On the face of it, Ellie O’Neill and Halima Begum are poles apart. Ellie lives in Newcastle; Halima in rural Bangladesh. But they’re both successful entrepreneurs, and both have a connection to local charity Traidcraft Exchange’s Hidden Entrepreneurs initiative, which invests in entrepreneurs across the globe, helping them learn the skills they need to turn their untapped potential into profit – and to use that to feed their families and educate their children.
‘The appeal is centred around women in business, which is something I’m really passionate about myself,’ explains Ellie. ‘That’s why I became an ambassador for the appeal.
‘It’s really important to support women who want to start their own business and I think – especially when you look at less developed countries, helping somebody to create their own business and almost bring themselves out of poverty – that’s a really good way of approaching it,’ she says.
Which is where Halima comes in. She’s not the first person who would spring to mind when you say ‘successful entrepreneur’. If she wrote a CV, the only previous business experience on it would be extracting the jute fibre used to make sacks and bags from plants. But Halima runs a thriving business, making a profit and defying the norms for women in conservative Bangladeshi society.
‘My experience of being a woman in business has been entirely positive,’ says Ellie. But in other parts of the world, being a woman – and living in an impoverished society – can be altogether more difficult. In rural Bangladesh, Halima and her husband used to have to rely on the itinerant, three-month long jute season. She wasn’t actually paid a wage for her work extracting the fibre from the plant: instead, she received one bundle of jute sticks per bundle of jute fibre she extracted. It was hard work, carried out mostly by women, squatting for hours in waterlogged fields.
The tough conditions took their toll on Halima and her family: they were forced to take out high interest loans, causing arguments and tension at home. But then she spotted an opportunity: to make paper bags for the local market traders who would sell and barter near her home.
With a small loan from Traidcraft Exchange’s JEWEL project, which supports women working in the jute industry to come together and learn business skills so they can diversify their incomes, she invested in scrap paper and glue, and soon realised there was huge demand for her products. She’s paid her loan back in full, making around 100 bags a day, and has been able to pay the bus fares for her children to go to school regularly – investing in their futures.
‘I have dreams about my children,’ Halima says. ‘That they will have better jobs, and won’t have to face poverty like I did.’
Thanks to the work of Traidcraft Exchange, and the donations – of both time and money – from people in the UK, Halima’s children are likely to have a better future in store. But the work doesn’t stop there, which is why Ellie is participating in Traidcraft Exchange’s Hidden Entrepreneurs initiative. ‘I know that women all over the world face much greater challenges than I do,’ she says. ‘To be able to connect with these women in some way is an amazing privilege for me.’
We can help improve many other people’s lives, too. Traidcraft Exchange, which has more than 30 years’ experience fighting injustice in trade, is calling on people in the North East to invest in Hidden Entrepreneurs across the globe, helping them learn the skills they need to turn their untapped potential into profit – and to use that to feed their families and educate their children. The appeal will focus on helping Traidcraft’s work in Kenya, Senegal and Bangladesh.
Any donations made to Traidcraft’s Hidden Entrepreneur appeal will have double the impact: every donation given to the appeal before 11 April will be matched pound for pound by the UK Government – meaning it will help twice as many people. Normally, every £5.50 a supporter donates can help someone build a better future for their family, but with the doubling of donations by the UK Government, the same amount goes twice as far.
To learn more, visit www.traidcraft.org.uk/hidden
Ellie O’Neill is the founder of ethical knitwear business STUDY 34.