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Composite artwork by Pernia Mubashir
Composite artwork by Pernia Mubashir

How women-led small businesses braved a strange new Covid-struck world

Many women in Karachi opened online shops at a time when bigger businesses were closing down. Did the pandemic treat them kindly?
Updated 19 Jan, 2022 11:26am

I bought myself a kurta recently, the kind I would love to wear on a fine winter’s day in Karachi. While I’m generally a no-frills kind of gal who usually opts for the practicality and affordability of an off-the-rack kurta, I couldn't stop myself from buying a handmade, and rather expensive, kurta from a small business I found on Instagram. It spoke to the romantic in me and that girl, well, she loves the charm of owning a product made by warm, tender hands.

I discovered the joys of shopping for handmade products online after Covid-19 hit, when most of my purchases happened through direct messages (or DMs) on Facebook and Instagram. Many of the businesses I bought from were run by women selling products handmade by either themselves or rural artisans.

A surprising number of these women started their gig months after the Covid-19 pandemic began, opening shop at a time when bigger businesses were closing down one after the other. I wondered why these women began their businesses at such an apocalyptic time. Was it easy to sell products in the midst of so much panic and uncertainty? Did they have a chance to flourish like they could have before the pandemic began?

I got the chance to ask some of these women the questions I had and with each one asked, it became apparent how the pandemic was both a blessing and a curse for their small businesses in Karachi.

For Ruba — founder of Pink Haathi — the pandemic treated her business with surprising kindness. Founded in 2020, Pink Haathi is all about vibrant-looking handcrafted home products made by local weavers, and it found an eager group of customers right from the get-go. "A lot of people were spending time at home [during the lockdowns] and there was an increased interest in making home spaces more beautiful,” she said.

Ruba of Pink Haathi
Ruba of Pink Haathi

“Things really worked out in my favour. Before the pandemic, people didn’t have time to decorate their homes because they were busy with the hustle and bustle of life and their 9 to 5 routines. By the time you got home, you just want to sleep and that was about it. But after Covid-19 hit, people wanted to decorate their homes according to their personalities and the vibes that sat well with them.

"They had all the time in the world," she added.

Zeenat experienced a similar bout of good luck with finding customers during the pandemic. Her brand Dusk Candles is an online venture that sells beautiful sculpted candles. "People started buying online more during Covid-19 and that really helped my business," she shared. "People spent a lot of time at home and were really into improving the spaces they were spending so much time in now during lockdown. That was my case as a consumer as well."

Of course, Dusk Candles might not have come to be if the pandemic hadn’t struck in the first place. Zeenat started her business after her hospital stopped paying her salary. "I am a doctor by profession," she shared. " I am a resident surgeon. The main reason for starting [Dusk Candles] was that I wasn’t getting paid at my hospital. This was an issue with my hospital alone, other hospitals were giving pay, yes. This situation really pushed me to start something of my own, make some money."

I spoke to Sana of Earthy Murky as well. Her sustainability-driven business creates apparel and fashion accessories out of material discarded by textiles factories in and around Karachi. While Sana had started her business months before Covid-19 hit, it was only during the lockdowns that she finally experienced an influx of online customers that she hadn't before. "In the beginning family, friends and a few other people followed us on Instagram, or those who understood the concept of going green. The response was very slow when we started and then when I started working full time, the brand took a backseat for the next six months."

Sana of Earthy Murky
Sana of Earthy Murky

Sana also feels the lockdowns played a big role in directing customers her way. "We got lucky," she said. "I was stuck in Islamabad during lockdown and this was when I started taking orders again. We started dispatching the orders and the reviews were magnificent. People started liking our products, spreading our name around. The process was slow but we were now getting a constant trickle of loyal customers, buying our tote bags for either themselves or their family members who appreciated them."

Why women started businesses during the pandemic

Here's the thing about small businesses, at least the ones you find in Karachi. You can't talk about them without talking about their favourite haunt after the internet — pop-up markets.

After the lockdowns lifted, social media wasn't my only way of getting in touch with the businesses I liked. Pop-up markets fast became a thing, inviting small businesses to set up stalls and showcase their products to visitors who loved getting the feel of a product before purchasing it. These events were fun and popular, offering families a kind of safe and wholesome entertainment that isn’t easy to find in Karachi.

I asked the organisers of some of the most popular pop-up markets in Karachi whether it was pure coincidence that most of the small businesses we interact with are run by women. It wasn’t, they said. Young women now had something they didn't before — time.

“The small businesses I've come across in relation to my pop-up market are mostly [run by] females,” said Sitwat Rizvi, founder of The Commons Karachi. “These women are crafty, creative and young. They started their businesses as a side hustle especially during the pandemic. [The lockdowns] gave them a lot of time to start a whole new business. Those who were occupied by full times jobs now had the time to turn their hobbies, like candle-making, into a business.”

Mubashir Khamisa, founder of the Karachi Art n Craft Gala at Studio Seven, said the same thing. “More than 90% of our vendors are female-led small businesses. We’ve held the Gala three times so far, and every time, the majority of our participants have been women who are really good at creative work,” he shared.

Art n Craft Gala
Art n Craft Gala

Khamisa also had another term to describe the women — business savvy. “Many women-participants, even though they aren’t the ones making the products, they are leading their business really successfully. They have business smarts and know how to run a system, market their products and attract customers on social media,” he said.

“During one of our events, one sister was the business-savvy brain who ran things on Instagram and Facebook, handling orders and customers, while the other sister was the creative genius making all the products herself. At our last event, there was a mother who created decoupage décor pieces and her daughter was the one running the business as a side hustle to her main job in marketing.”

