weeks, they were working alongside facilitators to create digital presentations of their business plans.

Wowing Potential Buyers and Investors

Their hard work culminated in a pivotal moment, when each agri-entrepreneur had the chance to pitch their plans to potential investors, buyers, and financial institutions. They had just 15 minutes to make their case, in the hopes of striking contracts with companies and firms invited by LightCastle and hosted by the local mill SACO Enterprise.

While these small, women-owned enterprises often go unnoticed by the private sector, LightCastle has the capacity to scout companies and connect them with budding entrepreneurs. “We believe accelerator programs, courtesy of our proprietary SmartCap model, are a vital component for growth and impact for agri-[enterprises] in Bangladesh,” says Ivdad Ahmed Khan Mojlish, managing director of LightCastle.

From Accelerating Enterprises to Future Impact Investing

With new knowledge and confidence, 10 of the 14 women opened bank accounts, three obtained trade licenses, and three signed contracts with forward market actors. In nine months, more than 45 female entrepreneurs will graduate from the accelerator. This model has the potential to mobilize investors in the Feed the Future zone, especially as LightCastle explores future impact investing. The firm has already started an impact fund in the north and may soon provide similar patient capital to small enterprises in the south.

Engaging fast-growing firms like LightCastle means disruption to Bangladesh’s agricultural sector is possible. Its accelerator may be a game-changer for changing social norms and sparking new market connections across several agricultural value chains. It may also unleash the untapped potential of women — with female agri-entrepreneurs at the center of it all.