Facing unemployment and a loss of income, a growing number of women are setting up online trading businesses

Since the beginning of the pandemic last year, many South Asian women in Toronto have either taken their small businesses online or launched new ventures. Most of these businesses are informal and operated exclusively by women. I spoke to several Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi women entrepreneurs, who told me how their online businesses helped them meet their own needs and assist their families both in Canada and back home.

"By importing products from home and selling them in Toronto, I am serving as a conduit between the supply and the demand, while supporting the economically-hit manufacturers [in South Asia]," said Anita, a professionally-qualified Indian woman, who sells a variety of items on line including home decorations and fashion jewellery. Although Anita had a keen interest in entrepreneurship, she could only start her online business during the pandemic, when her hours at her day job were reduced by her employer.

Visible minorities in Canada were strongly hit by unemployment and underemployment during the pandemic. In the face of such adversities, South Asian women are demonstrating notable resilience.

More than a business

The businesses these women have set up don't only sell imported clothing, jewellery, or home décor. Some also run educational programs for children, especially at weekends. They offer 'cultural' classes where South Asian children receive training in various forms of art, like painting, music, drama, and dance, or learn to read and write in their mother tongue, or even explore various aspects of their religion and cuisine.

To attract their clientele - which predominantly comprises South Asians, the entrepreneurs regularly advertise their products on social media platforms. Photographs, well-edited videos, and 'live' interactions with potential clients on Facebook often allow these self-employed women to access a relatively large online market. "I show my stuff online almost regularly, because there is a stiff competition now. I try to post pictures of at least one saree each day, and then do a live show at the weekend," explained Sara, a Pakistani entrepreneur from Vaughan, who sells ethnic clothes and jewellery.

Passing on knowledge

Over the past year, many South Asian parents have enrolled their children in online lessons. "As a mother, I felt that these were imperative for the kids and their mothers, especially those who work from home. With the needs of the kids and their parents in mind, we began our venture," said Leena, the founder of one such organisation. For Anu, a mother and an IT professional, these cultural classes have enabled her only child to interact with other children of South Asian background. As she puts it, "we are glad that Rahee is not as lonely as he was when the lockdown first began."

For South Asian mothers, especially professionals like Shobha who works as an accountant, weekend lessons provide them with "a bit of me time". However, several women - Shobha included - felt that the increased screen time is a burden on their children's social lives. As Anu put it, they are "stuck at home all the time, even after school".

Families working together

One type of business that has particularly flourished during the pandemic is home-based catering. In these businesses, while food preparation often remains a woman's role, the responsibility for food delivery rests predominantly with men. "I completed the food handler's certificate and began this business," said Kiran, a woman who runs one such business. "I do most of the cooking and my husband delivers. We also ask the clients to pick up [the meals] from our house, my husband deals with all that."

The clientele includes single men as well as families. There is a growing demand for food preparation and delivery, especially among professional mothers who work from home.

The need for support

Despite achieving some success, many South Asian women entrepreneurs revealed that they were facing financial hardship, especially during the extended lockdown periods. For vendors importing and selling products, disruption in air cargo delivery led to loss of income. "I have many clients who have asked me to put items on hold for them, but they have not paid me because I cannot ship products during lockdown - product and money are both stuck," said Prerna, a business analyst who recently launched her boutique from the basement of her townhouse in Brampton.

Regardless of the type of business, many entrepreneurs were concerned about being "physically and mentally exhausted from having to meet the growing demands of their home-based businesses while fulfilling familial gendered roles," as Chaaya, who runs a catering business in Mississauga, put it. Nevertheless, most were also hopeful about the future, expressing the desire to continue with their business after the pandemic.

South Asian women entrepreneurs will need measures to overcome the complex economic and socio-cultural challenges they are facing. The Canadian government should recognise the endeavours of these small business owners to be self-reliant and provide them with support. This could take the form of low-interest loans, for example, or of tax exemptions for first-time online business owners - in other words, help that would enable these resilient women to flourish as successful entrepreneurs.

For openDemocracy

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