It was thrilling to hear this — the rise of the entrepreneurial women in times of fear and uncertainty. But not every story I heard was about triumph. Many woman-led business struggled because of the pandemic, enduring its consequential pangs like so many others around the world. A grave concern that many businesses shared was a lack of customers. Few were now willing to spend cash on handmade trinkets after finding themselves without jobs. Many businesses in the informal sector — which makes up 72% of the total workforce engaged — couldn’t afford to pay their employees and were forced to let them go. The lockdowns had crippled these organisations badly.

The downside of the pandemic

The last pop-up I attended was the Art n Craft Gala back in November, which was were I was introduced to Sarrah and her brand Clay It. Clay It is a small business that sells playful polymer-clay jewellery, handmade by Sarrah at home. She’d started her business during the pandemic as well. “My inspiration for the business was when I had to make a school project for my kid out of clay. That gave me the idea to convert this skill with clay into a whole business in itself,” she shared.

Sarrah of Clay It
Sarrah of Clay It

Sarrah didn’t have a lot of luck finding customers after she started. “I think it was because people were having a tough time financially and couldn’t afford to spend money on extra purchases,” she speculated. “I mean, Covid-19 hit everyone globally when it comes to employment and earning money. So online, although people showed a lot of interest in my stuff, they were hesitant to buy products.”

Zohra of Hooked to Stitches spoke of similar sorrow. Hooked to Stitches sells crotched products made by Zohra herself, who is a school teacher by day and crocheter at night. “I started the brand seven years ago. I used to know how to do crochet before I started the business, I had learned it as a young girl and my mother had helped me with my learning a lot. Later when I started the business, I wanted to do something new in crocheting. I didn’t want to just knit sweater and shawls. This is an old art and I wanted to present it in a new way. That’s why I started making tea coasters and then key chains, earrings, purses, pouches and so on.

“When Covid-19 hit, things got really tough,” Zohra said. “I wasn’t getting the opportunity to set up stalls and sell my stuff. When my unsold products started piling up, I decided to set up my business online and market it on social media. With a little investment in marketing and sponsored posts on Instagram, I was able to find some customers, but not enough for it to be sustainable.”

Where Sarrah and Zohra struggled to find customers, other small businesses found themselves out of work because their workshops had to be shut down during the lockdowns. “A lot of the creatives and the crafters were demoralised during Covid-19,” said Varrah Musavvir, head of The Crafter’s Guild, a social initiative that aims to create a community of small businesses and uplift them by organising pop-up markets throughout the year.

"It affected a lot of their businesses," she said. "Most of these small business owners had left their corporate jobs and their 9 to 5 opportunities because their craft business was picking up and they wanted to give it more time. Then the lockdown happened and all of a sudden, you're like what do I do now? This hit them really hard. A lot of their workers were affected. Their factories or workshops started shutting down and we had to support and facilitate a lot of them through ration drives as part of our social outreach programme.”

Interacting with customers in times of the pandemic

I love online shopping. I can spend hours perusing websites and Instagram profiles, looking at picture after picture to decide which products I want to buy, but no matter how exciting the endeavour is, it still lacks the magic of physical interaction. A smile and a face-to-face conversation can do wonders to help build a connection with a brand. The old fashioned way still makes it a lot more easer to gauge a brand's values, methods and products.

Art n Craft Gala
Art n Craft Gala

As a business owner, Zohra also looks forward to physically interacting with her customers. In fact, that is how Hooked to Stitches thrived in the first place, long before the pandemic fractured interactions. “In the Bohra community to which I belong, there are pop-ups organised once a year or so in which all the artisans set up stalls and display their work,” she explained. “I got a very good response at these pop-ups when I set up stalls twice. A lot of people would appreciate my work. After that, the Art n Craft Gala was the first time I showcased my products outside the community and even there I received a really good response.

“I think selling through pop-ups would be my first choice, as opposed to selling online. People get to develop a real bond with me and the products I make. I find any conversation done in person to hold more value, which in turn helps my business as well. People get a proper shopping experience in marketplaces and at pop-up events. Later on, some customers come back with customisation requests. These customers get to put a face to the brand and a story behind my products then, and I get to make them with a lot more love and sincerity in return.”

For Sarrah, physically selling her products also gives her something valuable — a chance to feel like you are part of a wholesome community. “I don’t just appreciate pop-up markets for the money I earn and the products I sell,” she said. “The best part is the exposure and the community I am able to build. The appreciation and recognition I get after setting up a stall. These things really do help small businesses.”

Perhaps pop-up markets have become so popular for a good reason. They offer businesses a chance to physically interact with their customers which became impossible during the lockdowns. They're a chance at interconnection with not just potential buyers but also like-minded women putting in the hard work to run their businesses every day.

While we've come a long way since those dark months, there may be no going back to how things used to be, at least not in every way. For women like Ruba, Sana or Zohra — a world altered by the coronavirus is their business's playing field now.

But that shouldn't mean these women face this strange new world alone. While small businesses have been forced to re-learn and adapt to a drastically altered reality, the onus of change shouldn't solely lie on their shoulders. As consumers, we need to reassess our priorities and consciously make the effort to give women-led small businesses a leg up, whether online or at pop-up markets. Let's make it a lot less difficult for these ventures to find the customers they're looking for. Helping women led-businesses may be that one kind deed we were all looking to do in this strange new Covid-struck world.